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BILL WALTON WON'T YOU PLEASE PLAY BALL?
Rick Telander
January 27, 1975
For eight weeks, the million-dollar Portland rookie sat on the bench, collecting his pay and disbursing ill will
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January 27, 1975

Bill Walton Won't You Please Play Ball?

For eight weeks, the million-dollar Portland rookie sat on the bench, collecting his pay and disbursing ill will

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In Walton's case, however, there seemed to be a pattern to his play. As early as October he had begun to slow down noticeably in the later stages of games, which led to speculation that his meatless diet might be responsible. But Blazer Coach Lenny Wilkens preferred to explain it as simply a first-year phenomenon: "A lot of rookies run out of stamina." Then Walton missed two games because of flu and on his first night back jammed the little finger on his left hand, which is not his shooting hand. The finger kept him out a week although pros also regularly play with that particular injury. In the second game after his return he complained about the bone spur and that was the competitive end of him until last week. "Three times a day I'd ask him how he felt," says Culp, "and three times a day he'd say it hurts."

But in practices, which he was required by contract to attend to stay on the payroll, Walton seemed as sprightly and unhobbled as ever. Early arrivals at a Bulls-Blazers game in Chicago were surprised to see Walton, in uniform, engaged in an all-out one-on-one contest with Bulls rookie Mickey Johnson 45 minutes before game time. But by the opening tip Walton was back on the bench, wearing street clothes.

By the All-Star break teammates had added "Captain Flake" to a list of nicknames for Walton which already included "Rodan," "Skunky" and, naturally, "Dollar Bill." Only partially in jest the Blazers started calling his 20-game injury the "brain spur." "They say it hurts him two inches from the spur," said Guard Geoff Petrie somewhat incredulously. Yet the main feeling of Walton's teammates was not humor but an enormous sense of disappointment. "Dollar was going to be the man," said Forward John Johnson. "This is all just a big letdown." Indeed, they had really believed that Walton might help turn the franchise around. And now instead of their lofty preseason goals the Blazers were being forced to accept more ordinary hopes. "Now, well, I personally am shooting for .500," said All-Star Forward Sidney Wicks.

If the spur was to be discounted, what then was Walton's problem? On the surface he seemed to be fantastically lucky—financially set for life for playing a game he loved, the owner of a stunning new home, free as he never was in college to dress and talk as he saw fit, established in the kind of nature-blessed state that most appealed to him.

But the list of Walton's troubles—or what he considered troubles—could start with something as basic as his height. Though he is obviously taller than, say, backup Center LaRue Martin, who stands 6'11", Walton doesn't want to be listed at 7 feet. So the program has him at 6'11" too. His father remembers that after Bill "grew off the hall closet door" in the Walton home, he never talked about his height again. "He feels 7 feet is where being a freak starts," says Wicks, who was three years ahead of Walton at UCLA and is almost his only friend on the Blazers. A walk beside Walton through the Portland airport revealed something of what his height means. He was forced, as usual, to bend nearly double to squeeze through the security scanner, a contortion that struck bystanders as comical. Handing him his luggage, a female attendant giggled, "How's the weather up there?" Another sharp-witted type remarked, "I don't like your altitude, fella." Sometimes Walton responds to such comments with obscenities but this time he shook his head sadly, murmured a nearly inaudible "thank you" and trudged, pigeon-toed and stoop-shouldered, toward his plane.

Walton has also been troubled by the thought that he was being pumped up because his height qualified him to be a "Great White Hope," an instant counterbalance in a predominantly black sport. "If I were black I'd be just another center," he once said with blinding inaccuracy. Other super-tall rookie centers have managed to adjust to pro basketball's pressures, but, as Meschery says, "It's just that Bill probably has received more pressure than any of the big men, more than anybody deserves. It's too bad, but that's the capitalist system."

"This summer I tried to tell Bill everything to expect in the NBA," says Wicks, who had his own troubles as a rookie. "I told him it's not fun and games anymore, that you work basketball, that you can't win all the time because it's not good old UCLA, that you've got to, I guess, just grow up. But it's one of those things you have to experience for yourself."

From an early age, Walton disliked the pressures that inevitably come from standing out from everybody else. What Walton did enjoy, and even demand, was the fluid, selfless motion of a team without a star but with five equals. At UCLA his needs were satisfied by Coach John Wooden's pressing, passing style of play in which all five starters were capable of hitting double figures. "Bill loves the game, but only as a team game," says Wooden. "He is very impatient and gets more upset than most people when he feels the game isn't being played right." In certain ways Walton was spoiled at UCLA—by never losing a game until his senior year, by being sheltered from the press, by having his wishes for privacy and teamwork catered to, even by receiving continual discipline from the coach. But it is another of the ironies that the great California basketball factory did not prepare its star for the realities of his natural profession.

"I tried to tell him it would be the emotional and not the physical part of the game that would be difficult, that in the pros it's basically not a team game," says Wooden. "I also felt he would need discipline, that underneath he wants a firm hand, which is something Lenny [ Wilkens] hasn't used. When he was here we had our disagreements but I always governed his behavior and appearance on court. Now he can grow his beard, anything. There's no one to tell him 'no' on the Trail Blazers."

Still, at the end of his senior year, Walton was eager to turn pro. He spurned an ABA offer for more dollars than Portland finally offered him, saying he was looking for challenge and that it was only in the NBA that he could truly test himself.

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