Walton shares his basketball stories

Bill Walton's "long, strange trip" continued last week with a stopover in Sparks.

Walton, one of basketball's all-time greats who has gained more recent fame as a television commentator, was the featured speaker at a Sparks Chamber of Commerce luncheon Wednesday at John Ascuaga's Nugget.

Mark Fox, University of Nevada head basketball coach, also spoke at the event. Although Fox presented an upbeat introduction, which included insight into this season's Wolf Pack squad that hopes to return to the NCAA tournament for a third straight appearance, Walton was the main attraction.

At 52, his once long and full crop of red hair is shorter, thinner and grayer. However, the nearly 7-foot-tall former UCLA center remains trim and still cuts an imposing figure. At first glance one can imagine Big Bill lacing up his sneakers and joining a pickup game with your lunch-hour regulars at the Y. Walton still exudes passion for the game, but his injury-plagued feet and ankles betrayed him two decades ago.

"I played 14 years in the NBA, and missed nine of those due to wretched legs," Walton said.

After one of the greatest collegiate careers in history - UCLA won two national championships and Walton was a three-time player of the year - he became the top pick for the Portland Trail Blazers in 1974. By 1978, the team had won its first and only championship ('77) and Walton added Finals ('77) and league ('78) MVP awards to his resume.

Coached by the legendary John Wooden in college, Walton was the complete package. Physically gifted, he was one of the best passing big men ever, a superior defender and rebounder, and an often-unstoppable offensive player. He was regarded as one of the best team players to ever hit the hardwood. The latter is a testament to Coach Wooden's teachings.

Walton is the epitome of an athlete who learned more from a coach than just how to box out, hit the cut-off man or tackle a ball carrier. (The longtime UCLA coach turned 95 Friday. Not surprisingly, Walton and several former players were in Los Angeles and spent part of the day with their mentor to mark the occasion.)

An engaging speaker, Walton liberally sprinkles his presentation with the "maxims" Wooden dispensed as his "men" turned UCLA's Pauley Pavilion into one of the most dreaded arenas for any college team to visit.

"It's not how big you are, it's how big you play," was a Wooden favorite.

And no matter how "big" a recruit thought he was, Wooden marched rigidly to his own set of principles.

As very possibly the top high school player in the countryat Helix in La Mesa (Calif., in the San Diego area), Walton had scores of coaches enticing him to their schools with promises of stardom and glory, including some unsavory promises of cash and other favors.

Eventually, Wooden came calling and visited Walton and his parents.

"Bill, I know what the other schools say. If you come to UCLA, I can't promise you'll make our team," Wooden told the stunned teenager.

The coach laid out his requirements that players excel in the classroom and strive to be good citizens. In addition, his players had to be good teammates.

The coach's words may have stunned Walton, but to his parents, especially his disciplinarian father, the orchestra was playing and Walton's fate as a Bruin was sealed.

A modest Midwesterner who was a celebrated collegiate player at Purdue, Wooden always stressed teamwork and sound fundamentals, down to the most obscure details.

Walton recounts an often told story about how Wooden, on the first day of practice for new recruits - during Walton's day, that meant five of the most prized players in the country - would call the players into the locker room. As the young, cocksure players anxiously awaited coach's instructions, Wooden provided lesson No. 1.

"Men, this is how you put your socks on and tie your shoelaces properly."

Although they didn't realize it at the time, the man whose teams captured a record 10 NCAA championships in a 27-year tenure at UCLA would, "over the next four years, teach us everything we needed to know." For Walton, and many former UCLA players, that meant wisdom to live life both on and off the court.

Can you imagine Wooden's locker room talk about socks and shoes in today's environment of high school superstars jumping to the pros or abandoning college after a year of play?

Unlike elite modern era players, Walton attended UCLA for four years and earned Academic All-American honors three years running.

Coach Wooden and sports played a huge role in Walton's life, but he is complex man of many interests and convictions. A devotee of the Grateful Dead (Walton has attended hundreds of the group's performances), he often quotes from the band's songs. As a sportscaster, he is a man known for speaking his mind. That's reflected when he revels in retelling of the time he was arrested during an anti-war protest during college and Wooden had to bail him out of jail.

After his playing career ended, the man who stuttered until he was 28 went into the unlikely field of broadcasting. He's become a nationally recognized commentator and honored for his work.

"It's been a remarkably long, strange trip for me," Walton said.

On the way, Walton found brief redemption from the injuries that prevented even greater basketball success.

Leg injuries derailed his playing career soon after his championship season with Portland. By 1979 he was a member of his hometown San Diego Clippers and moved with them to Los Angeles in 1985.

Those represented dismal years on the court for the man who had known, almost exclusively, success as a player. Before his championship runs in Portland and UCLA, Walton closed out his high school career in San Diego with two championships and a 49-game winning streak. At UCLA, his teams compiled an NCAA record 88-game winning streak.

Walton has endured more than 30 surgeries, including one in 1990 that fused the bones in one ankle with a steel plate and screws. Before that final surgery, the one that prevents Walton from considering even a pickup game, he rehabilitated his legs enough to make a comeback with the storied Boston Celtics franchise from 1985-88. Literally on his last legs, Walton was able to perform at near peak performance in a reduced role. His legs would no longer stand up to the rigors of a 48-minute game, but for 20 to 25 minutes a night Walton emerged as one of the greatest sixth-men in the NBA. In fact, he won the league's Sixth-Man Award that season.

As Walton noted, he virtually paid his way to play on the Celtics that, at the time featured, Larry Bird, Kevin McHale, Robert Parish, Danny Ainge and others. In 1986, Walton had one last hurrah with the Celtics, playing a major role in Boston's championship season nine years after his title run with Portland.

Following retirement, Walton was named one of the NBA's 50 greatest players of all time and inducted into the basketball Hall of Fame in 1993, providing a fitting end to a storied athletic career.

For Walton, it was just another stop on a long, eventful trip through life.

n Peter Kostes is associate publisher of the Nevada Appeal. Contact him at [ mailto:pkostes@nevadaappeal.com ]pkostes@nevadaappeal.com or 881-1271.


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