As great of a player Bill Walton was, many remember him best for his injury-riddled career and having an “interesting” off-court life (to put it mildly). Whatever Walton may have gotten into off-court, there was no denying his God-given ability to play the game of basketball.
There’s no mistaking greatness and the once in a generation talent Walton possessed. He could do everything expected of a center, and then some. The big man could defend, rebound, pass from the high post, pass from the low post, score over the top of defenders, around them, under them…Walton could do it all.
There was only one thing that kept Walton from becoming one of the 10 best players of all time: injuries. The 6-11 center suffered from injuries dating back to his high school days, when he broke multiple bones in his foot, broke his ankle, his leg and had to undergo knee surgery.
Unfortunately, Walton’s struggles with injuries didn’t end there. While attending UCLA and playing for legendary college coach John Wooden, Walton dealt with back issues and tendinitis in his knees. In spite of the pain, Walton became one of the best college players of all time, winning three straight College Player of the Year Awards.
Walton averaged 20 and 16 over his tremendous four-year college career, leading the Bruins to two national championships and finishing his career with a win-loss record of 86-4. His domination on the court was why his off-court issues were handled with a bit of leeway.
Walton’s off-court issues weren’t debilitating like struggling with alcohol addiction or violence. In fact, it was quite tame in comparison. He enjoyed the idea of spiritual enlightenment and was very anti-establishment oriented. Not quite a “bad boy” per se, but Walton was vehemently against the Vietnam War and strongly opposed Richard Nixon, to the point where he was arrested during an anti-Vietnam rally. It’s quite hard for a 6-11 man to go unnoticed in a crowd (especially with a multi-colored headband on his head), so it was no surprise he was one of the first arrested.
While Walton was entranced with “hippie” ideas off the court, coach Wooden did his best to keep his young star on the court as much as he could. Keeping Walton occupied was key to keeping him out of jail, and it was mostly a success.
After his stellar college career, Walton was the most coveted player in the 1974 draft. Even his past history with injuries weren’t enough to sway any general managers from wanting Walton on their team. The Portland Trail Blazers ended up with the first overall pick and wasted no time in drafting the talented big man.
Walton got off to a hot start in his rookie year, dominating the glass and showing off his offensive arsenal. But just seven games into his rookie season, he suffered his first NBA injury, an injury that limited Walton to just 35 games that season. While he showed that early promise, Walton’s inability to stay on the court allowed his fellow UCLA teammate Jamaal Wilkes (selected 11th overall) to swoop in and take the Rookie of the Year award.
When Walton was healthy, he showed why he was worthy of the No. 1 overall pick. He dominated on defense and altered every shot that came into his vicinity. On offense, he was as smooth an operator who ever stepped on an NBA court. Drawing comparisons to Bill Russell on defense and Wilt Chamberlain on offense, Walton was truly a transcendent center when he managed to stay on the floor, although he only appeared in 86 games in his first two seasons.
Walton finally remained relatively healthy in his third season, a year in which he averaged 18.6 points, 14.4 rebounds and 3.2 steals and led the Blazers to their first playoff appearance with him on the team. Coach Jack Ramsay, known as “Dr. Jack,” led the Blazers from the sideline while Walton dominated the paint. Lionel Hollins was a key playmaker and Maurice Lucas was equally as important, as he played the role of enforcer. The Blazers surprised the world by defeating Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and the Los Angeles Lakers to earn a berth in the 1977 NBA Finals against the Philadelphia 76ers.
The series seemed to be in Philadelphia’s favor from the beginning after they ran away with Game 1 and had a comfortable lead late in Game 2. Then, the importance of Lucas came into play. During a loose ball, the Sixers’ Darryl Dawkins threw a punch at Bob Gross (which missed), but Lucas saw and threw an elbow at Dawkins’s head as they came down the court. This led to a bench-clearing brawl and the ejection of both Dawkins and Lucas.
While the Sixers won that game, that brawl was what many NBA historians considered the pivot point of the Finals. The momentum completely swung in the favor of the Blazers, as they blew out the Sixers the next two games and then won the next two to win the first and only championship in franchise history.
Of course, Walton was key during the Finals, and he came away with an NBA championship and Finals MVP. Blazermania had officially swept through the Pacific Northwest, and fans were vindicated by the championship Walton brought them.
Walton was even better the following season, and it looked like the Blazers would repeat as champions when they got off to a 50-10 start. Walton averaged 18.9 points, 13.2 rebounds and 2.5 blocks, and it appeared nothing would stop them.
That, of course, was until another foot injury forced Walton to the sidelines once again. He still managed to win MVP for his outstanding production during the regular season, but unfortunately the injury marred the award. Itching to play and make another championship run, he decided to try and come back against the Seattle SuperSonics in the playoffs. It was admirable but ultimately foolish, as the big man completely broke a tarsal in his foot, effectively ending his career in Portland.
Walton thought the organization was responsible for his foot injury and demanded a trade out of the city. He even sued the organization for mismanagement of his injury, which had to be settled out of court. The Blazers didn’t give in to the trade demand, which led to him sitting out the 1978-79 season in protest before he signed with the San Diego Clippers as a free agent in 1979.
Walton gave four years to the city of Portland and shouldn’t be remembered for the controversy that happened at the very end. A dominant center, a great face for the franchise and a player who tried to give all he had despite the litany of injuries.
Despite all that occurred, Portland fans will forever be grateful to Walton for delivering the 1977 NBA championship.