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CLIMBING TO THE TOP AGAIN
John Papanek
October 15, 1979
Out for a year with injuries, a reflective, more temperate Bill Walton has changed the style—if not the substance—of his life as he starts anew in San Diego
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October 15, 1979

Climbing To The Top Again

Out for a year with injuries, a reflective, more temperate Bill Walton has changed the style—if not the substance—of his life as he starts anew in San Diego

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At noon the sky is a brilliant blue, cracked wide open A and spilling all over the peaks of Yosemite National al Park. The pink-white glaciers and crystal tarns, the rushing streams and slag-gray rocks, the emerald brush and dusty trails are mere handservants to the sun, which is in command. And Bill Walton is walking up a mountain.

Check that. He is truckin' up a mountain which, as members of Walton's generation surely know, is quite something else again. Walton is gobbling up yardage like Earl Campbell in the open field, only this field is tilted upward at 60 degrees, and the goal line is way up there above 11,000 feet. His arms, spread like the wings of a giant albatross, flap gently below his russet-haired head. His legs, impossibly long and—although spindly toward the ankles—amazingly strong, eat up great chunks of mountainside with every stride. His feet, gnarled and scarred from the pounding of so many basketball games, feet that have been neglected, inspected and injected, are now resurrected.

Walton is wearing a T shirt that boldly screams OREGON DEAD on the back. It says so much: that a part of Walton's life—four sometimes happy, sometimes miserable years of living and playing basketball in Portland, Ore.—is dead; and that the wearer of the shirt is part of a legion of young Americans that worships and lives by the funky messages of laid-back, California-style life as preached by the Grateful Dead, the original acid-rock band, a vestige of the '60s counterculture that has made it intact almost to the '80s. So, it would seem, has Walton.

Three hours up this mountain, yet it is not work for him; nor would it be for anyone traveling with him. The companion would be pulled along like a smiling water skier on the enormously powerful tendrils of energy that constantly trail Walton. The companion would quickly come to understand why, when Walton is healthy, he is the greatest basketball player alive.

Spend several days with Walton as he is running, no, truckin' through his world—playing Frisbee on soft green lawns, buying elegant suits in Beverly Hills, appearing on TV shows, body-surfing in San Diego, playing basketball, doing stand-up comedy at rubber-chicken Rotary luncheons, participating in family sing-alongs, taking grueling bike rides—all of it punctuated by the sounds of the Grateful Dead, and you will begin to understand his energy. And now, truckin' up a mountain in the High Sierras, you almost know what is going through his head. Here it comes now...

Truckin' got my chips cashed in
Keep truckin', like the doo-dah man
Together, more or less in line
Just keep truckin' 'on....

One or another Grateful Dead tune is always running through his head, even when he is triggering fast breaks. Though most of the lyrics seem to have been written just for him, Walton says, "They're for everybody," which is true—at least for the half million "Deadheads" who fully understand the hedonistic messages of the band.

As he hikes, images flicker from Walton's 26 years:

A long, skinny, redheaded kid growing up in a strong Catholic middle-class home in the San Diego suburb of La Mesa. Lots of family activity—music, games, church, books, trips to the mountains, lively discussions. None of the kids—Bill, Bruce, Andy or Cathy—are ever stifled. Ted, a county welfare official, and Gloria, a librarian, encourage their children in their every opinion. But sports are where the kids are headed. At age eight Bill tries basketball, makes his first hoop on his very first shot—a heave from midcourt—and soon he is really playing. Watching, questioning, studying, learning, practicing. Ted drives him to games all over the area, including ones around the San Diego naval base, where he begins to learn of elbows and broken noses, cracked teeth and bloody lips. At age 14 he is 6'1"; over the ensuing summer he grows to 6'7" and becomes the 160-pound "Spider Walton" who leads Helix High to 49 straight wins and two district championships. Soon he is 6'11", off to UCLA and those 88 straight victories, two NCAA championships, three College Player of the Year awards.

But suddenly there is all that other stuff, personal things that are getting as much ink and notice as his basketball. The antiwar, anti-Nixon politics. The arrest for protesting the mining of Haiphong Harbor. The long hair, the bike, the strange food he eats, the company he keeps. If one believes the talk, the marijuana he smokes. But, hey, the guy can play basketball.

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