Bill Walton still blames self for Clippers' departure from San Diego

Bill Walton was with the Clippers for five of their six seasons in San Diego, but he appeared in only 102 games in that time because of injuries. Scott Cunningham/Getty Images

With the Rams rebooting in Los Angeles, ESPN.com presents a series exploring the remnants departed teams have left behind in the cities they abandoned.

San Diego hasn't had an NBA team in more than three decades and is unlikely to ever get one again -- and Bill Walton still blames himself.

"When you fail in your hometown, that's as bad as it gets, and I love my hometown," said Walton, who grew up in La Mesa, 9 miles east of downtown San Diego. "I wish we had NBA basketball here, and we don't because of me."

When Walton signed with the San Diego Clippers in 1979, he had missed the previous season with a foot injury. But the center was arguably the NBA's best player after leading the Portland Trail Blazers to the 1976-77 championship and winning the league's MVP award for 1977-78. The Buffalo Braves had relocated to San Diego and been rechristened in 1978, and his homecoming was supposed to jump-start the franchise in its second season on the West Coast. But it wasn't meant to be.

"It's my greatest failure as a professional in my entire life," Walton said. "I could not get the job done in my hometown. It is a stain and stigma on my soul that is indelible. I'll never be able to wash that off, and I carry it with me forever."

He appeared in just 14 games his first season with the Clippers and missed the following two seasons because of multiple surgeries on his foot. Walton returned in 1982-83 and played in 88 games over the next two seasons, which would prove to be the Clippers' last in San Diego. They moved to Los Angeles in 1984, and Walton played one season in their new home before being traded to the Boston Celtics. He finished his career in Boston and in 1985-86 won an NBA title and was named Sixth Man of the Year.

Now a college basketball analyst for ESPN, Walton is known for his penchant for hyperbole. But there's no exaggeration as he somberly recalls his five injury-riddled seasons in San Diego. Had he stayed healthy and been the player he was in Portland, Walton believes the Clippers would have won and never moved north.

"I wouldn't say it if I didn't believe it," he said. "I was injured literally the whole time. If I could have played we would still have NBA basketball in San Diego. If I was any kind of a man I would have just quit on the spot when the team moved to Los Angeles and said, 'I'm staying here.' But I wasn't in a good place. I wasn't healthy. I was not strong enough to stand up for what was right. I should have stayed in San Diego and done something else. I was very sad."

As much as Walton wanted the Clippers to stay in San Diego, it could be argued not even his best efforts on the court could have saved the team. Donald Sterling bought it for $12.5 million in 1981 and proceeded to run it into the ground and eventually out of town.

"The checks bounced higher than the basketballs when Donald Sterling took over," Walton said. "The basketball was awful, and the business side was immoral, dishonest, corrupt and illegal. Other than that, it was all fine."

The Clippers, named for the great sailing ships that passed through San Diego Bay, weren't the first NBA team in Walton's hometown. In 1967, the San Diego Rockets were founded and named after the Atlas rockets manufactured in San Diego. With no dedicated team facilities in those days, the Rockets would often gather for pickup games at Helix High School. To get into the gym they would contact Walton, a star player at the school who had his own key.

"We had the best gym in San Diego and all the Rockets players wanted to go there," Walton said. "They had some great teams with Elvin Hayes and Calvin Murphy and future head coaches and broadcasters such as Pat Riley, Rick Adelman, Rudy Tomjanovich, Jim Barnett and Stu Lantz. All these guys treated me -- little Billy -- like I was part of the team. They couldn't have been nicer, and I became their friends."

Walton recalled a time Hayes phoned his house, and his mother answered.

"Here's this grown man calling she's never talked to, and she said, 'Who's this?'" Walton said. "And Elvin says, 'Is Billy there?' And my mom says, 'I'm Billy's mother. Who is this?' And Elvin says, 'Tell Billy, Big E is calling and we need him to open the gym tonight.' I'm on the floor, and my mom puts her hand over the phone and says, 'Billy, who is this guy Biggie? He sounds old. Is everything OK?' I said, 'Mom, that's Big E! Give me the phone!'

"I was never so embarrassed in my life. Elvin and I are still close friends. All of those guys all still my friends to this very day."

The Rockets relocated to Houston in 1971 when Walton was at UCLA, meaning San Diego lost two NBA teams in 13 years. That's not counting the ABA's San Diego Conquistadors, who hoped to become contenders in 1973 by picking Walton in the underclassman portion of the draft and signing Wilt Chamberlain as a player-coach. The Los Angeles Lakers, however, still technically had Chamberlain under contract and sued to prevent him from ever playing for the Conquistadors. Walton, meanwhile, opted for the NBA after finishing his college career and being selected first overall by Portland in the 1974 draft. The Conquistadors were rebranded as the Sails in 1975 but folded 11 games into the season.

"It was always sad, but these were business decisions by guys that owned the team," Walton said. "Don't ever hold that against the fans or the players. These are business decisions out of their hands."

Walton, 63, still calls San Diego home and says there's no place he would rather live.

"San Diego is the greatest place in the history of the world, and there's nothing that could happen in my life that would lead me to leave San Diego," he said. "I wish the NBA were still here, but that's just something I'm going to have to live with."