An LA Times Ode to Mountain Man

Los Angeles Times
May 18, 1986

Out on the road today I saw
A Deadhead sticker on a Cadillac.
A little voice inside my head said,
"Don't look back. Never look back."

--Don Henley

The temptation is to look at Bill Walton's current situation and immediately conclude that in the last year he must have changed considerably more than his winter mailing address.

But you soon find that the things that really matter to Walton and keep him motivated, even after all this time, have not changed. There still are Grateful Dead tunes playing in his head and faded Deadhead T-shirts on his chest. And, in his heart, a love for basketball still burns.

The only differences in Walton, one year removed from his seven-year sentence with the Clippers, are that he is playing on a contending team for the first time in, well, seven years and flourishing outside his natural habitat of Southern California.

Not only has Walton survived the harsh winter in Boston, he also played in--for him--an astonishing 80 regular-season games for the Celtics. Even more astonishing, he was an active participant in all but a few practices.

Walton's 20 minutes a game off the bench have been important in two ways. His limited playing time has helped him stay injury-free while allowing him to contribute to the Celtic drive to dethrone the Lakers as NBA champions in this spring's playoffs.

The playoffs. Walton vaguely remembers them. Until this year, the last time he appeared in an NBA playoff game--it was in 1978 with the Portland Trail Blazers--he was still known as a free spirit with a pony tail, a scraggly beard and no inhibitions about castigating meat-eating teammates for consuming "dead animal carcasses."

He's 33, and all that is behind Walton. No longer is he constantly fretting that his formerly fragile feet might snap or his delicate knees buckle under stress. No longer is he feeling frustrated and relatively helpless in a losing situation. And no longer does he feel the need to make his beliefs, some of which have not changed, public knowledge.

These days, it seems, Walton's life sounds like a beer commercial. Walton says he has found that he can have capitalistic tendencies and still be a Deadhead, that he can eat red meat and even do a commercial for a Boston steak house and still care about nature and the environment.

Maybe there is something to that Celtic mystique stuff, because Walton has been transformed from an unhappy, enigmatic player on a losing team to an enthusiastic and popular player on perhaps the league's best team.

"I'm very content, because this is a great situation," Walton said. "Everybody goes through a lot of different periods in their life. I've certainly gone through a lot. But I've learned not to look back. To build to the future."

Actually, Walton is quite satisfied in the present. Life in Cambridge, where Bill, wife Susan and his four sons live, is intellectually stimulating and all that. He revels in the attention he has received in a city that he says is amazingly supportive.

But Walton, a self-professed confirmed Californian for life, makes it clear that the only reason he's here is to play basketball. It's about all he talks about.

"I love it (in Boston)," said Walton, whose Celtics will play Milwaukee here today in Game 4 of the Eastern Conference final. I appreciate it very much and am aware of the great opportunity I have. Very few people get one chance to get a championship (the Trail Blazers won in 1977). I've got a second chance. It's great."

The thing people notice almost as much as Walton's newly found health is his enthusiasm. The word great rumbles out of his 6-11 frame like a volcanic eruption. It's accompanied by a wide grin.

Celtic Coach K.C. Jones said: "What surprised me about Bill was his enthusiasm and intensity; the way he goes after it in practice."

Quipped Larry Bird one day early in the playoffs: "Why shouldn't he be happy? He's been on a seven-year losing streak."

Almost immediately after last September's Walton-for-Cedric Maxwell trade, Jones' fear that Walton wouldn't fit in was put to rest. On the first day of training camp, Bird boldly approached Walton and asked: "Where's your pony tail?"

The laughter and good times among the Celtics, who won 67 regular-season games and have been dynamite in the playoffs, haven't stopped since.

There were adjustments to be made, though.

For one thing, Walton had to adapt to a sixth-man role, something he had never experienced when he was uninjured. Also, the Celtics thought it would be nice if Walton would participate in most of their practices, something he didn't do with the Clippers.

Averaging 19.3 minutes a game in the regular season, Walton contributed 7.6 points, 6.8 rebounds and 2.1 assists. More important, he has been able to give both center Robert Parish and power forward Kevin McHale needed rest.

Walton, once a superstar, now readily accepts advice from Bird, a current superstar. At one recent practice, Walton failed to grab a defensive rebound, and Bird later grumbled something about blocking out. Walton gravely nodded his head. Bird then playfully tousled Walton's red hair.

Although the Celtics have re-introduced Walton to winning, it hasn't been a one-way street. Walton has made life around the Garden and on the road more interesting.

One day, two members of the Grateful Dead showed up for practice. On New Year's Eve in Oakland, Walton was the master of ceremonies at the Dead's traditional year-end Bay Area concert.

Said Bird: "He's perfect for this team. He's got the best passing touch I've seen for a big man. . . . He's also a little crazy, which makes him fit in well with the rest of us."

Said Walton, alluding to his 20-minute limit: "This has been very, very nice, and my role is the key to all that. Even after a night game, I feel fine. I haven't played more than 28 minutes in a single game. In between games, I felt good and I've been able to practice all the time. I don't get worn down.

"I enjoy coming off the bench. I basically am just happy to be part of a team, part of a great team. It's a pleasure to show up every night. It's a great bunch of guys and a great atmosphere to play basketball."

The really, uh, great part is that Walton can play as hard and aggressively, if not as long, as he wants and not fear injury. Other than a bruised knee that kept him out of two games in the playoff series with Atlanta, Walton's only real injury has been a broken nose, unofficially making that 13 for his career.

Compared to other years, a broken nose is merely a minor inconvenience.

Quoth the Grateful Dead:

Set up, like a bowling pin; Knocked down, gets to wearin' thin. They just won't let you be.

Dr. Tony Daly, Walton's personal physician for eight years and the Clippers' team doctor the last two seasons, says that the reduction in playing time has kept Walton from being knocked down and out of the lineup.

"I think he's finally learned to pace himself and know his limitations," Daly said. "He occasionally could play longer than 20 minutes, but if he does it for an extended period of time, he'd be back in the same position."

Jones said: "For 20 minutes, how could you pass up a Bill Walton?"

Easily, apparently, if you're the Lakers. Last summer, when Walton was a free agent, he offered his services to both the Lakers and Celtics.

The Celtics showed immediate interest and gave Walton a physical examination June 24 in San Francisco. Walton passed. On Sept. 3, three days before the trade was made, Walton passed another physical, this one in Boston.

On July 1 in Inglewood, Walton was given a physical by Dr. Robert Kerlan, the Lakers' physician. Walton reportedly was deemed unfit. Kerlan would only say last fall: "I would rather not discuss it. I just don't want to affect his future, now that he's decided to play again."

Said Daly: "I heard he flunked the physical. I never found out for sure and never saw the results. . . . I heard it was because of his knees. But all he has is patella (kneecap) tendinitis, which he's had since high school and always played with."

Walton was asked the other day if he wonders what might have happened had he passed the Laker physical and eventually signed as a free agent. He shook his head and smiled.

"Once I started really working on getting (to Boston), it became obvious this was the team for me," he said. "I tried to stay optimistic last summer, but it was very disappointing and frustrating. It took so long to get here. But it was well worth the wait. I couldn't have made a better decision."

Walton probably would not have been able to escape the Clippers had it not been for the free-agent clause in his unusual contract.

The free-agent clause said that if the Clippers failed to qualify for the playoffs, which happened, Walton could test the market over the summer. Otherwise, he was locked into a four-year contract.

Asked what had prompted him to devise such a clever contractual loophole, Walton flashed that big grin and did not answer.

Quoth Bruce Springsteen:

It's a town full of losers. I'm pulling out of here to win.

When Walton packed up his van and pulled out of Los Angeles, he wasn't the only one pleased. Many on the Clippers, who say they still are his friends, thought that his departure was best for the team.

One was Coach Don Chaney.

"Once he declared himself a free agent and said he wanted to leave, I didn't want him to stay, either," Chaney said. "I would never force a player to play. You'd get the time, but not the 100% effort."

In 1984-85, Walton's last season with the Clippers, he played in 67 of 82 games, then a personal record. His practice attendance wasn't nearly as impressive, though, and that irked some Clippers.

"I never believed Bill faked it when he said he was sore and couldn't practice," Chaney said. "I fully believe he actually was sore. But we had other veteran players who were sore after tough games and they practiced. These guys would look at him sitting on the sidelines, riding a (stationary) bike, and they resented him for it.

"The only justification I have for the fact that he's practicing regularly now is that we played him more minutes (a 24.5-minute average). If I couldn't use that rationalization, I'd wonder about that. But don't get me wrong. I've always liked Bill, and I'm happy he's done so well there."

Daly said: "I think Bill worked like hell to be in shape to play (as a Clipper). He's a very dedicated player. He wouldn't sit out unless he had to."

Since the trade, Walton hasn't discussed his feelings about the Clippers and doesn't intend to in the near future.

But all you need to know about how desperately Walton wanted off the Clippers and on the Celtics is that he waived $110,000 the Clippers reportedly owed him in deferred money and also signed for less money with Boston than he made as a Clipper.

Quoth the Grateful Dead:

We used to play for silver; Now, we play for life. These days, Walton certainly is having the time of his life, both at musty Boston Garden and haughty Cambridge.

"(Bill) Russell was my favorite player as a kid," Walton said. "The Celtic style. The fast break. The pressure defense. The constant emphasis on teamwork. It's always appealed to me. The similarities (between the Celtics and UCLA under John Wooden) are striking."

Walton has always been more than just a basketball player. When Walton used to talk about going left, you weren't sure if he was referring to a power move to the hoop or a political stance.

In Cambridge, it could mean either. So, it wasn't a surprise that Walton and family settled there. The local media, by the way, played it up big because Walton was the first professional Boston athlete to take up residence there.

Walton often plays pickup chess matches in front of a French restaurant in Harvard Square. Last week, a celebrity match was scheduled, pitting Walton against Frank Duehay, a Cambridge city councilman. Duehay, former captain of Harvard's chess team, beat Walton, former captain of UCLA's basketball team, in a competitive match.

According to the Boston Globe's account, Walton lost when he made a bad move with his king, a blunder supposedly as colossal as letting Bird move to the low post with only single coverage.

"We didn't know much about Boston or Cambridge when we got traded here," Walton said. "Fortunately, (author) David Halberstam called us and steered us in the right direction about places to live. He introduced us to some of his friends, too.

"Politically, Cambridge, as a city, and Massachusetts, as a state, is very liberal. And I consider myself a liberal Democrat. I feel very comfortable here, a very smooth transition."

Although he is only a seasonal resident, Walton has become quietly involved in politics. He supports young Joe Kennedy's congressional campaign and attended a January rally when Kennedy announced his candidacy.

Walton repeatedly says how "very, very great" it's been in Boston and Cambridge, but it isn't home.

Approached by a Los Angeles reporter recently, Walton jokingly took on a look of mock befuddlement and asked: "Is that a tan?"

You remember the sun, don't you, Bill?

"I think so."

Soon enough, Walton will be back at his San Diego home and won't return to Boston for several months.

"But first, we've got some business to take care of here," he said, smiling.

Quoth the Grateful Dead:

Truckin', I'm a-goin' home; Whoa, whoa baby, back where I belong. Back home, sit down and patch my bones, And get back truckin' on.

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