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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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" Randy Smith and Swen Nater," Walton says. "The commissioner's a smart man. He knows what the Trail Blazers did. He won't ruin the Clippers to help Portland, will he? Randy we could lose because we have plenty of guards, and Swen is dangerous for me to practice against. The one guy we can't lose is Kermit Washington. He's great! Stronger, maybe better, than Maurice Lucas."

Weeks later Walton would describe the sick feeling he got on the fourth morning of training camp when Assistant Coach Bob Weiss kept popping out to call players into Shue's office: Smith, Kevin Kunnert, Washington. "Everybody knew what was happening," said Walton. "They didn't know when or if Weiss would ever stop calling names. I felt terrible. Couldn't look at anyone. These guys were being run out of town because I signed a contract to play with them." The end result: Kunnert, a backup center, and Washington, the irreplaceable, were sent to Portland, along with two first-round draft choices. Smith was traded to Cleveland to replace one of those lost draft picks. "Yesterday we were a great team," says Walton. "Today we are just a good one. It's ridiculous. I work all my life to be a great player and play on a great team, and now the commissioner takes that right away. It's the same thing all over again. The Trail Blazers are not the bad guys. They're the good guys. I'm the bad guy."

Which in the eyes of some is what Walton's been all along because they couldn't stomach his association with Jack Scott ("He was a very close friend and he helped me a lot"); the Patty Hearst connection ("I never met her in my life"): and the day in 1975 that he called on the people of the world to "stand with us in our rejection of the United States government."

"Regretting something is not productive," says Walton of his past. "Just as pointless as trying to convince yourself that the person in an old photograph is not you. Obviously, at those times I believed in what I was doing, or I would not have done them."

The one thing he does regret, agonizes over, whether he laughs about it or not, is his decision to take those needles in Portland. "I acted foolishly a year and a half ago," he says. "I made the mistake of believing my friends [ Bob Cook, the doctor, and Jack Ramsay, the coach] when they told me it wouldn't be wrong. There is an amazing scene in the film North Dallas Forty. The team lost by a point and in the locker room the players are all blown away. An assistant coach—this jerk—is trying to hurry everyone along, and a huge lineman just freaks, yelling over and over, 'Whenever you call it a business I call it a game! Whenever I call it a business you call it a game!' An incredible speech. And you know, it's really difficult for an athlete to tell the difference between the business and the game. I missed it. Now, theoretically, I've learned my lesson."

"Do you ever think about getting hurt again?" he is asked.

"Never think about getting hurt. I know it's going to happen. I just hope that when it does, I'll have the personal courage to decide for myself whether or not I can play."

Unfortunately, the inevitable injury would not wait. Three games into the exhibition season, Walton's left foot became too sore for him to play. "Too much too soon," he said.

"It will be all right, I know it will," he added, as if wishing would make it so. He has gone through the injury routine enough times by now to know that a lame foot cannot stop his life. And he turns, as usual, to the Grateful Dead for the lesson:

No one's noticed but the band's all packed and gone
Was it ever here at all?
But they keep on dancin'...

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