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William F. Reed
March 06, 1972
A shy young man with a huge appetite, UCLA's superstar feeds the Bruins' fast break and feasts on their foes
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March 06, 1972

Big Bill Loves To Eat 'em Up

A shy young man with a huge appetite, UCLA's superstar feeds the Bruins' fast break and feasts on their foes

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The Ted Walton family lives in a rambling white house on a hillside in La Mesa, Calif., a suburb of San Diego. These days the Walton residence is a relatively tranquil place because three of the family's four outsized children are away at college. Bruce, 20, and Bill, 19, are at UCLA, where the former is a 6'6", 250-pound football tackle and the latter is the 6'11" star and center of the Bruins' unbeaten, top-ranked basketball squad (see cover). Cathy, 18, is a 5'11" center on a women's basketball team at Berkeley. That leaves only Ted and his wife Gloria, their youngest son, Andy (at 16 a 6'5" forward for nearby Helix High), and two monster mongrels.

It is nothing like the old days, when all the kids were home and the Waltons lived in a gastronomic and metronomic madhouse. Poor Gloria used to spend most of her time then peeling potatoes or cooking—in a ceaseless attempt to satisfy the prodigious Walton appetites. Sometimes at breakfast the kids would have several hot dogs or hamburgers apiece, and for dinner there usually was steak or a roast. "There is no doubt in my mind," says son Bill, "that Glo's cooking is the reason I grew to be 6'11"."

Dinner always began at 6:15 sharp. On holidays the after-dinner hours were spent around the piano in song. Ted, the possessor of a fine bass, would break out with a tune. The offspring, sometimes even the shy Bill, would chime in. Indeed, music was prominent in the Walton household long before athletics. In the children's younger days, the family had its own band—Bruce on trombone, Bill on baritone horn, Cathy on drums (or flute or tuba), Andy on saxophone, Ted on piano.

"I never tried to steer my kids into sports," says Ted Walton, himself a 6'4" bear of a man with a facial resemblance to another Ted—Spiro T. Agnew. "I encouraged them to play, but only as a broadening experience, to complement their music. So wouldn't you know that they all gave up music and wound up in sports."

The Waltons are of modest means (he is a district chief for the San Diego Department of Public Welfare, she is a librarian), and they are both amused and amazed at their sudden celebrity, the consequence of Bill's exploits on the basketball floor. The sophomore with the floppy red hair and problem knees is easily the No. 1 big man in college ball, the most talked-about player of this season and maybe one of the best ever to try the game. Already he is being mentioned in the same breath with such dominant figures as Bill Russell, Wilt Chamberlain and—of course—Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (or Lewis Kareem, as UCLA Coach John Wooden sometimes calls the former Lew Alcindor).

Walton himself shies away from such comparisons, preferring instead to give most of the credit for UCLA's success this season—23 straight wins, mostly by wide margins—to his teammates. "It hurts me when people talk as if I'm the only player on the team," he says. And he means it. "I wish sports-writers wouldn't ask me anything personally at all. I would like to see them get the whole team together to talk. I don't like to be singled out as an individual because we don't play as individuals, we play as a team."

While his attitude is admirable, and while it undoubtedly does a lot to promote harmony on a team of marvelously talented players, it also is true that everything UCLA does well stems directly from Walton and his extraordinary talents. His statistics are impressive enough—21 points a game, 15 rebounds, a 63% shooting average—but they do not tell how Walton so thoroughly distorts and dominates a game. Only Russell, Chamberlain and Jabbar were able to intimidate rivals the way Walton does, and few big men ever play with the full-court enthusiasm that characterizes Walton's game. He is everywhere—tipping in missed shots, leaping out of nowhere for blocks, chasing loose balls, calling the signals for UCLA's 2-2-1 zone press. Although his critics, and they are hard to find, contend that Walton has yet to prove himself against enough topflight centers, he has manhandled such worthy opponents as 7' Luke Witte of Ohio State and 6'10" Steve Hawes of Washington.

"I think you have to be a real student of the game to appreciate the way Bill plays," says sophomore Guard Greg Lee, the team's playmaker. "We are only now beginning to realize how good he is. With Bill back there on defense, the rest of us can afford to gamble, and we can cheat getting out on our fast break."

Wooden sees even more. "He does so many things that don't show up in the box score," the coach says. "Like intimidation. How do you measure that? I know that when we had Lewis Kareem, the other teams had a lower shooting percentage. It went back up during the next couple of years but now, with Bill, it will go down again. Our opponents for the year are hitting in the high 30s and he is greatly responsible for that. Not only because of the shots he blocks but because they are always looking for him, just as they used to for Lewis all the time."

Typically, Walton's favorite maneuver is one that involves the entire team: the fast break. Usually it begins with Walton leaping high to clutch a rebound in his large, bony hands, then rocketing a pass to midcourt almost before his high-topped size 15 leather sneakers hit the floor. It ends, after a quick pass or two, with one of his teammates going in for a layup or an easy jumper. At midfloor, where he has been trailing the play, Walton—ever demonstrative—is apt to smile and clap his hands, as if he were just another fan sitting in the cheap seats behind the basket at Pauley Pavilion.

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