The most memorable aspect of Bill Walton's return to the NBA did not occur last Friday night, when in his first league game since March 11, 1980 he scored 20 points, had nine rebounds and blocked two shots in 28 minutes as his San Diego Clippers lost 113-99 to the Phoenix Suns. No, the moment to remember came the next day, as the Clippers shot free throws in a small gym on the North Island Naval Air Station in nearby Coronado. Except for Walton. He huddled on the sideline with Coach Paul Silas and Assistant Coach-Director of Player Personnel Pete Babcock. In Silas' hand was a Clippers' schedule, in Babcock's was an airline flight guide, which to the Clippers may be more important than their playbook.
In truth, the latter is dependent upon the former, which is why Silas and the Clippers have allowed Walton to begin his umpteenth comeback from foot injuries by commuting on weekends from his second-year classes at Stanford law school to wherever San Diego is playing. Walton plans to play this Saturday night in Chicago—hence the huddle to discuss flights. A week later there's a home game against Kansas City. The Clippers are taking it one week at a time. Which is all you can do when you finish 17-65, as San Diego did last season, and your owner spent most of the off-season trying to move the franchise.
When the league nixed owner Donald Sterling's plan to shift the Clippers to L.A., he instituted a number of cost-cutting measures. Among them was practicing in Coronado. So what if the gym only has two baskets, the Clippers could use it free of charge. Before the start of training camp, each player was issued one practice jersey, one pair of shorts, two jockstraps and four pairs of socks.
Without the presence of first-round draft choice Terry Cummings, the 6'9" former DePaul All-America who is playing with Athletes In Action, and until the arrival of Guards Lionel Hollins and Randy Smith, who joined San Diego last week, the Clippers were in need of any bodies, which brings us to Walton. "Initially I was hardly overjoyed about having him once a week," Silas says, "but the more I thought about it, the more sense it made."
"The guys have been very, very good to me about this," Walton says. "It's not the most perfect situation, but given my track record, it's more sensible than anything else."
Heraclitus said "nothing endures but change," and perhaps Walton and his doctors, Ernie Vandeweghe and Tony Daly, had that in mind last summer when they broached the limited-time idea with the Clippers. Since January of 1981, when the bone structure in Walton's left foot was surgically reshaped to alleviate stress on the navicular bone, Walton has had only four well-spaced appearances against NBA-caliber players. In the fourth of those, the first of San Diego's two preseason games in mid-October, Walton scored 13 points and had 10 rebounds in 26 minutes against the Suns. With that lone exhibition appearance and three practice sessions under his belt, Walton was nonetheless in the starting lineup Friday night.
And although he and the Clippers talk at prearranged times, it's really more like catch as catch can, mainly because, as Walton says, "there are no phones in the library." Which is just fine with Silas. "Talking with him regularly doesn't concern me as much as him being ready to play," says Silas. "If he can only play once a week I don't see much sense in having him around all the time anyway."
The weekend arrangement isn't unprecedented. In 1962, the Lakers' Elgin Baylor was called to active duty with the Army Reserve. Baylor maintained his 38-points-per-game average playing mainly on weekends, but even he had problems.
In his first game as a part-timer, he scored 32 points and got nine rebounds in the West's 150-130 All-Star game victory. "My shooting was O.K. and I didn't get tired," Baylor said after the game, "but when I tried to make a move or to dribble, my timing was way off."
Other NBA players have had weekend-warrior status, among them Lenny Wilkens, now coach of the Seattle Super-Sonics. Unlike Baylor, Wilkens, then (1961) a guard with the Hawks, was an officer and couldn't easily get away from Fort Lee, Va. "I was assigned to troop duty," says Wilkens, whose Sonics beat the Walton-less Clippers 127-109 Sunday night. "In the morning I did running and calisthenics in addition to working out with the post team. I played one game a weekend for the Hawks, maybe two.