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It is not merely that Bill Walton has had three haircuts and at least that many showers in the past few months. Nor that he has sworn off rutabaga omelets, lumberjack ensembles and incendiary manifestos in support of the Siamese Refrigeration Army. What has caused such a stir in the ranks of professional basketball is the fact that out there in the beautiful Pacific Northwest of clean air, pine needles and sometimes a great notion. Bill Walton has emerged as the best all-round basketball player in the world.
As the Portland Trail Blazers rushed to the Pacific Division lead with a 15-6 record last week, Walton was largely responsible for his team's 13th straight victory at home—112-108 over Milwaukee on Saturday night—and for the Blazers stealing a couple of victories on the road. The 6'11", 225-pound mountain man was averaging more than 21 points a game while leading the NBA in rebounding (16.4), blocked shots (3.19) and growing up.
This last is no trivial accomplishment. Indeed, it is phenomenal to those who, for Walton's injury-plagued first two pro seasons, thought of him as some doped-up, whacked-out, weirdo, Commie-loving, acid freak hippie with lice in his hair and Patty Hearst's phone number in his datebook.
It seems only yesterday that Walton was wearing a ponytail. burning incense in airport terminals, answering questions from the FBI, and leaving himself open to charges of faking every sort of illness this side of schistosomiasis. But it was not just yesterday, it was two long years ago. And as for his basketball, which is all that should have mattered anyway, it must be understood that before this season Walton was never 100% physically sound. Never.
Ever since he began this season by not only devastating all competition but also actually looking joyful again—the way he did while winning two national championships at UCLA—the Portland center has been subjected to various and sundry psychological investigations intended to explain "the new Bill Walton." But aside from shearing his fiery orange locks and abandoning his exotic wardrobe of woodchopper getups, Walton says he has not changed. He basks in the same counterculture life-style, has the same friends, believes in the same political theories, eats the same cucumbers. What's so different?
"I'm just healthy," Walton said last week while wearing a lavender Grateful Dead T shirt. "That's all. For two years I wasn't able to run up and down the court freely without making a conscious effort out of it. Without thinking about it. That's no way to play basketball. I love this game. I always have. And I always knew how good I was. It's just that when you're going up against guys you know you can take anytime, but you can't because of a bad ankle or too much weight or a broken hand or something else, it is too discouraging. And not any fun."
Not any fun. Another carrottopped basketball player quit the game the other day because it was no longer any fun. And of course in his mind Bill Walton must have quit, too, that first year when the hurts—bone spurs, "brain spurs," whatever—piled up, the pressure and slanders crashed down and the rains came to Portland, leaving one of nature's true sun kids in a blue funk. Walton, at 22, could not be expected to cope with something like that the way a Dave Cowens, at 28, could and did.
In retrospect, Walton's troubled NBA beginnings were preordained when he chose to play for an expansion team wracked by conflicting personalities. Probably the UCLA graduate was a bit overrated as an instant dominating NBA center, if only because that kind of rare people—Russell, the defender; Chamberlain, the overpowering giant; Abdul-Jab-bar, the offensive genius—were specialists, while Walton simply did everything well, but nothing well enough to turn a bad team around by himself. And Portland was a very bad team.
In addition, Walton bitterly resented being thought of as the pro game's first "great white hope" dominator. So he wandered through 35 games during his rookie season and 51 last year while the resident Trail Blazer stars, Sidney Wicks and Geoff Petrie, continued sniping at each other as well as undermining management and criticizing their young pivotman's social behavior.
"Lack of harmony keeps a team from ever really developing," says Larry Steele, one of two Blazers left from pre-Walton days, "and there was never the basic respect for one another here. I think Bill, who always enjoyed basketball only within a team concept, was overwhelmed by the atmosphere."