Bill Walton: The greatest center that never was

In a segment of Open Court from 2014 a debate sparked regarding the NBA’s 50 Greatest Players that were selected on All-Star weekend in 1997, to commemorate the 50th Anniversary of the NBA. Whilst discussing the incredible oversight – or perhaps disrespect – the voters had in omitting Dominque Wilkins from the list, the discussion naturally turned to who would have to be removed to make room for The Human Highlight Reel. After a back and forth between the panel in not wanting to name anyone, Shaquille O’Neal, being one of the more vocal stars the NBA has ever had offered up his suggestion.

The man he pointed out was Bill Walton.

It isn’t entirely surprising that Shaq would name Walton considering he never watched him play and at one point in time had a miniature beef with Walton. Grateful Red (named as such due to his lifelong fandom of the band the Grateful Dead) had criticized O’Neal’s injury plagued seasons with Phoenix and labelled him a “joke” for claiming he was going to deliver the Suns a title as he had done with LA and Miami. Shaq responded by claiming Walton and his resume didn’t stack up, and as such he broke “Big Man Pecking Order Code — Ordinance 2257” and was labelled a hypocrite due to Walton himself having only a few seasons relatively injury free.

However, whilst O’Neal’s distaste for Walton is understandable, it’s evidence that the man who was pegged as being the next all-timer is often swept under the proverbial rug of greats, in most part due to his lack of a playing career. Unlike other players who suffered similar fates, Bill Walton has been forgotten by both fans and players.

Not all of this can be blamed on ignorance; it is logical that with every new generation a previous one fades further into obscurity, despite the fact that overall the NBA is perhaps the greatest league in all of sports in remembering their history and legends (when 20 year olds entering the league don’t know who OutKast are we can’t really expect them to know or take interest in a stuttering Hippie from the 1970s). Take into account the recent phenomena of the back-to-the-basket-center being almost entirely eliminated from the game and you have the perfect storm for Walton’s name fading further away from the collective consciousness of the NBA.

This is a grotesque scenario, and one which on the whole serves only to harm the ability to use the history of the game to both benefit in-game performance and of-court discussion.

88 Games Undefeated

Whist it is any sports fan’s nature to debate ‘What Ifs’ there is one portion of Bill Walton’s career in which we don’t need to speculate on what could have been. Representing UCLA between 1971-1974, Walton was the de facto best player on a Bruins team that went 30-0 in each of his first two seasons at the school and won two National Titles.

During his legendary college years one game stands out not only among all those Bill Walton played, but perhaps all of those played by any college player, ever. In the 1973 NCAA Championship game against Memphis State, Walton shot 21 of 22 from the field and scored 44 of the team’s 87 points (an effort which 45 years later still stands as the most points ever scored in an NCAA final). Memphis coach Gene Barlow declared that Walton had “one of the best games anybody ever had in the history of college basketball”.

The game epitomized what Bill Walton represented; on the court he was a highly efficient back-to-the-basket big who had a soft touch from 12 feet and was lethal in finding open cutters to the hoop. It is, however, defensively where Walton largely affected the game. Unlike fellow Bruin Lew Alcindor (latterly known as Kareem Abdul-Jabbar), Walton managed to combine his physical presence (at 6-11, never wanting to be labelled as a 7 footer) and unique skill set to become the best interior defender in college – and later professional – basketball.

His ability to leap for the defensive rebound, turn in mid air and throw the outlet pass was an evolution of Wes Unseld. His positioning and high IQ meant he was rarely out of position and always in the optimal area to defend his opponent (the precursor to Tim Duncan). And his shot blocking ability meant anyone looking to finish around him had to be wary (dunking was banned in college basketball during Walton’s playing time which naturally resulted in more opportunities to stop a layup at the rim).

Basketball Player or Hippie?

Despite his brilliance in college, perhaps what stands out more is his humanitarian efforts. Bill Walton grew up in a time of Civil Rights reform, of unjust wars and the age of experimentation. For many, sports was seen as an escape from the perils of everyday life, a way of emerging yourself in a collective experience in which (for the most part) you find yourself at harmony with others.

In 1967 this all changed. With the likes of Bill Russell & Jim Brown joining him on stage, Muhammad Ali protested his drafting into the US Military to serve in Vietnam. Soon after came the Black Power Salute at the 1968 Olympics in Mexico. Today’s sports and social issues are married to one another and over the years we have seen athletes such as LeBron James, Carmelo Anthony and Colin Kaepernick speak out on issues. However, in the 60s and 70s this was breaking new boundaries.

For Bill Walton he was not only living in, but also actively shaping a zeitgeist in America. Whilst others were fighting against injustice suffered to themselves (largely due to racism), Bill Walton was acting as a messiah (though, he would deny his actions as being anything other than what he should have done) in championing issues which did not directly impact him. By supporting reform in the various American systems for equality for all races, by protesting against the American war and advocating for youth culture Bill Walton became tied to the time he grew up in.

The above demonstrates the incredible conflict that can be found within Bill Walton; he understood that as an athlete he had a voice that would be listened to, and decided to speak out on anything he supported knowing he had power. But, he also understood that he had to fit into a system, a basketball system shaped by John Wooden in which principles and ethics were demanded such as personal appearance, attendance and alcohol abstinence. This selflessness would follow him from the luxurious and youthful campuses of California to the newly formed NBA team in Oregon.

Fractures & Failure

Despite being drafted in 1973 by the Dallas Chaparrals of the ABA, and perused by the San Diego Conquistadors in 1974 (San Diego also signed Wilt Chamberlain as a player-coach to lure Walton in) it was the Portland Trail Blazers in 1974 who used their 1st overall pick to select Walton (their second in four years).

Although being hampered by nagging injuries his whole career (especially leg and foot injuries due to his 6 inch growth spurt during his sophomore year in High School), Walton’s first and second seasons with Portland were especially strained. Only managing to play 86 of a possible 164 games, the team became frustrated.

Until the past couple of seasons, where we have seen Kawhi Leonard disagree with team doctors & Andre Iguodala come out and blast Golden State medical staff for rushing him back from an injury, the notion of the superstar going against team orders were few and far between. Bill Walton had suffered multiple stress fractures in his foot, all of which were undiagnosed and not obvious to doctors. With so much investment in Walton, the team and the fans had come to consider him weak.

They blamed his diet (which consisted of zero meat and various new age juices and recipes), they blamed his drive (because a fully invested basketball player should have no time for political activism), they even thought Walton hadn’t gotten over college and didn’t want to be in Oregon. In truth, Walton was highly motivated, especially by winning, and tried everything he could to fix the issue, something which he would later go on to regret having a noticeable limp for the majority of his life thereafter.

However, you don’t just throw out talent like his, and so Portland settled and decided to be be patient with Walton. This patience paid off, as Walton would go on to exhibit one of the greatest two year runs we have ever seen.

The Savior Delivers

In 1976, former Braves & 76ers head coach Jack Ramsay was hired as the new leader of Portland and Maurice Lucas was selected as part of the ABA dispersal draft, giving Walton the foundation needed to win. And win they did. In the 1976-77 season, Walton played the most games he would ever play in a season with Portland at 65 (in the 17 games he missed, the team only won 5 games), and finished with a record of 49-33, good enough for the third seed the Western Conference.

After dispensing of Chicago and Denver in the first and second rounds (and notching a triple-double in game two of the Denver series), perhaps the most anticipated matchup since Russell and Wilt would take place. The two best players in college history, both of whom represented the same university and played the same position, would go head to head to take their teams to the Finals.

This was meant to happen; this was what could have saved the league from its late 70s malaise. Walton vs Kareem. This could have been the precursor to Magic vs Bird, the two politically active stars, representing vastly different fan bases and styles battling for the next decade.

On paper, the series seemed to have played out as expected. Kareem dominated as an individual, averaging 30/16 and 4 blocks. Walton won, as the best player on a team that would sweep the Lakers after going 1-3 against them in the regular season.

As we know stats without context are like birds without wings; they don’t do justice to what is really there. Walton still managed to put up 19.3 points, 14.8 rebounds and 5.8 assists to go with 2.3 blocks and 1 steal, whilst playing elite defense and orchestrating a Portland offense which finished the season as the second ranked in the NBA.

It should also be noted that Kareem had plenty of motivation in wanting to outshine Walton, considering after Walton graduated from UCLA coach Wooden declared him the greatest center in team history. Sadly, for the whole of the NBA, this would be the last time Walton vs Kareem ever had any sense of worth (they did meet again in the 1987 Finals between Boston and LA, however both were at the end of their careers).

In the Finals Portland came up against the Philadelphia 76ers, led by superstar Julius Erving, big men George McGinnis and Daryl Dawkins and guards like Doug Collins, World B. Free and Henry Bibby. After losing the opening two games, Portland would go on to win the next three and close out the series in game six with an outstanding 20/23/7/8 performance from Walton.

Just three seasons after drafting Walton, and seven seasons after being created, the Trail Blazers delivered a title and their trust in Walton was vindicated. The next season Walton would go on to win his first and only MVP award, after leading his Blazers team to a a 58-24 record (including 48-10 in the games Walton played). It remains to this day the least amount of games played by a recipient of the MVP award in a non-lockout shortened year, but shows the impact Walton had on winning. Having led his team in every major statistical category apart from steals, there was an overwhelming belief in the Portland area that they were to be a contender or the next 6-8 years.

As we now know, Portland would not go on to be a contender again until the Clyde Drexler era and now the Damian Lillard era. Walton’s career as the best player on a team was effectively over (with the game two win over Seattle in the conference semis being the last game he ever played for Portland). However, to contextualize what Walton accomplished between 76-78, only 18 other players have been a regular season MVP and the best player on a champion. Jordan, LeBron, Kareem, Duncan, Shaq, Bird, Magic, Curry, Durant, Moses, Wilt, Russell, Erving, Dirk, Garnett, Kobe, Willis Reed & Hakeem.

This is the company Walton occupies.

The First Million Dollar Man & Second Chance

After sitting out the 1978-79 season, citing incompetence from the Portland head office, Bill Walton signed with the San Diego Clippers for a 7 year, $7 million contract, the first in NBA history. Although this was at the time the biggest free agent signing in basketball, his tenure with the Clippers was spent largely on the sidelines (Walton has the distinction of missing the most games of any player in NBA history due to injury whilst listed on a roster). He would spend four years in total with San Diego, before experiencing a short lived second career as a key member of one of the greatest teams ever assembled.

Suiting up for the Boston Celtics between 1985-1987, Walton would go on to play 80 games in his first season with Boston and win the Sixth Man Of The Year award (becoming the only player to win Sixth Man, MVP and Finals MVP). All those who played with him during this time remember not only the experience and know-how Walton provided, but also the joy he received by being part of a winning team one final time. The 86 Celtics are generally considered (along with the 96 Bulls, 87 Lakers & Steph/Durant Warriors) as one of the greatest teams ever, and Bill Walton was a key member of the squad.

It is true that Bill Walton will forever remain mentioned with names such as Ralph Sampson, Grant Hill & Penny Hardaway as players who had their careers derailed by injuries. And whilst for some of these players their potential as all time greats were clear to see, it was never realised. Walton stands alone as a player who had so much left to give, yet despite his injuries he still managed to be as effective and impactful as many players who had careers five times the length of his.

In the end, Shaq was wrong.

Feature photo – Oregon Sports Hall / Getty Images / Double Clutch illustration – Matthew Wellington