Extra MustardSI On CampusFantasyPhoto GalleriesSwimsuitVideoFanNationSI KidsTNT
2005 NCAA Basketball Tournament Scores Schedule Bracket Teams Stats History Alerts Hoops Bracket Challenge Women's Tournament

Bill Walton

Center created new standard for versatility, team play

Posted: Friday March 25, 2005 10:07AM; Updated: Thursday March 31, 2005 11:00AM

By Ian Thomsen

Nominees for SI.com's Greatest College Basketball Player of All Time:
REACT: Who is the greatest college player of all time?
Your name:
Your e-mail address:
Your home town:
Make your case:

Sports Illustrated asked its writers to weigh in with their picks for the greatest college basketball player of all time. Read through their selections and then tell us yours.

I can still remember how bored I used to be watching Bill Walton play for UCLA because the game seemed too easy for him. His opponents were always lunging and straining; whereas he was jumping up straight, in fine posture, to either block, rebound or shoot in that fundamentally precise way of his with one hand in front of the ball and the other behind it as if he'd studied one of Dr. Naismith's original manuals. From the post he could deliver passes like a point guard to Keith Wilkes or Henry Bibby, or he would pop in a jump-hook with either hand. He threw the best outlet passes anyone had ever seen, and from the back of the defense he directed UCLA's legendary zone press by ordering teammates to swarm and exploit weaknesses.

Walton oversaw UCLA's record 88-game winning streak and won a pair of national titles upon taking over as a sophomore in 1971-72, two years after Lew Alcindor left Westwood. Whether you prefer Alcindor or Walton is a matter of taste: Alcindor was a finisher, Walton a creator. No one was a more efficient scorer than Alcindor, and he enjoyed a far more productive career than Walton, whose feet crumbled and collapsed beneath him at 26. But at his peak, first at UCLA and then while leading the Portland Trail Blazers to their NBA championship in 1976-77, Walton was arguably the more influential player, creating a new standard for versatility and team play that would be picked up by Magic Johnson and Larry Bird a generation later. Walton could score anytime he pleased -- he went 21 of 22 for 44 points in his signature 1973 NCAA championship game win over Memphis State -- but he was most impressive while making the spectacular passes that are beyond the narrow focus of finishers like Alcindor or (at the risk of heresy) Michael Jordan. The best creators can finish, but finishers can't create.

The paradox of Walton is that he was an eccentric who was trained to painstaking detail in the classic fundamentals. His arrival as the Blazers No. 1 draft pick in 1974 was so important in Portland that his introductory press conference was broadcast live on local television. I remember sitting on the floor of our family room in Lake Oswego, Ore., waiting for the arrival of our savior -- and out came this gaunt, long-bearded bohemian sounding entirely disinterested and unfocused in his answers. It was like the Blazers had drafted the old Howard Hughes in a younger man's body. I was 13 and I can't tell you how disappointed I was.

But everything was different then. Like Alcindor, Walton was a political activist, and he had to be bailed out of jail by UCLA coach John Wooden after protesting the Vietnam War. In spite of all of the troublesome news I have a hard time thinking of any star athlete today willing to risk his commercial viability on behalf of a political cause. Nor can I name one center who represents anything like an evolution from Walton. The quality of post play has so degraded that there is no longer any trace of his influence on the college game. Watch the NCAA Tournament today and it's as if Bill Walton never existed.