Walton, Bill (1952—)

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Walton, Bill (1952—)

Despite an injury-plagued career, in his brief peak Bill Walton was compared with some of the greatest centers in National Basketball Association (NBA) history. In addition to his on-court contributions, which include leading the Portland Trailblazers to an NBA Championship in 1977 and serving as a key reserve during the Boston Celtics' 1986 Championship season, Walton's outspoken political views and colorful personal life have kept him in the spotlight.

Walton began his career playing for the University of California at Los Angeles (UCLA) in the early 1970s, where he won three consecutive College Player of the Year Awards. In the 1973 National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) Championship game against Memphis State, Walton hit an unbelievable 21 out of 22 shots. During Walton's career, UCLA won 86 of 90 games and two national championships, one in 1972 and another in 1973. For his career, Walton holds the record for highest field goal percentage in NCAA tournament play, having hit almost 69 percent of the shots he attempted between 1972 and 1974.

While his play on the court was outstanding during his college career, Walton also began to attract attention for his political views at UCLA. He was arrested during his junior year at an anti-Vietnam War rally, and issued a public statement criticizing President Richard Nixon and the Federal Bureau of Investigation. Walton was also an avid fan of the rock group the Grateful Dead, frequently attending their concerts.

Although Walton's long history of injuries had already reared its head during his high school and college careers—he suffered a broken ankle and leg and underwent knee surgery while playing at Helix High School in La Mesa, California—he was nonetheless chosen as the first player in the 1974 NBA draft by the Portland Trailblazers. While Walton played impressively during his first two seasons, injuries limited him to approximately half of the possible games he could have played in during that time.

It was during the 1976-1977 season, however, that Walton really came into his own, scoring nearly 19 points per game and leading the league in rebounding and blocked shots. The Trailblazers reached the NBA Finals against Philadelphia that season, but lost the first two games of the best-of-seven series, a situation which only one team in NBA history had overcome. Largely due to Walton's spectacular play, however, the Blazers won the next four games, capturing the NBA Championship in six games. Walton was named the Most Valuable Player (MVP) of the series, setting NBA finals single-game records for defensive rebounds and blocked shots.

The following season, 1977-1978, Walton played even more impressively, earning the league's MVP award as the Blazers won 50 of their first 60 games. Injuries, however, kept him out of the final 24 regular season games. Walton attempted to come back in the playoffs, but it was discovered that the navicular bone in his left foot was broken. Without Walton, the Blazers lost in the playoffs to the Seattle Supersonics.

Walton was traded to the then-San Diego Clippers following the 1977-1978 season, after an extremely acrimonious parting with the Trailblazers, whom he accused of providing him with poor medical advice. Walton missed most of his first two seasons with the Clippers, drawing criticism from his teammates and fans, who felt the team had erred in signing Walton to a lucrative long-term contract. Although Walton's health improved and he was able to play fairly extensively in the 1983-1984 and 1984-1985 seasons, the Clippers never rose above mediocrity, and Walton never had the chance to repeat his playoff successes with Portland.

After his contract with the Clippers ran out, Walton contacted several of the League's top teams, seeking to find out if they needed a reserve center. Fortunately for Walton, the Boston Celtics, a championship contender, needed a quality big man of Walton's caliber to provide them with greater depth. Walton joined the team for the 1985-1986 season. The pickup paid incredible dividends for the Celtics, as Walton played in all but two of the team's 82 regular season games and every playoff game. While Walton's numbers were modest, he made a major contribution to the team's 67-15 record, as he provided scoring, rebounding, passing, defense, and high energy during his time on the court. Walton received the league's Sixth Man Award, given to the top reserve player in the league. The Celtics, with Walton backing up frontcourt legends Kevin McHale and Robert Parish, breezed through the playoffs that season, defeating the Houston Rockets in six games. The following season, however, injuries limited Walton to only 10 games, after which he retired.

Walton became a television announcer in 1991 for the National Broadcasting Network (NBC), and has served as an analyst for basketball, volleyball, and other sports. He was named to the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame in 1993, and in 1996 was named one of the 50 greatest players in NBA history. Walton, who studied law at Stanford University during his breaks from basketball, lives with his four sons in San Diego.

—Jason George

Further Reading:

Halberstam, David. The Breaks of the Game. New York, Alfred A.Knopf, 1981.

"NBA History: Bill Walton." http://www.nba.com/history/waltonbio.html. June 1999.

"NBA on NBC Broadcasters: Bill Walton." http://www.nba.com/ontheair/00421666.html. June 1999.