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As with other dynasties of American sport in our recent past, the parts have become more engaging than the whole. Subplots are the thing. What does it matter if the UCLA basketball team—like the Yankees, Packers, Sooners and Celtics before it—wins? The team will win. But what happens offstage? Does Billy Martin punch guys in nightclubs? Does Mickey Mantle climb hotel roofs? Does Bart Starr read the Bible? Does Paul Hornung make book? Does Bill Russell throw up in the locker room? Does Bob Cousy talk like Bugs Bunny?
The public's right to know. What goes on? Are these good citizens? What are they like? What do they do? Where do they go? How? Why? Do they put their pants on one leg at a time? Who are these guys anyway?
"Oh, man," The Center said. "Why are you trying to make basketball players into human beings? Nobody believes it anyway. Ever get punched with an umbrella to see if you're real? I did. How many times? Once is too many. Nobody cares what we are away from the court. I can't go anywhere without being looked at as a freak. People don't know anything about UCLA players. They don't know me. Nobody knows me and they won't for a long time."
His bike bag filled with school books slung across one shoulder, The Center gave the peace sign and was gone. He had been standing there, draped across the doorway, talking to a visitor. It was not a particularly endearing moment because The Center is shy around strangers, suspicious of them, and he thinks they are "insincere." Still the time did not seem to dictate harsh tones; an outburst was out of place. So was hostility. Only later was it explained that The Center, Bill Walton, tended to "put people on," but in this case he was seriously taking a stand he believed in and would never back away from. It was still later—days later—that Walton appeared in a softer light. He was found to be a sincere, open-minded student of life.
They are fine traits for a man to have—taking a stand, being a student of life. Undoubtedly they are the basic characteristics that led Walton to lie down in the middle of Wilshire Boulevard in a peace protest, to march through classrooms, to barricade doors with wooden horses, to ride a janitor's scooter up the hill by the administration building and to decry loud and long the government's mining of Haiphong Harbor.
After Walton was arrested and was charged on five different counts, he pleaded nolo contendere in court, paid a $50 fine and was put on conditional probation by the university for two years. The penalty could have been much worse. As Walton was being hustled away from the protest demonstration in a Los Angeles Police Department bus, he spotted Chancellor Charles Young on the sidewalk and called him every name anybody had ever honked a bleep at. The chancellor, some feared, considered throwing Bill Walton right out of school.
This is, of course, the same student who was acclaimed Player of the Year in 1972 and will continue to be player of every year that he stays at UCLA. About him, the eminent philosopher Hot Rod Hundley, who has seen them all, says: "Surround Bill Russell or Wilt Chamberlain or Kareem Abdul-Jabbar or Nate Thurmond with the same teammates and none of them would win as many games as Walton does." So Hundley agrees with the others who have been dumbstruck by Bill Walton's multiple talents and are of the opinion that he is the best white man ever to play the black man's game.
Sensitive to racial issues, involved politically and genuinely resentful of generation-gap attitudes toward the young, Walton refers to himself with disdain as "The Great White Hope" and lights up the firmament with Menckenian prejudices. He says:
"I think a person past 35 should not be permitted to be President. Young people are the only hope of the world."