Bill Walton studied the question as a man might study a shotgun pointed at his head. The giant center had just played in his fourth professional game for Portland, an exhibition against Washington last Thursday night in Landover, Md., and he had been called for three fouls in the first 10 minutes. Some of the calls had been odd, and when more followed he was retired by the officials in the final quarter. It hadn't helped when Washington won the game in double overtime. Now Walton was asked what he thought of the officiating.
Another player might have lashed out, either at the officials or at the questioner. Not Walton. Fresh from a shower, he frowned as he toweled his lanky body. He stared at the floor, peered across the room at his Portland teammates and looked down at the questioner, who began to fidget. A long silent moment passed, followed by another. At last, just as it seemed he would remain forever mute, he spoke, barely. "No comment," he said softly. "I am not getting paid to evaluate the officiating."
For Walton, who long ago decided that he was in the public domain only while on the basketball court, the answer was the equivalent of a speech. Always a private person, except in those rare moments when he chose to speak out against the war in Vietnam or racial discrimination, the NBA's prize rookie has become even more reclusive. And that, to his horror, has made those people who are determined to invade his private life even more curious about him. "I play basketball and when I'm not playing I do my own thing," he says patiently and politely. "The two parts are not connected. I'll talk about the first, not about the second."
It isn't working. For one thing when you are 6'11" it's tough to get lost in a crowd. And when you compound it with long flowing red hair held in place by a bandanna, add a beard and dress like a mountain man, people just naturally are going to want to know—for starters, anyway—what you had for dinner.
If Walton elected to answer, he would probably say that he had dined on a plate of lettuce, peas, tomatoes, cucumbers and cottage cheese, followed by numerous apples and oranges and grapes, with perhaps a few avocadoes. All washed down by drafts of liquefied ginseng root or milk, followed by some nuts for protein. Two years ago he gave up meat and fish. "Dead flesh," he calls it. This is the part of his counter-culture life-style that has the Trail Blazers slightly worried. The NBA isn't the NCAA and its centers need vast quantities of sustenance to help them survive the pounding of an 82-game schedule, three times longer and infinitely more wearing than UCLA's.
Most NBA players like to report in the fall at least five pounds overweight, feeling that they'll be just right when the season opens. Last summer when Walton wasn't fasting he was eating nothing but raw fruit and vegetables, and when he reported on Sept. 16 he weighed 216 pounds, 14 pounds less than he did at UCLA. He was checked by a team doctor, who said Walton knew his own body better than any athlete he had ever seen—and not to worry. Walton promised the Blazers that he would add soups and large amounts of rice to his diet and be up to 225 by the opener against Cleveland next weekend. "Maybe he can do it now that we have ended the two-a-days," says Stu Inman, the team's vice-president.
No matter, for the moment at least. In his pro debut, a 92-91 Portland victory over Los Angeles, Walton was both slender and devastating. He showed the Lakers a stunning combination of agility, size, coordination and determination. He loves the game and loves to play it well. And he's smart. He was, after all, a John Wooden pupil and he comes into the pros as a master of the fundamentals.
Perhaps the most notable aspect of his game so far is the way he uses his hands, both on offense and defense. As he works endlessly for position with quick, sure steps, his hands are held high and his fingers are spread tensely to reach for a pass or to pluck at a rebound. Darting about, his hands at shoulder height, he resembles a giant crane and, startlingly, a red-haired Abe Lincoln. "My God, look at that!" screamed a lady fan last week. "It's Honest Abe out there in short pants."
The historic first meeting of Walton and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar last Friday night drew a sellout crowd of 13,458 to the arena at Dayton, Ohio, and if anyone had polled the audience later it would have been 13,458-0 that the veteran Milwaukee center had taken the 21-year-old rookie to school. Walton agreed with that estimate. "I said it before and I'll say it again: he is the best I've ever seen," Walton whispered after the Bucks had won 103-96. "I learned something out there tonight."
Abdul-Jabbar, who was to break a bone in his right hand in a fit of pique the next night, didn't allow himself to get quite so excited about playing Walton. He started slowly, almost cautiously, as though feeling out the NBA's No. 1 draft pick. Two minutes passed before he posted his first points, on a short jumper. Then he quickly went to work: a stuff, another jumper, a layup, a hook. He was showing the kid where it was at, all with a somewhat bored expression. Then with one second left in the first quarter, Abdul-Jabbar picked up a loose ball some 15 feet from the basket, half-turned and hit with a sky hook.