Bill Walton

June 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.


  1. Walton was a guest on San Diego’s main sports radio show this morning (the “Scott and BR Show” on XX 1090) and they didn’t even have to ask him any questions. As soon as he came on he waxed poetically for about 5 minutes straight about the spectacle of tonight’s game and what is going on in the player’s minds. Sounded like he was reciting a poem or a paragraph from a John Wooden book (but I guess it was just an original conglomeration of both). An absolute pleasure to listen to and I was about 15 minutes late to work because I sat inside my car in the parking lot to hear it.

  2. As I’m sure you can recall, watching Larry Bird and Bill Walton in a half court set was pure poetry. That unearthly pure sense of knowing where to go, just what cut to make off the pick, where to roll to where the other one would unerringly find you. Big Bill, ball held a really unfair distance off the floor, just waiting, watching, deciding. Do I roll left and put up a hook? Go right and drive by you with one long, loping step? Or hit Larry there on the wing? Or wait for a cutter? All that potential, all that coiled possibility, waiting for Big Red to make his move.

  3. williemayshaze: Walton is an incredible talker. I heard him on Mike and Mike last week and it was the same thing–they got one or two questions in and he was off. I think his style of public speaking is an outgrowth of his battle overcoming a severe stutter. (And thanks again for the great review of the book.)

    spudrph: Well put. Thanks for bringing back the image of those two great minds at work.

  4. I had wondered what had happened to Bill Walton, having not heard much about him in recent years.

    Then on May 22nd of this year T.J. Simers, a sports columnist for the Los Angeles Times (one of the best in the country), wrote an article about Bill that explained where he had been…


  5. Great insights on the early Walton(and the NBA)in David Halberstam’s classic, The Breaks of the Game. It should be in every sports library.

  6. sorry about the celts, josh; me and ramblin’ pete were thinking of you last night as we cheered on the lakers.

    to cheer you up, let’s make sure to push the cardboard gods book as a great father’s day gift!

    whoops, i see that metro already did that, as pointed out to me by thunderfan: http://www.readmetro.com/show/en/NewYork/20100617/1/28/

  7. Thanks for the condolences, Mark. Boy, could the Celts have used Walton last night. He was a beast on the defensive boards, exactly what the men in green were lacking last night.

  8. Thanks for posting that Josh…I’m still down after the Celtics loss the other night. This little reminder of the ’86 team (although I’ve never seen the logo before) is great. I still think they were the best NBA team ever (at least in my years as a fan, ’74-on), and if Walton could’ve held on for one more year, and Len Bias….well, who knows how many titles the C’s would’ve won. And thanks for the link to No Mas. Cool stuff, including a t-shirt with the old SPORT magazine logo. It was the first mag I ever subscribed to. Of course I really wanted SI but couldn’t afford it so I had to settle for SPORT. Coincidently, I remember when one issue (link below) earned me 15 extra points on Charlie McMeekin’s vocabulary quiz in 7th grade English. He used to give us 5 points every time we found a vocab word in print, and in the cover story on Bill Walton, the word “exuberant” was used 3 times.
    ( http://sportmag.us/product_info.php?cPath=40_37&products_id=30 )

  9. conetm: That’s a great RU High story. The magazine subscription I had during those days didn’t lead to me similar glory–I got in trouble for plastering Alfred E. Neuman stickers on the door to Mr. Meltzer’s science class.

    The Celts played hard the other night, like champs. They didn’t have quite enough gas. A little like the Waltonless ’87 squad.

  10. Wish I could have the same feeling about Walton that you closed this piece with. Because having watched Portland in both the championship season and the year after – before Walton got hurt – I’ve got to say, I wanted to see more. A lot more.

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