Over the past several months, Bill Walton has been so frustrated that he has listened to every theory, weighed every possibility and considered almost any idea that would help hasten his return to the NBA.
"When you're at my stage, you try anything," he says. Literally. And that in part explains two special drinks Walton now consumes daily because of a deficiency in his blood of trace elements, especially manganese, which is essential in the formation of bone. One drink contains calcium, phosphorus, magnesium and copper. The other is composed of iron, fluoride, zinc and manganese. "Oh, they taste real bad," says Walton. "The more you drink, the worse they taste. The calcium drink looks like water. The iron drink is dark, like oil. It tastes even worse. The amazing thing is that after two months of this stuff they still can't find any manganese in my blood. But I keep drinking it. I've tried weirder stuff."
For all of the new decade and quite a bit of the one just past, Walton had been trying to do what he does best—play basketball. And last week—at 7:57 p.m. on Tuesday, Jan. 29, for the record—with 1:44 left in the first quarter of a game against the Phoenix Suns, he accomplished just that when he unfurled himself from the bench of the San Diego Clippers, threw off his warmup jacket and trotted onto the floor as the hometown fans gave him the applause they had been saving for months. It was Walton's first regular-season appearance since April 21, 1978, when he hobbled away from a playoff game between Portland and Seattle with what turned out to be the first of two fractures of the tarsal navicular bone in his left foot.
Now after a seemingly interminable period of rehabilitation, Walton was back, and his return came at a most propitious time for the Clippers, troubled as they were with lagging attendance and a six-game losing streak. Walton eased both crises, as 11,428 fans, about 4,000 more than the San Diego average, showed up to watch the player some Clippers have dubbed "the Stranger" help San Diego to a 133-121 victory.
Walton played slightly more than 13 minutes, and the time was parceled out in eyedropper fashion. His longest stint was but four minutes and 19 seconds. Still he made four of five shots, grabbed four rebounds, blocked a shot, intimidated several Phoenix players and did a lot of the subtle, deft things that make him a textbook player. Clipper owner Irv Levin, who signed Walton to a $7 million, 7-year contract last spring, took a look at the crowd of reporters still gathered around Walton an hour after the game and said, "Tonight was great show business. If he can stay healthy, we've got a lot of fun ahead of us."
The first bit of fun occurred the next morning when Walton came up not limping. Sure, there still was a little tenderness in his foot, but nothing serious. He attended a Clippers practice and did some swimming and weightlifting. Walton's rehabilitation program calls for him to play basketball every other day. Because of the All-Star break, the Clippers had seven days off following the Phoenix game, and they don't play back-to-back games until this weekend. "We'll see how I feel next week and then make a decision about whether I can go two days in a row," Walton said.
Without question, Walton's odyssey over the last 22 months, as he went from star to stranger, has been an odd one. Since hurting himself in 1978, he had quit the Trail Blazers amid bitter allegations of inept medical treatment; signed with San Diego, which heralded his arrival with skywriting: WALTON IS A CLIPPER; endured operations for the removal of bone spurs on both ankles; undergone a personality change, switching from the unapproachable political activist to the equivalent of an effervescent habitué of Main Street; and confounded a battery of doctors, scientists and friends who wrestled with diagnosing the cause of the ache in his left foot.
Walton thought he had licked the injury until a Sept. 28 exhibition game against the Los Angeles Lakers, when he took himself out and went to the locker room to stick his foot in a bucket of ice. Mysteriously, it hurt again. A week later he was on crutches, and soon he was seeing a variety of doctors in hope of getting a correct diagnosis. After a month of tests that failed to show any fracture, Walton's friends and physicians, Dr. Ernie Vandeweghe and Dr. Tony Daly, thought the injury to be a sprained ligament. Finally, after two sets of special X rays called tomograms, a new break in the tarsal navicular bone, a crack one-fifth of an inch deep and not located near the original fracture, was discovered. It had been virtually undetectable because of its minute size and because, inexplicably, Walton felt the pain from it in a different part of his foot.
As the months dragged on, he was confronted with not only the tedium, exasperation and boredom attendant to his injury, but with a variety of rumors as well. Among them: that he was a malingerer content to collect his salary; that his teammates, especially high-scoring Guard Lloyd Free, resented him; that his vegetarian diet had made his bones brittle; and that his skills had eroded, partly from all the injuries, partly from the inactivity.
However, the tomograms confirmed that he's no rip-off artist; no one, after all, can run on a broken foot, though Walton tried. And after the Phoenix game, Free was so enthusiastic about the Stranger's return that he all but led cheers. As for brittle bones, it seems that Walton breaks them for two reasons; 1) he regularly crashes to the floor from on high, and 2) his feet have extremely high arches, which coupled with his weight of 225 pounds, puts great strain on the bones in his feet. As for his ability, well, there were moments last week when he seemed to be the best player on the floor. "No one except Bill Walton could've come back and played the way he did tonight," said Swen Nater, the Clippers' starting center, who will be relegated to the bench if Walton recovers fully.