The 1977 Trailblazers: A Bunch of Role Players and Bill Walton

February 20, 1994 Sunday

The NBA championship Portland Trail Blazers of 1976-77 were mostly consummate role players: enforcer Maurice Lucas and sharpshooter Bob Gross up front, ultra-smooth Lionel Hollins and scrappy Dave Twardzik at the guards. But in the middle was the one great player championship squads need-the brilliant Bill Walton, 6 feet 11 inches worth of red hair and genius.

That Blazer team, Walton remembers in this account of his career, made basketball the kind of game he dreamed about: fast breaks, teamwork, ball movement and pressure defense. Only in his mid-20s, Walton promised to lead them to a series of championships.

Like Larry Bird or Magic Johnson or Michael Jordan, when Walton was on the court, he made his teammates better than they were. An honors graduate of UCLA who had opinions and did not hesitate to express them, he protested against the Vietnam War in college and was no friend of conformity. Typically, he insisted on a clause in his contract with the Blazers that allowed him to grow his hair as long as he wanted.

Walton was then already a Deadhead, and his continuing devotion to the Grateful Dead is reflected throughout "Nothing But Net." Lyrics by Jerry Garcia and Bob Weir provide chapter epigraphs. Walton recalls following the band to various concerts, including a stifling-hot gig in Egypt. He met his fiancee at one of them. And he evokes parallels, some of them far-fetched, between Garcia and individual basketball stars. Musician and ballplayer alike travel the road, he points out, and both rely on speed and improvisation and give maximum effort every night. Well, sure, but. . . .

The reason to read this book, in any case, is for Walton's reminiscences and ideas about basketball, not his thoughts on music or the counter culture. "Nothing But Net" is two-thirds memoir, one-third commentary, and the writing-Walton on the tape recorder shaped into prose by Los Angeles Times sportswriter Gene Wojciechowski-is serviceable and solid enough not to get in the way of the story.

The story, unfortunately, does not go deep. We learn little of Walton's family or childhood, and nothing of the relationship that produced his four sons.

But if the author is understandably not very forthcoming about his personal life, he freely voices his opinions about basketball. As a commentator for NBC, Walton is usually labeled "controversial" or "outspoken." In "Nothing But Net," he speaks out on coaches, players, referees, college athletics and, above all, on sports medicine.

The sad fact is that Walton's body did not enable him to fulfill the promise of two NCAA championships at UCLA and that glorious 1977 victory at Portland. His body broke down under the pounding of the nine-month NBA season. "Minor surgery," he observed in 1981, "is what they do to somebody else." They did it to him at least once a year during 13 of his 14 years in the league, in a long and unsuccessful series of attempts to repair stress fractures in both feet. Injuries kept him off the court for 762 games, or the equivalent of nine full seasons. Finally, in 1990 he had an ankle fusion operation that left him barely ambulatory but wonderfully pain-free.

Walton has only good things to say about most of the doctors who treated him. In Portland, though, he was regarded as a kind of malingerer when the pain kept him off the court. The team doctor gave him a shot of Xylocaine for the game of April 21, 1978. Walton played until the bone in his foot split in half.

Walton speaks with respect of coaches Jack Ramsay, Lenny Wilkens and K.C. Jones-for whose Boston Celtics 1986 championship team he played the role of sixth man-but reserves his reverence for John Wooden of UCLA. Wooden recruited Walton from Helix High School near San Diego and then taught him and his other recruits how to eat and sleep and organize their day, how to lace their shoes and tuck in their jerseys and dry their hair after practice.

Practices themselves were fiercely competitive. There Wooden stressed the basics, particularly his famous pressing defense. But he did not overcoach. The team had no plays, Walton reports, not one. The system was simple: Get the ball to the best players and let them make plays. Nor did Wooden yell at or brutalize his players. Too many coaches today try to control the game from the bench, Walton believes, including such successful ones as Pat Riley and Bob Knight.

Walton celebrates greatness among those he played against-his nomination for the greatest of them all: Bill Russell-but he also criticizes the star mentality that induced referees to send Jordan to the line on every close call or allows Charles Barkley an extra step in his move to the basket.

The most radical, and at the same time most sensible, proposal in the book is that college basketball players should also be college students-qualified for entrance by academic as well as athletic standards. Such players should not be permitted to jump to the pros before graduation, Walton believes. Talented athletes who lack the ability or the discipline to do college work can let the Continental Basketball Association serve as their training ground.

If such a proposal were to be adopted by university presidents and athletic directors, two things would happen. The quality of NCAA basketball would drop off some. And much of the hypocrisy that besets American college sports would vanish. That sounds like a very good tradeoff.

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