Bill Walton: The Old Revolutionary

Bill Walton: The Old Revolutionary

March 14, 1996

What 20 years have done is simply alter the shell. The old revolutionary looks a bit different now. The scraggly beard, raggedy jeans and slogan-emblazoned T-shirts have long ago been replaced by a clean-shaven face and a slick, expensive blazer.

But the soul is unchanged. Bill Walton still values the voice of dissent.

The news of the NBA's indefinite suspension of Denver Nuggets guard Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf for his refusal to stand for the national anthem at NBA games based on religious reasons touched Walton at many levels Wednesday. "What's that old saying they used to tell us? You know, 'Don't mix politics and sports . . . particularly if it's the wrong politics,' " Walton said, laughing.

Clearly, as far as the image-conscious National Basketball Association is concerned, Abdul-Rauf's politics are all wrong. But it hardly matters if you agree with Abdul-Rauf's beliefs. That is not the issue.

Some Islamic followers say there is nothing in the Koran that precludes a Muslim from saluting a nation's flag. Others interpret it differently. But the issue is not religion.

This is about a person's right to dissent and the curious reaction of the NBA and the general public to that right.

There's something in Walton's voice that tells you Walton can hear in Abdul-Rauf's actions the faint sounds of those turbulent '60s, when Muhammad Ali, Tommie Smith and John Carlos, Jim Brown, Harry Edwards and Walton's old friend Jack Scott were out there
raising hell.

"You have to respect the man for putting his paycheck where his beliefs are," Walton said. "Now, I don't agree with his position, but I am for people having opinions. In this day and age, when athletes are more beholding to corporate sponsors and their
enormous paychecks, it's wonderful to see that Abdul-Rauf has decided to take a stand."

Yet the lessons Walton learned under the sage guidance of venerable UCLA head coach/mentor John Wooden tells him how he would have chosen a different way to get his message across.

Walton recalled his days at UCLA, when he was in the middle of the fray of the anti-Vietnam/anti-Richard Nixon movement on college campuses. "I used to tell Coach Wooden that I had to do these things," Walton recalled. "I told him I was going to join this
protest or that protest, and the coach just smiled at me and said, 'Bill, we really enjoyed you being here, and we're going to miss you greatly.' I realized right then that I valued basketball too much to jeopardize my career. I knew I had to find another way to make my statements of protest."

One year in the offseason, Walton was arrested at an anti-Nixon protest, and Wooden had a long talk with him. "I kept telling him that this Nixon guy is bad, and he told me, 'Well, Bill, write a letter.' So I did, a long letter to Nixon telling him all the wrong things he had done and how he should resign. I wrote it on UCLA basketball stationery, too, and all my teammates signed it, too. And wouldn't you know it, he must have gotten our letter, because the man did resign," Walton laughed.

As the years rolled by and the landscape of pro sports changed dramatically, with athletes becoming massive celebrities and corporate spokesmen, the revolutionary spirit that was so alive in the world of athletics in the '60s and early '70s has faded under
the bright lights of mainstream success.

The voices of dissent now only come about when money is on the line. Labor issues and salary caps, not social issues, spark the revolution now. "So that's why it's so refreshing to see a man who stands up for his principles," Walton said.

But this is what he wonders: What's the best way to change things, from without or within? "Abdul-Rauf has shed a light on this subject," he said. "Now how can he take it further? If he's on the outside looking in, what can he do? He needs to be inside to
wage this fight."

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