often surly, behavior off the floor was not helping him much, either. Once, at
an autograph-signing session at Meier & Frank Department Store, a big Trail
Blazer sponsor, Walton alienated everybody by waving his bandaged little finger
and telling the 600 children who had showed up that he could sign no
autographs, not even make an X. As usual, his immaturity in a crowd was read as
Walton had become so unsettled that he called Gilbert in Los Angeles and told
him he couldn't take any more and that he was quitting the game. Sensing
disaster, Gilbert flew to Portland and told him he would lose all but a small
portion of his 15-year contract and that what he would get wouldn't even cover
his income tax. Walton replied that he didn't care, that he would declare
bankruptcy and live on the land near Santa Barbara. Gilbert explained that
taxes would ruin Walton, that all his possessions would be confiscated.
"Bill docs like the social amenities," said Gilbert later. And perhaps
at the thought of losing his nearly completed home with the custom skylights,
the four-man whirlpool, the 26-foot-high cedar ceiling and the $1,800
restaurant stove complete with six burners and a three-foot griddle, Walton
reluctantly changed his mind. "He just decided he didn't want to be in debt
to the government for the rest of his life," says Greg Lee, one of the few
people who knew of the incident, which Walton has since termed "a
But the fact that
Bill was desperately unhappy in Portland didn't change. Suddenly he decided
Southern California was where he wanted to be after all, and in early December
he went to Blazer officials and told them he would play ball again if they
would trade him to Los Angeles. Naturally they informed him this was
impossible. No team likes to trade in the same division, and in Portland's case
the repercussions from the fans and press would have been disastrous. But one
thing struck some people about Walton's offer: if he was saying he could play
elsewhere, then he wasn't, in fact, really hurt.
Rumors of Walton's
possible retirement shocked Portland. "Everybody had been so nice to
Bill," says Sam Gilbert. "A builder had done his home at no profit, his
special shirts were made at cost, and even his mortgage was given to him at a
was that he was cold in Portland. "He kept complaining that his feet were
cold, that his whole body was seriously, physically cold," says
Walton flew to Los
Angeles to consult Dr. Kerlan and complained to him about the symptoms, saying
that it took three days for his feet to warm up. "That was the way he
honestly felt," says Dr. Kerlan, though he was unable to find any outward
signs of the chill.
To many people
Walton's actions indicate selfishness and ingratitude for what he has. A Los
Angeles businessman who was once very close to Walton calls him "an
egocentric child, a 22-year-old going on 11." Others find it difficult to
reconcile Walton's wealth and fame with his supposed concern for the poor and
hungry of the world. They try to match his refusal to allow drugs to be used in
treating his injuries (because they would contaminate his body) with his
occasional use of alcohol.
As yet, if his
views are contradictory, it is more that Walton is himself filled with
contradictions rather than a conscious effort to delude. "He's done his
best to get written off by society," says Greg Lee. "But the irony is,
the only way you can do that is by being bland and normal."
Amid all the
ruckus remains the fact that Walton sincerely enjoys the game of basketball.
"I've played everything—baseball, football, tennis, track—and it just seems
to me that basketball is the most complete game because it requires the most
skills," he said recently. "It's a game I am built for but even if I
were short I think I could make it as a guard."
And his old
competitive drive still lurks not far beneath the surface. Shortly before his
return, in a one-on-one game against Tom Meschery, a 6'6", 235-pound former
NBA star himself, Walton became angered and drove straight over the coach,
knocking him down and flattening his nose. As Meschery went for a towel to stop
the bleeding, Walton continued to shoot and offered no apology.