6.28.2017

Greatness is Fundamental



August 23, 1996

The smile never left his face.

Bill Walton slumped to a seat at the far end of the Stony Brook Indoor Sports Complex, sweat dripping from his long forehead and a weary look in his eyes. He rubbed his knees, let out a long sigh and leaned back against the wall.

It was a humid Sunday morning and Walton had just finished two hours of lecturing, demonstrating, encouraging and teaching. The 43-year-old former NBA star, looking ancient in a flashy jersey and baggy shorts getup, laughed as an on-looker teased him about looking prepared for battle.

" Failing to prepare is preparing to fail'," Walton quipped. A personal adage?

"No," Walton replied, "One of John Wooden's sayings . I live 'em."

Living for Walton these days has meant submerging himself in basketball. Even after his 12-year NBA career, one way Walton has maintained his stature in the game is as a commentator for NBC Sports. But these days, it's just not enough. He wants to do more.

"I love basketball," he said. "The game of basketball and the American people have given me the greatest life that anybody could possibly have. My obligation . . . is to give back as much as possible."

And in as many ways as possible. Walton does charity events, he makes appearances and he signs autographs at every opportunity.

But what he really loves is teaching, and that, to him, is the greatest gift he can give back to basketball.

"This is a lifelong dream for me, in my new life as a non-player," Walton said during a break at his big man pro development camp held at SUNY-Stony Brook, that ended yesterday. "I've played for six hall of fame coaches and they taught me the values and the characteristics that I would need to be successful in life.

"Really, the responsibility of someone who has been as fortunate as I have . . . is to pass that on."

Walton teamed up with close friend Bob Hill, the Spurs head coach, to bring that dream to reality. To be able to help another player, perhaps a future star, with the knowledge Walton has gained over his career is a great thrill to the former NBA MVP.

"He's very capable," Hill said. "The basis of his belief in basketball was all fundamentally born and I think he's really good at it."

Ah, yes, the fundamentals. The exact aspect of the game Walton feels is lacking in young players. The one character flaw in all the wannabe Michael Jordans and the wannabe Hakeem Olajuwons.

"The reason Jordan and Olajuwon are the best players is not because they jump the highest; it's not because they have the best bodies," Walton explained. "It's because they have the best fundamentals, they have the best footwork. And in the age of television, so much emphasis is on spectacular play as opposed to solid, fundamentals play.

"Think back to the championship game, the last game. There was not a single dunk in the entire game. You had Shawn Kemp, Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippen and there was not a dunk in that game."

Walton paused and joked that the dunk is so popular because most people can't dunk and "they think it's the coolest thing in the world. But the dunk requires the least amount of skill of anything in basketball.

"I played for John Wooden, Jack Ramsay and the Boston Celtics, and those teams won because of fundamentals. The more that concept can be taught, the most specific skills and drills can be taught, the better the game of basketball will be."

And the better players like Colgate all-America Adonal Foyle, a 6-10, 260-pound tower of raw athletic talent, will be. Foyle, a native of the Grenadines, understands the importance of learning from Walton.

"The time I've spent with him and the opportunities I've had to talk with him, I've been mightily impressed," Foyle said. "He's very profound in his belief of the game and his philosophy of the game."

Walton's intensity and enthusiasm with the talented group of NBA and college players at the camp never wavered. And the group, that included players like newly acquired Magic center Felton Spencer, Mavericks center Greg Dreilling, George Washington all-Americ Alexander Koul and Foyle, seemed to respond to his every word.

"He has a lot of experience," Foyle said. "You don't find someone like that, who is willing to teach or are capable of teaching the game. I mean, I don't know if I could demand the same from other people. But he can communicate what it takes to become a great player and you really have to respect that."

Walton slowly lifted himself off the table he was resting on and waved good-bye with a smile. Hill's face turned serious as Walton ducked his big red head - now flecked with gray - through the doorway into a hall, where a warm shower awaited the tired, aching muscles of a man who just can't stop loving the game.

"This is part of the way he wants to finish his life," Hill said. "Giving back to the game the best way he can."

And smiling all the way.

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