It is a gift, according to Walton, that he acquired out of necessity. Between his freshman and sophomore years at Helix High School he had some cartilage removed from his left knee, and it was then that he learned how to get rid of the ball.
"I couldn't run very well," he says. "So there was no way I could stay with everybody in our fast break. All I did was get the rebound, make the quick pass and watch everybody go. 1 got pretty good at it because I did it so much. And I sort of enjoyed standing back there watching our guys destroying everybody at the other end." He still does.
As if all this weren't enough, Walton also runs UCLA's 1-2-2 zone press. As the deep man, he can see the entire floor and has made it his responsibility to tell his teammates where to go and what to do. It is a role that Walton relishes. He looks like a towering traffic cop, waving, pointing, always moving and chattering. When Wilkes is about to run into a pick, Walton screams, "High post, Keith, high post." Or if he thinks Bibby is being a bit too aggressive he yells, "No fouls, Henry." Sometimes Walton gets so carried away with his policeman's role that he loses sight of his own man. Then there is a flurry of red hair and waving arms as he scrambles to catch up.
That Walton does so much and moves so well is remarkable, considering that he has a serious condition known as tendinitis in both knees. He played with a good deal of pain until this season, when he undertook a program of therapy recommended by Dr. Robert Kerlan. Each day Walton spends half an hour before practice applying heat to his knees and another half hour afterward applying ice. "Now the only time they bother me is when I play a lot of games in a row," says Walton.
The knee treatments also give Walton a convenient excuse for avoiding post-game interviews. Instead of opening his dressing room to the press, it is Wood-en's policy to allow only one or two players, usually the game stars, to be questioned. Up until the tournament finale, Walton had avoided all the sessions, ostensibly because he was busy icing his knees. When he does consent to an interview, he answers questions deliberately and thoughtfully, exhibiting none of the boyish enthusiasm that is his trademark on the floor.
Wooden's only serious criticism of Walton is that he is sometimes "too emotional." He has a tendency to hang his head or give up momentarily after making a mistake, habits Wooden is trying hard to break. "Sometimes he expects too much of himself," says Wooden.
Now that Walton and his friends have proved they can beat a good team, they must prove they can win on the road. Their first chance comes this weekend, when they open their Pacific Eight schedule with back-to-back games at Oregon State and Oregon. From now on the pressure will be enormous, but the Walton Gang seems in command. UCLA is always in command.