That Old Loving Feeling

June 10, 1986

    In Sunday's afterbath of a sweet 16th pro basketball championship, with wives hugging trainers and assistant coaches toasting superstars, it was not difficult to ascertain who among the Boston Celtics' family had contracted the most pronounced case of ecstasy. Choices were two.

  "This is unbelievable," Bill Walton, the 33-year-old redhead, was saying over and over again, his left arm extended toward the inner wall of his locker. Beneath him, oblivious to the droplets of perspiration from above, was Nathan Walton, age 7. He never spoke, and only occasionally perked his nose in search of a breath. Mostly, Nathan repeatedly tapped his fist on his father's fanny, an affirmation that daddy hadn't been quite this happy in too long.     "This is everything I ever hoped for, and more," Bill Walton said. "It's more fulfilling, more rewarding, more fun. To have a dream and then to go out and live it. It's just unbelievable."

    On the best team in sports, where whites and blacks and rookies and retreads play for one common banner, Bill Walton's saga was special for its means, if not its end. If one is lucky enough to become a Celtic, then the real flush comes when one feels like a Celtic, fits like a Celtic, stays a
Celtic. Sunday, Bill Walton comprehended that for a basketball lifer, you haven't reached the other side of the fence until you finally wear green.    "Hey, I gotta get on your team," he said, shaking his head, savoring every sweaty minute as Nathan took the shower below without blinking. Bill Walton was recalling a conversation he'd had last summer with Red Auerbach, the baron of Boston basketball. Walton had failed a physical with the Los Angeles Lakers, but Auerbach figured it might work anyway. When Auerbach thinks that, he's seldom wrong.

    So Walton, a preeminant performer with the world champion Portland Trail Blazers in 1977, came aboard. A stress fracture restricted him to 14 games in four years, but Walton had a notion that he hadn't passed the prime of his career, only delayed it. The Portland franchise, which he sued, had retired four numbers from the title team, but not his. San Diego was the next stop, and then he moved with the Clippers to Los Angeles. But the foot wouldn't seem quite right, quite without pain, until it could land a home on the parquet floor.

    Was Robert Parish, the regular center, offended?

    "I visited his home to make sure he'd accept me," said Walton, who took a pay cut in exchange for a spot on the most honored bench this side of the Supreme Court. "I wanted him to feel comfortable with me around."    "I played better this year," admitted Parish, 32, "because I played fewer minutes."

    Was Larry Bird, the heart of the Celtics, cautious?

    "Every American kid in my generation had heard about Bill Walton," said the basic Hoosier hick from French Lick. "Hiding Patty Hearst in the closet, wearing a ponytail and smoking that bang-bang. None of it's true. What's true is that he's the best rebounder in basketball, and a winner. Even if he failed a physical and even if I did carry him on my shoulders all year."

Does Larry Bird love Bill Walton? Does every Celtic love every other Celtic?

After Bird drilled an unconscious three-pointer from the Houston Rockets' bench Sunday, did not the champions-to-be adjourn during a timeout to clutch the first teammate in sight? When the Celtics were in Atlanta, coinciding with the selection of the Hawks' Mike Fratello as NBA Coach of the Year, wasn't that Bird lifting the hand of his coach, his black coach, K.C.Jones, into the air as a touche?

    "This is really very unique here," Walton went on, his huge bandaged body treating a humid afternoon like Nathan might react to a crisp Christmas morning. "I mean, we were all dead tired out there today. Dead tired. Larry had nothing left. Nothing! And then he goes and sinks those three-pointers, and, man, we all know we gotta keep going.  "I was reluctant to leave California because I loved it there, and my family loved it there. But basketball is the most important thing in my life.
My wife and kids don't like that, but that's the way it is. And I had to get on a great team one more time for one more chance at something like this. When you're 23, you think you'll always win. But when you're 33, you wonder if you'll ever win again.

    "Boston. That's why it had to be Boston. All my family has seen the last two years has been the negatives of professional sports. Now my kids can see the positive side. A team like this, it makes all the sacrifices, all the hard work, all the sleepless nights worthwhile. All the mornings you wake up and you feel like you can't go on because you're so beat up."

    Beer. Bill Walton wanted a beer. A bunch of the Celtics had sworn off it in April, just in case they'd need an extra ounce of bounce for an extra loose ball in June. Even Bird surrendered, the same Bird about whom Kevin McHale once said, "His idea of heaven would be a garage filled with Budweiser and every time he drank one, it would be replaced."
Bill Walton got his beer Sunday, and so did Larry Bird, and so did they all. The Celtics, a team that money can't buy, had opened up their quarters to the world. It was too busy for them to hug each other now, but as Nathan love-tapped daddy on the behind, and as Dennis Johnson screamed in glee at Jerry Sichting, who was yukking it up with Parish, who was putting on his championship cap, Bill Walton stood there as though he never wanted to leave.

    "I knew we had it when we walked into this room this morning," he said. "I knew it as soon as we all showed up. I knew it when I looked in Larry's eyes. When did it all begin for this team? Probably the day Larry Bird was born."    Of course, it began long before that. The Boston Garden ceiling that is lost behind all the banners tells you that the Celtics have only one prejudice, a prejudice against losing. That's why Bill Walton picked up the phone last summer. In this crusty old building, pride lives.

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