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As the Portland Trail Blazers warmed up for a home game just before New Year's, the band blasted into Bill Bailey, Won't You Please Come Home? Then the musicians put down their instruments and started singing some lines they had just written. As the Blazers caught the words they began to smile and stopped shooting. A hush came as the full house strained to hear the lyrics:
Won't you please
play, Bill Walton,
Less than 30 feet away from the band was a bearded young man resembling Ichabod Crane outfitted as a hippie lumberjack. Bill Walton sat motionless on the Portland bench in his flannel shirt and jeans, a bandanna wrapped around his long red hair. Obviously unable to shut out the lyrics, he showed no reaction.
The band blared deafeningly into a final chorus but still Walton sat immobile, his expression the vacant gaze of a man staring at a prison wall.
The crowd roared and the band marched off, pleased with the success of its little jest. The irony—one of the many in the Walton enigma—was that the lighthearted prod at Walton almost certainly produced an exactly opposite effect from what was intended. Walton's psyche is butterfly-fragile, and pressure of any sort deeply unsettles him. Indeed, such onslaughts, coupled with such other psyche-affecting factors as seasonal rains, athletic frustration, naivet� and fear have clouded his future in pro basketball. At the time of the band concert Walton had been missing from Trail Blazer games for five weeks. Before the million-dollar rookie, of whom so much had been expected, would return to the lineup—as he finally did last week—half the season would be gone and the situation in Portland had become nearly intolerable.
The stated reason for Walton's not playing was a bone spur in his left ankle. But before that it had been flu and then a jammed finger. Among Portland fans—in the beginning ready to grant Walton almost any eccentricity—disbelief in those injuries had been growing. "Hell, he's been pampered all his life," snorted a sportswriter covering the team. "If a guy wants to sniff wildflowers instead of playing, O.K., but he shouldn't take $2.5 million to do it." At Love's restaurant across from the Coliseum a middle-aged woman had another view: "He just sits there with that rope around his head and his mouth open and looks...well...so stupid."
Season ticket sales for the Blazers increased by nearly 3,300 this year—putting roughly $750,000 extra in the till—a blessing attributed entirely to Walton. ("What do you think? They're coming to see me?" says Herman Sarkowsky, a part owner.) But with Walton not playing, the situation had elements of a rip-off.
Under the circumstances, the original open-armed acceptance of Walton could not last forever. "Sure, there's a counterculture here," says Assistant Coach Tom Meschery, "but this is pretty much a redneck, workers' town. There's always a chance fans will turn on a guy." Walton clearly felt the stress. In the weeks before his return a stutter marred his already cautious speech, particularly when facing sportswriters or people he did not know well. "He had the impediment in college but it's gotten worse since then," says a friend who visited him in Portland.
There never was any doubt that Walton had a bone spur. It first bothered him in a game against Seattle two months ago and Walton immediately declared himself unable to play. "Most players aren't bothered by spurs," says Blazer Trainer Ron Culp. "Though it's a traumatic type injury, the spur itself may be developing for 20 years. Bill just came down the floor and said, It hurts.' We hadn't noticed anything but if it hurts, it hurts. And it's in the standard contract that a player doesn't have to play injured."
In the pro basketball locker room, a bone spur is considered a discomfort rather than a disability, a minor annoyance that comes with the game, like a jammed finger or jumper's knee. Dr. Robert Kerlan, the celebrated orthopedic specialist whom Walton saw when he was at UCLA, estimates that 100% of all pro basketball players have spurs, but not all of them are painful. "It results from continued running and cutting and usually occurs first on the ankle one pivots on the most. There's little we can do for them." Culp says, "You just ice it and as it feels better you increase activity." Adds Kerlan: "Certainly Bill showed in college that he could play with pain. But he may prefer not to play with this particular injury. The absolute last thing a doctor thinks about is a player malingering, jaking it."