SI Vault
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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Then he signs with Portland for big money. What happened to all the socialist talk? And, ugh, the clothes and the hair are worse. And the things he says. Just because he is a vegetarian, does he have to say that his teammates disgust him because they eat "decayed animal flesh"? And what happened to the basketball? He keeps coming up with all sorts of injuries and bone spurs. Some Portland people call them "brain spurs." And he refuses to do what other players do when they are hurting—play anyway. And Jack Scott, the feared "sports activist," moves right into Walton's house, fills his head with more radical ideas, and soon Walton is being hounded all across the country by the FBI because Scott allegedly is hiding Patty Hearst and her Symbionese Liberation Army kidnappers.

The basketball? Even when he does play, the Trail Blazers are awful for two seasons. But that changes in 1976-77 as Walton, quite spectacularly, again becomes the best player on his level, which now happens to be the NBA. The Trail Blazers blow all comers out of the water, and they are even better the next year until Walton goes down with another injury. The team founders, and Walton makes a desperate attempt to play in the playoffs, only to get hurt again. Broken foot.

A volcano erupts. Walton says that the Trail Blazers pressured him into taking painkilling injections, ignoring the risk of serious injury to him, and demands to be traded. The Trail Blazer management becomes apoplectic, while Walton's injury is so serious he spends seven months in a cast, sees virtually all musculature in his left foot disappear and misses the entire 1978-79 season.

Last spring he signs with a new team, his hometown San Diego Clippers. In the summer more operations—bone spurs are removed from both ankles. And now, one month away from the beginning of training camp, Walton is truck-in' up a mountain.

Truckin', I'm a going home
Whoa whoa baby back where I belong
Back home, sit down and patch my bones
And get back truckin' on

Everything is perfect now for Walton. He's back in California with his family and the mountains. But more than anything, it is the anticipation of playing basketball again that lights up his face so that it matches the color of his hair. "I love it," he says over and over and over. And to that emphatic statement he adds his slightly goofy but infectious "uh-huh-huh" laugh, as though he is sure you do not believe him. He has probably proclaimed his love for basketball more times than he has for any member of his family. And there's none of this "five more years" stuff. Walton would like to play forever—and still many people think that he is only in it for the money. It is not hard to figure why so many people have been unable to understand Walton for so long.

He has had just as much trouble understanding them.

Busted down on Bourbon Street
Set up, like a bowling pin
Knocked down, it gets to wearin' thin
They just won't let you be....

There are only 10 more steps to the top now, and when Walton finally gets there, his energy explodes. There is a fire on the mountain. On the left is a razor-sharp peak covered by a glacier, with a shimmering tarn—its water deep, clear, cold and delicious—beneath it. On the right is a huge flat rock—stage-sized—with a meadow just in front of it. Walton's beaming smile manifests his contentment.

"A nice place for a concert," he says.

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