"But travel was the big problem. I had to fly to St. Louis after a day on the base and then play the next night. My situation was totally different from Walton's. My team had already played 20 games before I came back. Plus, he's trying to work his way back from injuries."
Right now, the other Clippers are too awestricken by Walton to be resentful. Says Forward Michael Brooks, "Everyone plays so much better with him. It's nice to be with someone who's been an All-Pro and MVP instead of watching him play with someone else."
"It would help if he played more, but somehow he manages to blend in with us," says 6'10" Jerome Whitehead, whose floor time is most drastically affected by Walton's walk-ons.
During the week, Walton balances his law books with the playbook. Despite a course load that includes antitrust and tax law as well as classes in business associations and U.S.- Mexico relations, each day Walton finds about three hours to bicycle, lift weights, run and shoot alone in a gym at Stanford.
"If playing intramurals at Stanford were the only level I could attain, I'd do it because I love the game," he says, "but I think that I can play again in the NBA. Right now, no matter how much I want to be out there, I have to be in control if I'm going to reduce the chances of re-injuring myself. [ Walton's injuries, it should be recalled, were caused not by a single trauma but by the general wear and tear of playing in the pros.] I want this to work out more than anyone, so I'm doing all I can to ensure that it does happen and not fly away with the wind. I don't even think about the teams we'll be playing. The opportunity to play against everyone will come. At this point the bigger challenge is just being in any game.
"There are moments when everything's clicking and the team is falling into place, moments that you just live for. It's all eye contact. You have plays but everything done is split-second improvisation, and it's just by reading eyes."
The tone for Walton's latest return was set a minute and a half into the game when he blocked a shot by Alvan Adams but was called for goaltending. He picked up two quick fouls and sat out the remainder of the half with his third at 1:25 of the first period.
Walton started the third quarter, with the Suns ahead 58-45, and immediately scored on a short jump hook and a layup. A short time later he was officially welcomed back into the NBA when he was floored by an inadvertent Brooks elbow on a blind-side pick. For a moment Walton remained on the floor, seemingly stunned, but the blow only inspired him. He legally blocked his first shot at 9:06 of the quarter and the Clippers went on a tear to tie at 77 after three periods.
However, Walton was dragging noticeably late in the final period, as were Smith and Hollins, who led the Clippers' backcourt men in minutes played, with 48 and 25, respectively. The fact that the three had only a nodding acquaintance with San Diego's plays also showed as the Suns pulled away at the finish. Still, afterward, in the loser's locker room, there was a sense that the nightmare of a year ago had begun to dissipate.
Perhaps for one man it already had. Walton's first semester at Stanford ends in mid-December. Although the idea is for his once-a-week schedule to become twice a week and then full-time, whether he enrolls for the second term at law school depends on the progress he makes in his comeback. He refuses to speculate on the issue. After emerging from the shower room, Walton, his oft-injured foot apparently no worse for wear, waded through a mass of journalists waiting for him in front of his locker. Leaning back in his stall, Walton smiled. "It's nice to see all you guys again," he said.