June 29, 1986
It has been a year now since Big Red met Little Red. A year ago here, at a celebrity tennis tournament, Bill Walton phoned Red Auerbach to talk business, and it was love at first sound.
"It was like being recruited by UCLA," Walton said the other day. "As soon as (the Boston Celtics) started talking to me, I said: 'Gosh, that's what I want to do. I want to be part of that.' "
UCLA. Those were the happy days of Bill Walton's life, and now, happy days are here again. Here at this year's tennis tournament, he charmed everyone. Little Walter Payton of the Chicago Bears was his partner for one match, and when it ended, Payton leaped up for a high five.
He couldn't reach.
So Walter stepped on a chair and finally slapped Walton. "Two world champs!" Payton screamed.
Walton was eating up this world champ stuff. He introduced himself: "Bill Walton, world champion Celtics," and he ran around in green sneakers, green and white socks and white Celtic wristbands.
He kept saying: "I'm so happy! I'm so happy!"
Dr. Ernie Vandeweghe, a close friend, said: "I keep telling him that guys can't play in the NBA with a smile on their face."
So, weeks after the fact, weeks after all those Houston Rocket hacks on the arm, Bill Walton was still somewhere over the rim.
"Why come down?!" he said. "I just feel real good physically and even better emotionally. We're really psyched up. Yep. We're really psyched."
"The Celtics, my family, me -- all rolled into one," he said. "The players, the fans, everybody. It's a team effort."
Which brings us back to UCLA, the team of teams.
Walton might have liked it when the Bruins recruited him, but it wasn't anything special, really. An assistant coach named Denny Crum made initial contact with Walton, whose older brother Bruce was a starting tackle on UCLA's football team. Eventually, Coach John Wooden came down to San Diego to have dinner with the Waltons.
"I had dinner with only a few recruits," Wooden said. "It was something I never did. . . . I really liked his parents. They were both college people, but down to earth, which I really liked. I guess that's because I came from the farms of Indiana."
Bill Walton never lost much. Before college, he had lost just two games -- one in grade school, one in high school. He remembers the scores.
At UCLA, he lost once every season or so, but each loss was so traumatic.
"He came to my house after UCLA lost to N.C. State in the (1974) NCAA tournament," Vandeweghe said. "And he asked me if I still thought he'd be drafted in the first round of the NBA draft. He was that depressed about losing."
In the pros, he had that one magical championship year in Portland, but the team was doomed when it was labeled a dynasty.
"Oh, I was happy then," Walton said. "But my career hadn't come to an end. It was just getting started. We were young, and we just thought we'd win it every year, but, gosh, then everything fell apart up there, and injuries sort of ruined my career."
Soon, he was exiled to the Clippers, and all the good doctors and all the good men could not put Bill Walton together again.
During the season, he sat down and wrote Wooden a letter.
One line stuck out, and Wooden remembers it:
"He said facetiously to me: 'Might you consider coming out of retirement if K.C. Jones (the Celtic coach) leaves? This would be the perfect team for you. . . . ' "
Wooden saw the joy of Walton this season.
"Oh yes," Wooden said. "He wrote me several times. He was really happy, and he actually made the statement in one of the letters that he was the happiest he'd been since UCLA. He said he liked the team play. . . . Before, he was not what I'd call happy. Maybe that's because of the injuries or the poor teams he was on, and let me tell you, playing on bad teams can sometimes compound an injury.
"Now, Bill is certainly no malingerer, but when you're not winning, it makes it hard. When you're happier, though, you can play through pain more. Really, it was good to see him happy and enjoying it. . . . You could see it when he wasn't playing, when he was on the bench. He sort of glowed. It was evident the first time I saw him. There was more spring in his step as far as I could see.
"I've never known a man who enjoyed a game more. He was one who truly enjoyed basketball. If I ever found fault with him, he tended to be critical of others who didn't have his attitude.
"What do I mean? He might've been inclined to give someone a look. He couldn't understand how someone wasn't as intense. He might've gone harder in practice than I'd wanted, diving for loose balls. He'd go all out.
"I remember he was upset at Portland after his injury when people questioned his effort to come back. People thought he was a malingerer, and I told him, 'Anyone who knows you knows that's not true.' I told him: 'You aren't. If anyone says that you're a malingerer, you know it's not so. Don't care what others say.'
"You know, a reporter asked me recently who was my most valuable player at UCLA, and I said Lew Alcindor (Kareem Abdul-Jabbar). The reporter asked Bill to respond. . . . But the reporter also refused to tell him that I'd also said, in my opinion, Bill was the better basketball player. He could do more things well, but Kareem was more valuable, put more pressure on the other team. But as far as being a better overall player . . . it was Bill."
Said Walton of Wooden: "Coach Wooden certainly was one of the most influential people in my life. I owe so much to him. He has all these perfect sayings. A different one for every occasion. I'd always say them around the Celtics. Boy, Coach Wooden could rattle those off."
Speaking of those Celtics, Walton was playing tennis here as they were preparing to make their selection in the NBA draft. Whom would they draft? A center? William Bedford? Chris Washburn? Or swingman Len Bias, probably the most talented. Marty Blake -- that NBA guru -- had written:
"The Celtics need a big man because Robert Parish and Bill Walton are getting older."
But Walton's oldest son, Adam, ran up with the news. "They took Bias! They took Bias!"
That obviously was a sign that the Celtics were counting on Bill Walton's health. Then, Len Bias died tragically, leaving the Celtics with no No. 1 pick and two elder centers -- for better or for worse.
"I feel really good about playing in the future," Walton said. "I can play for a long time to come. It's just a great situation for me, to be able to play behind Parish and (Kevin) McHale, who are two of the most durable athletes in the NBA."
His son Adam, by the way, has been Bostonized. He wore green and white socks and a "Boston's Best . . . Celtics" T-shirt. The Waltons now own a house there. The kids are all in school there.
"They all liked it very much," Walton said. "And it was good for them to see the positive side of sports, to see the enthusiasm of the fans and the well run organization, a team dedicated to winning, to get to know the great players on the team and seeing Bill Russell and John Havlicek coming around for practice and getting to meet them.
"As a parent, that's really important to me, that the kids will get exposed to the positive side of sports."
So the Clippers were negative?
"I'm just glad they saw the positive side, and let's leave it at that," Walton said.
He already misses Larry Bird.
"I've tried calling him, but he was out on the golf course," Walton said.
He is home in San Diego for the summer. Former UCLA teammates Jamaal Wilkes and Greg Lee will play some pickup games with him, as will Swen Nater and Marvin Barnes.
And he will not have to ice those feet afterward.
"For the last three summers now, I've been able to enjoy myself," he said. "I haven't had to have any operations or have major therapy and start over from scratch again after ending the season on an injury. I wish it'd been that way all the time. It's a lot more fun this way. I'll go to the beach. I'll play a lot of tennis."
His tennis? Once while serving here in the tournament, he hit his own partner -- big Bob Lanier -- in the back.
Another time, Ahmad Rashad actually lobbed over him, then screamed: "I lobbed Bill Walton! I lobbed Bill Walton!"
Walton has no backhand.
But he has the ring.