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Friday, April 20
He's more than a footnote to a title season
By Jim Murray
Special to

Editor's note: This column originally appeared in the Los Angeles Times on June 19, 1986.

Carlsbad -- "Hello, I'm Bill Walton of the Boston Celtics," the man said, thrusting out a huge paw and smiling sincerely through his shock of unruly hair.

As if such an introduction were necessary, weren't superfluous, redundant. As if there were another 6-foot 11-inch redhead with size-15 tennis shoes and three-foot arms and the long loose limbs of a basketball player at large on the grounds of the La Costa Hotel and Spa.

You had a picture of another well-known figure coming up to you and saying, "Hi, I'm Ronald Reagan!" Or, "Hi, my name is Adolph Hitler." Or, "Excuse me, I'm Robert Redford. I'm an actor."

William Theodore Walton, who is appearing at La Costa in the guise of a tennis player at a sports celebrity tournament this week, is not the type of guy who has to go around wearing a name tag, like a conventioneer from Dubuque falling out of an elevator with "Call Me Joe" pinned to his lapel.

His is one of the more recognizable silhouettes in the skyline of sports. You don't have to run to a schematic drawing as if he were a D-class enemy destroyer and you were an Air Force spotter. There are not too many human beings of his carrot-topped configuration.

If he were standing under a basket on a parquet floor holding a ball and wearing a green-and-white uniform with 32 on its back, you could recognize him with a bag over his head.

There is a large body of thought in this country holding that Bill Walton, healthy, was the best player of basketball this sport has ever seen -- better, when fit, than Wilt Chamberlain, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Bill Russell, Larry Bird, Magic Johnson and Dr. J. Certainly, as good.

They base it on some kind of private hocus-pocus of their own, and assuredly on personal observation. Because, roundball historians of the future are going to be hard put to reconcile that point of view with the evidence at hand, the cold statistics.

Bill Walton's 10-year point total -- fewer than 6,000 -- is not only a far cry from Abdul-Jabbar's nearly 35,000 or Chamberlain's 31,419 but also suggests more of a mop-up player or a substitute off-guard than one of the league's all-time best.

The problem is, basketball cannot be played with glass feet, and Bill's were made out of some of the finest stemware this side of a champagne cellar Crystal by Waterford. You need the underpinnings of a locomotive to be able to chug up and down a hardwood floor every 24 seconds every night.

Had Walton had the metatarsals of a high jumper, he might have had to go to a higher league. When he could stand without grimacing, the basketball floor usually belonged to him.

He won NBA championships 10 years and a continent apart, in Portland in 1976-77 and in Boston in 1985-86. In between, he was in an orthopedic ward. He's missed three seasons altogether and parts of most others. He played in 14 games one year and in 33 another.

In the geriatric explosion of 1986 -- the Shoemaker Derby, the Nicklaus Masters and the Floyd Open -- the reincarnation of Bill Walton, who'll be 34 this year, is almost more remarkable. At least, none of the others had to interrupt a career on five different occasions in recent years.

Walton had given up on the Clippers, and most of the league had given up on Walton, and on the crystalware on the ends of his legs, when the '85-86 season started. The Lakers were uninterested. Only the Boston Celtics would even come to the phone. Canny old Red Auerbach was intrigued.

The NBA operates under a wages-hours-and-working-conditions plan unique in the history of labor relations. It's called a salary cap. It is designed to keep employers, i.e., owners, from doling out to their employees, i.e., players, more than the employers can afford. Employers historically have never had that trouble, but in the wacky wonderful world of sport, where winning is everything, money isn't anything.

Walton and the Celtics had to circumvent the salary cap by having him forgo his free agency and go back on the Clippers' head count so he could be "traded" to Boston for Cedric Maxwell. Walton did.

The Celtics didn't need much. In Walton, they were getting plenty. One of the greatest players of all time would only have to call on his remembered skills for brief stretches at a time, spelling the center, Robert Parish, who had played in 159 of 164 games and all but a handful of minutes the two previous years.

With Walton around, Parish never had to pace himself. And neither did the Celtics.

It was Walton who won the pivotal fourth game of the championship final in Houston. Unaccustomedly called into the game in the waning minutes, with the score seesawing back and forth, at time when the young Rockets usually start to overpower tired rivals, Walton took charge.

He plunged after a rebound, rescued it from a sea of red-numbered jerseys, swept out, turned and threw in the shot that nailed the season for the Rockets. If they had won that game, and without Walton, they would have, they likely would have gone back to the Boston Garden with a 3-2 lead. Instead, they went back in their coffins.

Even with a tennis racket in his hand, Bill Walton does not need a name tag -- or have to stick his hand out and identify himself like a guy running for office. Anybody with a television set knows who he is now. In Boston, he ranks with the Lowells and Cabots and the cod. The Kennedys might not want to ride in the same car.

Even on the White House lawn, he might not have to introduce himself. If he starts, his greeter will interrupt, "I know who you are. You're Bill Walton of the Celtics. But who is that actor with you?"

This column originally appeared in The Los Angeles Times. Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.

Jim Murray, the long-time sports columnist for the Los Angeles Times, won the Pultizer Prize for commentary in 1990. He died Aug. 16, 1998.