Last Friday evening, as reports began circulating that he might miss more than half of the coming season, Bill Walton left a Portland, Ore. clinic with a cast on his left leg. With the addition of the cast, the puzzle of what had happened to Walton, what had made him demand to be traded from the Trail Blazers, grew even more complicated. The sudden move left some friendships strained. It also left the city's basketball fans stunned. Just 14 months before, Walton was leading a raucous victory parade through the streets of downtown Portland after the Trail Blazers had won the National Basketball Association championship.
The initial shock came after a secret meeting in Chicago on Aug. 1 when Walton, who was voted the league's MVP last season, demanded that the Blazers trade him as soon as possible to a team of his choosing, which, late Sunday night, he announced was the Golden State Warriors.
Even more unsettling was the announcement from the Portland club that it "will attempt to abide by his request." And what made the whole thing a mystery was the addendum to which both sides agreed, at Walton's insistence: not to discuss the whys and wherefores of the strange affair.
Last week, however, Walton's reasons for demanding the trade became clearer. He believed that his latest injury—a fractured bone in his left foot, which was diagnosed after he had appeared in a playoff game on April 21—might have been avoided if the Trail Blazers had provided him with proper medical advice and care. Walton also charged the team with the misuse of the pain-modifying drugs Xylocaine and Marcaine, and the anti-inflammatory drugs Butazolidin (phenylbutazone) and Decadron (dexamethasone).
Even when Walton's reasons began to surface, many people, including some Blazer officials, clung to the belief that Walton had a hidden motive. Not money, because as early as last December the Blazers offered to extend Walton's contract beyond next season, when it would expire, and they were apparently willing to pay him what he wanted. There were suggestions that Walton was being misled by his newly designated agents, Jack Scott (the author of a recent book about Walton) and Portland attorney John Bassett. The Blazers' general manager, Harry Glickman, Coach Jack Ramsay and several of the players called attention to a fact that was well known in Portland and—ironically, they felt—documented repeatedly in Scott's book,
Bill Walton, On the Road with the Portland Trail Blazers
. This fact was that Ramsay and Dr. Robert Cook, the team physician, were two of Walton's closest friends. Moreover, in the book Dr. Cook and Blazer Trainer Ron Culp were described as "sensitive."
"Ron and Bob are two medical people who would almost certainly be retained if the players were selecting the team physician and trainer...." Scott wrote. Said Glickman, "Wouldn't you think that if Bill was mad at Ramsay and Cook, he'd come out and say it?"
Maybe that was exactly the reason why Walton was keeping quiet.
In a prepared statement that Scott read on Aug. 4, Walton said, "This was the most difficult decision I've ever had to make regarding my basketball career. The tremendous loyalty and support of my teammates and the Trail Blazer fans have made that decision much tougher." Except to meet with a parade of coaches and general managers from other teams who came to Portland to bid for Walton's services, he was incommunicado.
The Blazers stuck steadfastly to a statement made by Glickman last week: "Our president Larry Weinberg and I are absolutely shocked by Walton's decision. There was nothing in any prior conversation that he had with anyone in our organization to suggest that he was unhappy or that he was going to ask for a trade."
When the news of Walton's disenchantment with the Blazers reached print, basketball fans all over America were confounded. This was the player who 14 months earlier had been making funny circles over his head and zipping ferocious outlet passes as he led the fast-breaking Blazers to the championship.