Bill WaltonJune 17, 2010
This card came with a T-shirt given to me by No Mas when I did a reading a few weeks ago at a store they are associated with in New York City. (Not that it’s the center of the article, but the shirt is described in a recent Boston Globe story about my book and my visit to Fenway Park.) As explained on the back of this card, the No Mas people based the shirt on a something they found in a thrift store, a relic from Bill Walton’s short, sweet era as a healthy Celtics’ reserve and, consequently, the Happiest Man on the Face of the Earth.
By the time he came to the Celtics, Walton had been riddled with injuries for so long that it was as if he were rising from the dead. I had started following basketball at the same time I began playing it for the first time, on my seventh grade team. That was in 1979, just after the end of Walton’s brief day in the sun as arguably the best player in the game. For the next several years, I associated him with gigantic, glowering unhappiness, his injuries keeping him from doing the thing he loved as much as anyone ever loved anything. When you’re a kid, each year seems to go on forever, so Walton’s relative obscurity for the first six years of my NBA fandom, years in which he played sporadically and/or for the nearly invisible San Diego Clippers, seemed much longer to me then. If Bill Russell and not Bill Walton had joined the Celtics for the 1985-86 season, it wouldn’t have been much more of a surprise. He was as shadowy and, because of his renowned, unique game, as magical a cultural presence as Bigfoot.
And as every NBA fan knows, Walton’s body held for exactly one year with the Celtics, and his contributions on an already loaded roster made the ’86 squad one of the greatest teams the league has ever seen. The next year, he was cooked, and the rest of the Celtics slowly began to follow his lead and physically crumble, too. In the ’87 Finals, with Walton sidelined, the Lakers won the rubber match between the two teams, who’d split their previous two Finals meetings in ’84 and ’85. For good measure, the Lakers won the title again the next season, demolishing any lingering doubts that they and not the Celtics were the team of the decade. It would have been nice if Walton’s body could have held up a little longer, but we all knew it was already a miracle for him to be out on the court for a whole season. When I think of Big Red I don’t wish for more. I’m just grateful.