March 21, 2002
SAN JOSE, Calif. - Luke Walton always understood that he was not a (so-called) normal kid from a (so-called) normal household.
After all . . .
Most kids do not carry school lunch boxes festooned with John Wooden sayings.
Most kids are not named after NBA players who were teammates of his father.
Most kids do not have a teepee in their backyard.
Most kids do not have a father who, more than simply being a garden variety member of his sport's Hall of Fame, is regarded by many as the standard of excellence at his position.
All this could have been a career killer. The American landscape is littered with the sporting carcasses of overburdened offspring who could not handle the attendant pressures of being Son of X. But this has never really been a problem for Luke Walton, who is comfortable with both his parentage and the progress of his career, and who will take to the floor against Oklahoma this evening with an ever-growing reputation as the most complete forward in college basketball.
"Luke has handled the Walton name thing very well," maintains Arizona coach Lute Olson. "He is a bright young man, and he also has a great deal of common sense."
You might say that this common sense told him that it wasn't such a good idea to attend UCLA, where his father once presided over an 88-game winning streak and two national championships. And you would be wrong.
"I didn't go to Arizona in order to build my own identity," says Walton. "I went to Arizona because I felt strongly it was the best school for me. If I felt that UCLA was the best school for me, I would have gone there."
There never would have been a direct legitimate Walton-Walton comparison, because daddy Bill was a 7-foot center and son Luke is a 6-8 forward. But there is a chip-off-the-old-block aspect of Luke Walton's game that brings a twinkle to the eyes of coaches and assorted hoop aficionados, and it has led to obvious comparisons. Simply put: There is no doubt Luke Walton is the best passing forward in college basketball.
"I've been asked many times who he reminds me of," says Olson. "He does a lot of things like Bobby Gross, who played at Long Beach State and the Portland Trail Blazers with a big red-headed center."
There's no need to make life more difficult by making the obvious direct comparison (in passing skills) with a certain No. 33 who also crossed paths with his father. No doubt his father welcomes any comparison to one of his cherished Portland championship teammates (after all, he named his third son after Maurice Lucas), but it is not inconceivable that young Walton is the best passing forward since You-Know-Who.
"I've said many times that you can't teach some of the things Luke Walton does," Olson says. "You'd have to say it's in the genes. He has such a great feel and understanding for the game."
"I think it has to do with the fact that I grew up around basketball, and around smart players such as Larry Bird, my dad, and people like that," theorizes Walton. "When you're around people like that all the time, it grows on you."
Young Luke was but 6 1/2 years old when his father showed up in Boston, and the experience only lasted two years. But it's clear the Boston Celtics left a lasting impression on him.
"I just remember how much fun it was," he recalls. "The players were all great to us [that would be brothers Adam, Nate, and Chris, then nicknamed "Tuffy"]. What I remember most was how those guys seemed to do everything together and how they had such a great time with each other."
He was a bit too young to remember Messrs. Bird and McHale ringing up his dad and summoning him to the daily practice in order that "we can kick your ass," but he does accurately portray a team that enjoyed each other and enjoyed winning, and he brings that sense of commitment and togetherness to his own team situation.
Walton and guard Jason Gardner are the only regulars remaining from a team that went all the way to the championship game. "We could not be where we are if Luke and Jason had not transferred their positive attitudes to the young players," says Olson. "We lost three players to the NBA, but never once did either of them think we were going to be an NIT team, or anything like that. If you want to play at this level, you must have confidence."
Walton was a sixth-man type last year, averaging 5 points and making his mark with clever passes and solid defense as a backup to the acrobatic Richard Jefferson. But if the Wildcats were to be any kind of a force this year, he needed to broaden his game.
He has. In addition to his 7 rebounds and 6 assists a game, Walton is averaging 18 points over his last 18 games. Opponents play him to pass at their peril.
"I was a scorer in high school, but I kind of got away from it," he explains. "I knew what we needed, and I've worked on my shooting. Shooting is about confidence, and I have it now."
He can't go very long without remembering who his father is, primarily because he can't get the old man off the phone. The same dad who introduced his son to the wisdom of John Wooden while other kids were dealing with the Cookie Monster is more than a little exuberant about the play of both his son and the Arizona team. "During the tournament he is a little excited," young Walton reports. "He's called me about 12 times the last two days. He's so pumped up that he'll call me, hang up, and then call me with some other John Wooden quotation about 12 minutes later."
The son does not scorn the dad's mentor. As proof, he reaches into his backpack and produces Coach Wooden's latest tome, a blue-covered compendium of Wooden sayings and observations. Informed by Bill Plaschke of the Los Angeles Times that the nonagenarian icon is now anointing him as his current favorite college player, Walton's mouth falls open.
"I didn't know that," he says. "I'm very flattered."
The big question remains. Why isn't he at UCLA, anyway?
"We were on him early," says Olson. "I've always liked him. UCLA didn't get on to him until after his junior year, and by then I think we already had him."
And the effect of all this on his father, Mr. Blue and Gold himself? Like, what if Arizona winds up playing UCLA Saturday for the West Regional berth in the Final Four?
"I think he's conflicted," Walton shrugs. "He tells his son he's rooting for me. But I'm sure he's telling his old UCLA buddies something else."
Didn't Lute Olson say this kid was smart?