Bill Walton lopes on feet made too fragile by nature, dropping each delicately to the boards with equine grace.
In Celtic Green, he looks misplaced - a California emigre somehow gone astray. At UCLA and Portland and San Diego and Los Angeles - on and off the court - Walton was the West Coast Man, vaguely counter-culture, passively hip. But the Celtics are basketball's traditionalists, where white guys are valued highly and winning is expected - Cousy and Russell and Havlicek and Bird . . . and Walton?
Yet somehow it is working. The Celtics have lost but twice this season and are again set to battle the Los Angeles Lakers for National Basketball Association supremacy. And Walton, now 33, pain-free and strong, seems reborn. "It's been great," he says while nursing a newly broken nose in a post-game locker room. "I was very excited about coming here and everything
that's happened has worked out for the better - better than I could have ever hoped."
Since being the first player selected in the 1974 NBA draft, Walton's career has been marked by occasional outbursts of brilliance mired in years of debilitating injuries. Two months into his first season, he almost quit pro ball.
"He is considering a lifestyle that pleases him - participating with nature", his financial advisor explained at the time. Walton eventually decided to play.
In 1977, he led the Portland Trail Blazers to the NBA championship, dominating the game as few others have. Walton scored almost 19 points a game, pulled down nearly 1,000 rebounds and displayed the offensive and defensive skills that prompted one publication this year to tout him as the best NBA centre ever.
In 1978, he was the league's most valuable player.
Since then, he has missed three complete seasons because of foot problems, averaging just over 30 games a year during his career.
Off the court, Walton was branded a head case - a granola- fed hippie lost in professional sports.
Coming out of college, he was shy and aloof, socially awkward and leery of the press. There were suggestions that his vegetarian diet had weakened his bones. There were whispers of drug abuse. For a time, he was connected very casually with members of the Symbionese Liberation Army, the abductors of Patty Hearst.
In press guides, he insisted his height be listed as 6-foot-11, although he is several inches taller than Celtic teammate Robert Parrish, who is listed at just over seven feet. "Over seven feet, you're a freak," Walton said.
The return of Bill Walton to basketball prominence and acceptability has been slow, played out until this season in obscurity with the Los Angeles (formerly San Diego) Clippers. Last year, Walton appeared in 67 games - the highest single-season total of his career. He is no longer a dominating offensive force but moves well on the court, rebounding at both ends of the floor and blocking shots.
He showed enough last year that the Celtics were willing to sacrifice forward Cedric Maxwell, a first-round draft choice, and a quantity of cash for his services. In past years, when Parrish tired, the Celtics were forced to insert forward Kevin McHale at centre - a move that only sometimes worked - or go with backup Greg Kite - a tack that almost never worked.
"You talk about quality backup centres," Celtic coach K. C. Jones explains. "The only quality backup centres that I've ever heard of are starters. Walton's a starter, he's here, he's sitting behind Robert. And he's a very intense, enthusiastic player. He has something against losing."
Early in the season, Walton's play was erratic - in the first game against the New Jersey Nets he committed seven turnovers, two in the last minute and a half. Gradually, he has rounded into form. "I'm getting in a much better rhythm for playing," he says. "When you're off for a long time like I was, you don't have much rhythm at the start of the season. But now, I'm feeling a lot more confident and a lot more comfortable out there."
Walton hasn't missed a game or practice this season. He is averaging 19 minutes of playing time coming off the bench, almost eight points (shooting 60 per cent from the floor), six rebounds and a blocked shot a game. Unlike with his past clubs, Walton isn't expected to carry the team.
With the Celtics, he doesn't have to.
"You try to do whatever you can to help the team win," he says. "That's not a different role from what I've been playing my entire career. I'm playing much fewer minutes than I've ever really played before, but that's a lot by design right now. They're just starting to realize the things I can do and how I can help them." As important, Walton has managed to maintain his personal, off-court style on a foreign coast. He lives in Cambridge, the home of Harvard University and a funky, Greenwich Village-style community of artists and students. He is the first Boston professional athlete in living memory to
On Halloween, he wore a Richard Nixon mask to practice. When the Grateful Dead came to town, Walton - a noted Dead Head who once played drums for the band in the shadow of the pyramids - hauled teammates backstage to meet the group members. On his birthday, someone sent a stripper to Celtic practice, which is in the gym of a Greek Orthodox seminary. Walton sat alone at centre court, staring as his present slowly disrobed.
He is the darling of the local press, taking some of the pressure off Larry Bird, who now declines most interviews. Walton will hold forth on any subject, be it basketball or otherwise. But underlying every quote is a sense of joy, a feeling that maybe this time the breaks will be his. "I can't think of any place I'd rather be," he says. "I love it."