The Celtics Remind Walton of UCLA

THE Boston Celtics didn't want Bill Walton to feel they were in any way skeptical about his past quests into the counter-culture, so they went out of their way to extend a gracious welcome when he joined the team this September.

Larry Bird, for example, ambled up to Walton at one of the early practices and offered a pleasant, ''Hey, where's the ponytail and the beard?''

Walton's rough-hewn features broke into a smile as he replied, ''Those days are over.'' And it was about that time Walton decided he was going to like the Boston Celtics even more than he had imagined. 

''I love being here, I really love it,'' Walton said Saturday night after helping the Celtics outlast the Knicks, 113-104.

It has been so long that it needs repeating: The big redhead once was the dominant player of championship teams at U.C.L.A. and the Portland Trail Blazers, a star whose rebounding and passing and defense were a model for other centers. Five separate stress fractures of his foot kept him out nearly four seasons and only his love of basketball allowed him to come back with the Clippers as a satisfactory replica of what he once had been.

''Those days are over now.'' Not just the ponytail, not just the beard, that were trademarks of an athlete identified with protest, the last trace of the 1960's hippies in the age of the yuppies.

The man who was once identified with the activist, Jack Scott, and linked with the sheltering of Patty Hearst, after her bizarre kidnapping, is now on leave from Stanford Law School, the father of four, no longer a vegetarian and no longer a full-time center. ''Those days are over now.''

The latest stage in Bill Walton's life odyssey is the Boston Celtics, the most famous and most admired team in basketball. The unselfish game he played for John Wooden at U.C.L.A. and Jack Ramsay at Portland has made it seem that his red hair and rustic jolly-green-giant looks have been jutting aboveCeltic uniform No. 5 forever.

''This reminds me of U.C.L.A.,'' he said Saturday. ''Going on the road, every gym sold out, everyone trying to make their season by beating us, yet everybody appreciating us, a lot of fans on the road rooting for us. I love it. It's a lot of fun.''

He had fun Saturday night, coming off the bench for Robert Parish, playing 19 minutes, scoring 5 points with 11 rebounds, one below Parish, the game leader. He seemed to relish the banging with Patrick Ewing and Ken Bannister, perhaps because he knows he is a reserve that the pounding has its limits.

''Minutes?'' Walton mused. ''To me, it's more important to the athlete to win. I can't be out there for a long time anymore, physically. I suffer stress fractures when I do. This is a great team for me to come to.''

The Celtics were already playing team basketball when Bill Russell came back from the 1956 Summer Olympic Games, and they have been playing team basketball ever since, except for a few months of anarchy in the John Y. Brown era. They always seem to bring in a Bailey Howell, a Don Nelson, a Wayne Embry, who thrives in the Celtic system after a good career elsewhere, but Larry Bird was curious about this new man.

Larry Bird came into the league in 1979-80, when Walton was playing 14 abortive games for San Diego between stress fractures. Even when Walton raised his game totals from 33 to 55 to 67 in the past three seasons, Bird had no chance to realize what Bill Walton once had been.

The self-styled ''Hick from French Lick'' - Indiana, that is - knew that Walton was, let's say, controversial, but Bird did not know that Walton's '60's idealism had often found expression in an unselfish pass, a last-second blocked shot.

''I didn't know what kind of a guy he was,'' Bird admitted. ''I didn't know what his morale was like. I found out he loves the game of basketball.'' The Boston organization had been looking to move Cedric Maxwell because, whether right or wrong, it did not feel he fought back hard enough from knee problems last season. They received a man who had already fought back, and was willing to play behind Parish.

''Bill Walton means that Robert can stretch himself out for seven minutes or so, and know that Bill's behind him,'' said K. C. Jones, the smooth and eloquent Celtic coach. ''We've got two all-stars at center, and you should see them go at each other in practice.

''I try to get Bill his minutes, but the other night I only played him 13 minutes, and he asked me afterward, 'Coach, are you mad at me? If you're not, I have no problem with 13 minutes.' I swore on a stack of Bibles that I wasn't mad at him, that the game dictated my moves. He understood that.''

Walton revels in the blind fingertip passes Bird flicks to him near the basket, like a volleyball player setting up a spike. He loves grabbing an offensive rebound in traffic and watching the Celtic shooters scurry to the open spot on the perimeter.

''I've been on both ends of the stick,'' Walton said. ''And I've noticed that when guys are interested in winning, the ball moves a little more. These guys are unusually motivated.'' On Saturday night, Walton found time to wander down the hallway and say hello to the Knicks' Bill Cartwright, currently sitting out his third stress fracture. ''I told him it takes time, that I had five of them,'' Walton said. ''I don't think that made him feel any better, but I told him to hang in there.''

Walton thinks the number of stress fractures are happening because athletes are bigger and stronger and are being forced, in a Darwinian sense, to play a harder brand of basketball just to stay in the league. ''Some guys can play a long time every day, but I just can't do that, not anymore,'' he said. ''Everybody's different. To the athletes' benefit, the medical diagnosis is better now. In the past some of us were accused of faking it.''

Basketball people know what it meant for Bill Walton to come back from five stress fractures, and theCeltics treat him with deep awe, as shown Saturday night when Walton, all lathered up in the shower, asked the clubhouse attendant for a towel.

Rick Carlisle, a substitute guard who was a child when Walton was winning championships at U.C.L.A. and Portland, said: ''A towel? Geez, Bill, you want everything. What do you want next, coffee?'' Behind the soap suds, Bill Walton was smiling. There is nothing about these Celtics he doesn't like - even their way of paying respect to their elders.

No comments:

Follow by Email