His tendinitis-inflamed knees will still require ice packs and heating pads. His allergic reactions to a minor beesting while bicycling last summer caused collapse, a rush to the hospital by ambulance and heavy injections of an antitoxin ("It could have been fatal," said the doctor). Then, on the first day of practice last month, the final humiliation: his coach made him get a haircut. Nevertheless, the young man on the opposite and following page who is defending, passing, swooping in and looking out over all of college basketball remains an ode to excellence in his sport. As the street rhetoric so often used to describe him has it: "The Redhead, he be the baddest ever."
Four years ago Denny Crum, now coach of Louisville but at the time assistant to John Wooden at UCLA and the team's chief recruiter, returned from a scouting trip in the San Diego area. "Coach," he told Wooden, "I've just seen the greatest high school prospect ever." Wooden reminded Crum that Lew Alcindor in New York. "Yeah," Crum said, "but this kid is better." Wooden quietly turned toward his office and said, "Come inside—and close the door."
Bill Walton is not the kind of player anybody, even John Wooden, could hide for long. Last season he led UCLA to its seventh consecutive national championship, its ninth in the last 10 years, its 75th straight victory over 2½ seasons. He has participated in 60 of those games, and last March in No. 60, when he made 21 of 22 shots and scored 44 points against Memphis State as UCLA won the championship again, the accolades peaked and held. High-toned praise was no longer necessary, it seemed; comparisons with other historical denizens of the college game no longer valid. Kurland? Mikan? Russell? Gola? Chamberlain? Robertson? Lucas? Bradley? Maravich? Alcindor? Where have all the laurel wreaths gone?
Having been offered kings' ransoms to leave school and join a professional team, Walton demurred. Instead he remained at UCLA, and next week he begins his final season as an undergraduate. This time he has David Thompson, North Carolina State, the Atlantic Coast Conference, the entire NCAA and every campus hotshot out to get him. He has the alltime record for field-goal percentage easily within reach. And he has the opportunity to become the first man to lead his team through three years of college basketball to 90 victories. Can he? Probably, because the Redhead may just be the baddest ever.