Bill Walton, one of the most dominant and dormant centers in NBA history, bought a house in—where else?—Cambridge. It took a while, but he and his wife, Susan, have settled their four children (ages three to nine) into three different schools. He hasn't had much time to mingle or see the sights, but the same intense, urban college ambience that spawned his fame 15 years ago at UCLA has rejuvenated him, almost osmotically. He has gone to work each day with a smile on his clean-shaven face and a song—yes, it's still the Grateful Dead—in his California heart. He has been slapped on the back in restaurants, sought out by every interviewer in New England, secretly scrutinized by new teammates, and he has disarmed everyone with his thoughtfulness and good cheer.
But even Walton, who himself made the initial phone call to Red Auerbach that culminated in his leaving the lowly Los Angeles Clippers to join the mighty Boston Celtics, may not have fully appreciated his new environment until the pre-game announcements that kicked off the Celts' exhibition season against Philadelphia last Friday night at Boston Garden. "At center, number five, from U...C...L...A..." boomed P.A. announcer Andy Jick, who didn't get to finish. The crowd went wild as Walton trotted out, head bobbing as usual. The standing ovation continued for almost a minute. Thus began a love affair that seems as strange as it does wonderful.
"The tremendous community support, the love of basketball—the relationship that exists between the fans and the team was sort of startling to me, frankly," Walton had said earlier in the week, while sprawled on the grass at the Celts' training site in Brookline, Mass. "I definitely missed it with the Clippers. We had very, very intense fans at UCLA, and it was the same way at Portland [where Walton helped the Trail Blazers win their only NBA title, in 1977]," he said. "And it looks like it will be even greater here. I almost can't believe it."
Equally unbelievable, it might seem, is the fact that Boston has grasped to its bosom an athlete whose politics, hairstyle, musical tastes, circle of friends, hobbies, eating habits, wardrobe and who knows what else, have at one time or another surely offended the blue-collar types who populate Boston Garden. However, Walton is playing in a town that loves white heroes—the Celtics may suit up eight, and probably no fewer than seven, white players this season. Walton is the consummate intelligent team player in a town that hates hotdogging. He is unselfish enough (and, at 32, old enough) to have been one of Larry Bird's idols. And Walton is a proven winner in a town that expects nothing less—not from the Celtics, anyway.
"If he stays healthy and happy, he'll hang another flag up," says Bob Cousy, one of those in the Celtic pantheon. "His presence is that significant."
Significant, yes, but also risky. To get Walton, who has missed three full seasons and parts of the others because of injury, the Celtics surrendered a first-round pick in the '86 draft as well as forward Cedric Maxwell. In addition, Boston is paying more than half of Maxwell's $800,000 Clipper salary. It was an exchange of big-name, high-salaried ( Walton's three-year deal is estimated at about $450,000 per year) question marks; Walton because of persistent problems caused by the left navicular bone (located just below the ankle) that he first broke in 1978, Maxwell because of knee surgery last season. And, typically, the motivation of both players has been questioned by their former teams. Maxwell, firing salvos from L.A., claims that Boston gave up on him, rather than vice versa. Walton says little about the Clippers other than to note, "My problems were certainly not with [coach] Don Chaney." But it's fair to say that Walton, who had never consistently tasted defeat before getting it shoved down his throat in San Diego and Los Angeles, was not exactly bleeding Clipper red, white and blue.
"Bill was an enigma here," says Clipper G.M. Carl Scheer. "He wouldn't practice twice a day. I'd say, yes, he didn't 'overextend' himself because he didn't see a future here. Now, a championship is right there at his feet in Boston."
A poor choice of words, considering Walton's past medical problems, but yes, with Walton the balance of power in the Eastern Conference now leans even more decidedly in the direction of North Station. Name a better potential frontline ever than Bird, Robert Parish, Kevin McHale and a healthy Walton off the bench. The 76ers in 1967, perhaps, with Wilt Chamberlain, Luke Jackson, Chet Walker and sixth man Billy Cunningham? Coach K.C. Jones can pick Walton's spots, sub him for Parish at center or McHale at power forward, play him 15 to 20 minutes a game, depending on the situation, and let him concentrate on rebounding, shot blocking and his exquisite outlet passing. Walton, for his part, can go all-out during games and in his spare time pedal his beloved 10-speed around Harvard Yard while pondering the universe, as well as the possibility of another title. "No matter how hard I try," says the onetime confirmed Californian, "I can't imagine a better situation than this."
Celtic fans certainly can't. Early in the fourth quarter of Friday's game against the Sixers, Walton holds the ball, his back to the basket. He spots Bird making a baseline cut. Pass. Two points. A minute later he outlets to Bird at midcourt. Two more. A few minutes later he blocks a shot, alters the follow, grabs the miss and starts a fast break. He plays 19 solid minutes, scores nine points, grabs 11 rebounds, leaves to another standing O, then claps his hands and smiles from the bench as Bird goes wild down the stretch in a 111-109 Celtic victory.
Bill Walton was 3,000 miles from his homeland in Southern California, but never had he fell more at home.