Tonight, he is scheduled to play in New York for the first time in nearly five seasons. The Knicks will not see vintage Walton; by his own admission, the 6-foot-11-inch center is struggling these days. His endurance, he said, is not where he wants it to be. His basketball timing, particularly on offense, has been slow to come around. But when he's fresh, Bill Walton is still a factor. At the age of 30, he can still play his game, and when he does that, there are flashbacks to the 1976-77 season in Portland when he led the Trail Blazers to the National Basketball Association championship.
''We were coming back when Walton was on the bench,'' Coach Kevin Loughery of Atlanta said after the Hawks' 110-100 loss in San Diego Thursday night. ''But when Walton came back and started intimidating everybody, it swung back. I think he got every defensive rebound in the fourth quarter.''
Statistically, the Atlanta game was Walton's best since the true test of his injured left foot began. He scored 19 points, pulled down 14 rebounds and had three assists and blocked two shots.
He played 30 minutes, his average output. And he seemed much fresher than in recent games.
Two Courses, One Is Law
Of course, there is much more -there always is with Walton - to this comeback than just his foot. He missed all of the 1978-79 season, played only 14 games the next season, and missed the last two seasons completely. Not knowing if he would ever be able to play in the N.B.A. again, the former U.C.L.A. center chose to take two paths at once last fall - splitting his time between playing for the Clippers and attending Stanford University Law School.
At first, the Clippers went along with the program, partly, as Coach Paul Silas puts it, ''because there was great reason for doubt regarding Bill's playing again, and little justification from shutting him out of a new life if it didn't work.''
But once it became clear that the complex surgery to solve and end recurring foot injuries had been successful, the Clippers in December demanded that Walton choose between basketball and law school. And Walton demanded it of himself. ''The plan all along was to evaluate everything in December,'' Walton said.
''When I was given the go-ahead to practice regularly and play two days a week, it became clear some adjustments would have to be made. I was hesitant. ... I'd gotten my hopes up before.''
In early Janaury, Walton asked for and was granted a leave from law school. He was a full-timeClipper, although he still had to finish his fall law school finals. The combination of the finals and basketball left Walton exhausted.
But now he says, ''since the end of finals, I've felt better every day.'' From the earliest stages of this comeback effort - Walton's third in a short and memorable career - Silas has been one of the biggest believers. He originally backed the law school-basketball arrangement, then early in December signaled that a change was needed.
''Once it became apparent he could play, the situation changed. As a team, we weren't going to improve without a full-time commitment from Walton. As a player, he wasn't going to continue to make progress.''
Walton says: ''I never for a moment let my mind get away from basketball. I focused on other things, because that's the way I thought my life was going. But I never stopped loving the game and wanting to be a part of it. That made it a lot easier when the chance to play again did come up.''
There are indications now that things are beginning to come together for Walton - and the Clippers. Thursday's game against the Hawks was his best since his return to what he calls ''active duty.''
''I just felt good,'' he said after pushing his season averages to 14 points and 10 rebounds a game. And the Clippers have won three of their last four games and nine of their last 18 after a 4-23 start. ''It's not just Walton,'' Silas said. ''It's a lot of players and a lot of things, like better team defense. But in the end, it comes down to a player like Bill ... a player who can make you great.''