Bill Walton -- caged power just waiting the day
I have interviewed people while they were playing the piano (Groucho Marx); while floating 3,000 feet in the sky (on the Goodyear blimp); and while crisis-crossing ramp jumps at 65 miles an hour (sitting next to stunt car driver Joie Chitwood).
But until recently I had never interviewed anyone who was standing on his head! What made this an extra added attraction was that the man with his feet in the air, head pointing due south, stood 6 ft. 11 in. tall and weighed 230 pounds.
Thank you Bill Walton of the San Diego Clippers -- for what I'm not sure, but thank you anyway. No doubt some janitor is going to wonder who walked on the ceiling in the visitor's locker room at the Forum in Los Angeles. Actually, all Bill was trying to do was stretch some muscles prior to an exhibition game.
The Walton story has been told so many times now that it has become a classic -- like Chicken Little. Since coming into the National Basketball Association in 1974 as the first-round draft pick of the Portland Trail Blazers, the former UCLA All-American has never played in more than 65 regular season games in any one year.
FOr Bill it has just been one physical problem after another -- and now with the new season just over a week away he is having problems once again with the foot injury that limited him to 14 games last year with the Clippers and exactly no games with Portland the season before.
Two years earlier Walton had averaged more than 18 points a game and grabbed close to 950 rebounds while leading the Blazers to a world championship and being voted the league's most valuable player.
The question now is: Can someone who has been away from the pro game for almost two years come back and make a significant contribution to the Clippers?
"If I can play, I can contribute," Walton explained, so I'm taking things easy. But for short periods of time, I can do all the things I used to do. How much or how little I play probably will depend on how I feel as we get into the regular season. But I have become a positive thinker and, yes, I wnat to say I can do it, except that I'm not really sure.
"One thing I'm grateful for is that there is another center on this team by the name of Swen Nater," Bill added. "We played together at UCLA, and if Nater weren't so good, I might feel guilty about taking so much time to find out about myself. But this way, with the team's permission. I have been able to set my own pace."
When he's right physically, Walton is one of the few centers in the NBA who wil frequently outplay or nullify the talents of Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. Often Bill makes better players of those around him, and in the past has been able to come out from under the basket and still hit his shots.
Asked what he had in mind for Walton, new Head Coach Paul Silas replied:
"Ideally I'd like to start Bill and play him about six or seven minutes a period. While Walton is resting we'd use Nater, who led the league in rebounds last year. But eventually if Bill were to show us that he could do more, we'd play him more.
"My overall approach has ben to go back to fundamentals and team defense," Silas added. "Last year we gave up four more points a game than we scored, and of our 47 defeats, 30 were on the road.
"This idea of it always being harder to win away from home is something I always fought as a player and will continue to fight as a coach. It doesn't make any sense because it's mental, and mental things can be overcome."
Exactly how optimistic is Paul?
"I'm sure that we're going to show a lot of improvement; that we'll be tougher defensively; that we'll win more on the road; and that by the second half of the season we'll fit together as a team," Paul said.
"The way we are we're not a first- or second-place team," he continued. "We have too far to go; too many things to change; and to many new people to work into our system. But I'm sure our first draft pick [forward Michael Brooks of La Salle] will be starting before we get very far into the season, and that we'll be in most of our games, even against the league's top teams."