After taking a gig this week as an assistant coach with the Memphis Tigers for former Arizona teammate Josh Pastner -- ESPNLA's Dave McMenamin has a great story on it here -- Lakers forward Luke Walton made the rounds on L.A. sports radio. As he explained to 710 ESPN's Mason and Ireland, working with the Tigers allows him get a real taste for coaching, and decide if it's something he truly wants to do once his playing days are over. Second, with the Tigers, he'll have access to their training and medical facilities, a step up from what's available locally during the lockout. "Here, it's me and eight other NBA guys at Mira Costa High School [in Manhattan Beach]," he said, "and they've already told us once school starts they're kicking us out."
As I wrote earlier, the whole arrangement makes a ton of sense for both parties. And assuming he enjoys the daily grind of coaching, I suspect Walton will be very good at it.
Lakers fans, though, will likely find an exchange from a different interview with Fox Sports Radio (via Sports Radio Interviews, H/T to Pro Basketball Talk) equally interesting. Walton was asked if it bothers him to hear his name used in the argument for how some players earn far more money than they should:
“It obviously bothers me. I haven’t really noticed it because I kind of stay out of the media during the offseason. But obviously it bothers you as a player. You want to feel your worth. Obviously I’m getting paid a salary that was for a much larger role back when we agreed upon the deal. I was a playmaker, I was playing 30 minutes a game and I was able to do a lot of things for a team. And I had offers from other teams to do the same thing. … For the most part, fans have been great out here. Then, all of the sudden you bring in Pau Gasol and other players of that caliber and my role kind of gets smaller and smaller. I can still play the game … then all of the sudden my back goes bad on me and mentally I’m frustrated. … The role that I was paid that money to do kind of got taken away in a sense.”
Walton's answer jibes with every conversation I've had with him in the neighborhood of this topic as the six-year, $30 million contract he signed in 2007 has grown increasingly albatrossian (more in perception than reality -- Walton is not Eddy Curry -- but that's another discussion). He knows what his role was when the deal was offered, why it "got taken away," and has never claimed any injustice. While the Lakers added better players to the rotation, his body broke down. In those moments of PT afforded him, Walton hasn't played well.
All told, it explains why he has spent most of the last two seasons on the bench, whether in uniform or street clothes, and unfortunately given the state of his back the odds of him returning to productive form feel long. That doesn't mean Walton hasn't worked his tail off to try and get on the floor or find ways to contribute -- McMenamin's feature notes Walton's efforts to re-invent himself as an outside shooter, for example -- or isn't sensitive to the meme has and will for two more season continue stealing money from the Lakers.
It's a shame what could have been a more productive career has been derailed by back problems, but for his lot in life Walton deserves no sympathy (not that he's asking). He owns a pair of championship rings and has banked over $22 million in earnings, with another $11.5 or so on the way. He's a prime example of a good faith, if somewhat poorly conceived -- even coming off his best season in a system tailored to his skill set, a guaranteed sixth year for Walton was excessive -- sports business transaction gone wrong, transforming him from a useful wheel-greasing forward into a symbol of every financial obstacle facing the Lakers' roster.
And now, too, a cautionary tale in CBA talks.
Meanwhile, every Lakers fan knows the size of his paycheck, and a healthy portion resent him- or worse- for it. To walk around with that awareness in the only city he's known as a professional surely must be strange.