Bill Walton studied the question as a man might study a shotgun pointed at his head. The giant center had just played in his fourth professional game for Portland, an exhibition against Washington last Thursday night in Landover, Md., and he had been called for three fouls in the first 10 minutes. Some of the calls had been odd, and when more followed he was retired by the officials in the final quarter. It hadn't helped when Washington won the game in double overtime. Now Walton was asked what he thought of the officiating.
Another player might have lashed out, either at the officials or at the questioner. Not Walton. Fresh from a shower, he frowned as he toweled his lanky body. He stared at the floor, peered across the room at his Portland teammates and looked down at the questioner, who began to fidget. A long silent moment passed, followed by another. At last, just as it seemed he would remain forever mute, he spoke, barely. "No comment," he said softly. "I am not getting paid to evaluate the officiating."
For Walton, who long ago decided that he was in the public domain only while on the basketball court, the answer was the equivalent of a speech. Always a private person, except in those rare moments when he chose to speak out against the war in Vietnam or racial discrimination, the NBA's prize rookie has become even more reclusive. And that, to his horror, has made those people who are determined to invade his private life even more curious about him. "I play basketball and when I'm not playing I do my own thing," he says patiently and politely. "The two parts are not connected. I'll talk about the first, not about the second."
It isn't working. For one thing when you are 6'11" it's tough to get lost in a crowd. And when you compound it with long flowing red hair held in place by a bandanna, add a beard and dress like a mountain man, people just naturally are going to want to know—for starters, anyway—what you had for dinner.
If Walton elected to answer, he would probably say that he had dined on a plate of lettuce, peas, tomatoes, cucumbers and cottage cheese, followed by numerous apples and oranges and grapes, with perhaps a few avocadoes. All washed down by drafts of liquefied ginseng root or milk, followed by some nuts for protein. Two years ago he gave up meat and fish. "Dead flesh," he calls it. This is the part of his counter-culture life-style that has the Trail Blazers slightly worried. The NBA isn't the NCAA and its centers need vast quantities of sustenance to help them survive the pounding of an 82-game schedule, three times longer and infinitely more wearing than UCLA's.
Most NBA players like to report in the fall at least five pounds overweight, feeling that they'll be just right when the season opens. Last summer when Walton wasn't fasting he was eating nothing but raw fruit and vegetables, and when he reported on Sept. 16 he weighed 216 pounds, 14 pounds less than he did at UCLA. He was checked by a team doctor, who said Walton knew his own body better than any athlete he had ever seen—and not to worry. Walton promised the Blazers that he would add soups and large amounts of rice to his diet and be up to 225 by the opener against Cleveland next weekend. "Maybe he can do it now that we have ended the two-a-days," says Stu Inman, the team's vice-president.
No matter, for the moment at least. In his pro debut, a 92-91 Portland victory over Los Angeles, Walton was both slender and devastating. He showed the Lakers a stunning combination of agility, size, coordination and determination. He loves the game and loves to play it well. And he's smart. He was, after all, a John Wooden pupil and he comes into the pros as a master of the fundamentals.
Perhaps the most notable aspect of his game so far is the way he uses his hands, both on offense and defense. As he works endlessly for position with quick, sure steps, his hands are held high and his fingers are spread tensely to reach for a pass or to pluck at a rebound. Darting about, his hands at shoulder height, he resembles a giant crane and, startlingly, a red-haired Abe Lincoln. "My God, look at that!" screamed a lady fan last week. "It's Honest Abe out there in short pants."
The historic first meeting of Walton and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar last Friday night drew a sellout crowd of 13,458 to the arena at Dayton, Ohio, and if anyone had polled the audience later it would have been 13,458-0 that the veteran Milwaukee center had taken the 21-year-old rookie to school. Walton agreed with that estimate. "I said it before and I'll say it again: he is the best I've ever seen," Walton whispered after the Bucks had won 103-96. "I learned something out there tonight."
Abdul-Jabbar, who was to break a bone in his right hand in a fit of pique the next night, didn't allow himself to get quite so excited about playing Walton. He started slowly, almost cautiously, as though feeling out the NBA's No. 1 draft pick. Two minutes passed before he posted his first points, on a short jumper. Then he quickly went to work: a stuff, another jumper, a layup, a hook. He was showing the kid where it was at, all with a somewhat bored expression. Then with one second left in the first quarter, Abdul-Jabbar picked up a loose ball some 15 feet from the basket, half-turned and hit with a sky hook.
With that, he turned and strolled toward the bench. Behind him he left a momentarily shattered Walton, staring at the basket and shaking his head. By the time the post-graduate seminar was over, Abdul-Jabbar had scored 34 points, Walton 15. During the 27 minutes they were on the floor together Abdul-Jabbar had outscored Walton 28-8.
On that evidence alone it was a total mismatch. But it wasn't, really. Walton came down with 16 rebounds, Abdul-Jabbar with 11. And time and again Walton managed to work inside his taller opponent under the offensive basket only to have a successful Portland shot make his move superfluous. He is a much more aggressive and a more naturally gifted rebounder than Abdul-Jabbar.
In the Lakers game Walton had an impressive 28 rebounds against seven-foot Elmore Smith, 12 of them at the offensive end. Offensive rebounds are a significant statistic that the ABA has long recorded but the NBA began to keep track of only last season.
In orthodox situations, the defensive man maintains position between the player he is assigned to guard and the basket. When the ball goes up, the defender's assignment is to turn toward the basket, crouched low and with elbows lifted behind him, and to take up enough space to prevent the offensive player from moving into rebounding position. For some teams, it is enough if a defender does nothing more than this, just checking his man off the boards.
But when Walton is checked, he uses his quickness to slice past the defender and get to the board. By slapping an offensive rebound to keep it alive or by actually recovering a missed shot, Walton not only gives Portland another opportunity for two points but at the same time deprives opponents of the possibility of a fast break.
It is also true that in the schemes of their respective coaches, Abdul-Jabbar is supposed to score more than Walton. When Walton asks for the ball, it is to hit someone with a pass. Abdul-Jabbar's instructions are to look first for a shot and pass if no opportunity presents itself. As a rule, Walton will shoot only if no passing opportunity occurs.
Still, Walton must do some scoring. Since his opening performance of 26 points against the Lakers, his production has tailed off badly. He had only 10 against Golden State, hit on but three of 18 shots from the field against the New York Knicks and scored just six points against Washington. "Just six points?" said K. C. Jones, the Washington coach. "Man, he can do it all. He's quick, he's smart. He's a good passer, he knows when to shoot, he blocks shots. What else is there?"
"Only experience. It's the first time he's ever played me," said Abdul-Jabbar after the Bucks game, "and the first time is always tough. It's always tougher for the younger man because the older man knows what he's doing. I could tell him but you have to learn through experience. He's got to learn to face the basket. But he's quick and he rebounds well and he tries to help his teammates."
The towering All-Star center thought about his own pro introduction and he had to laugh. "It was against Nate Thurmond in that crazy place, the Civic Auditorium in San Francisco with the crystal chandeliers. I got five rebounds and five points. I don't remember what Nate had but we got beat real badly. It was a memorable night for me because my performance was so even."
Walton's preseason shooting slump does not rate high among Portland's concerns. At UCLA he set an NCAA field-goal mark by hitting 65% of his shots, and he finished as the second highest scorer (behind Lew Alcindor, as Abdul-Jabbar was then known) in UCLA history. "At UCLA we always had two months of practice before our first game," Walton says, as a possible explanation for his poor marksmanship. "At Portland we had just two weeks. It will come. Besides, this isn't a one-man team. We've got some really great shooters—people like Sidney Wicks and Geoff Petrie and J. J. Johnson. It's my job to see that they score."
Right on, says Wicks, a three-time All-Star forward and the NBA Rookie of the Year in 1972, who was delighted when his ex-teammate took up residence in Portland. "With Bill here I've been able to do things I used to be able to do at UCLA," says Wicks. "I can play good defense and we are playing good team defense. We can run plays into Bill. We can do to teams what they used to do to us. We can be aggressive. I have to play more without the ball, but the adjustment has to be made by me. I can cut more, but not go so deep because Bill's in the area. It opens some opportunities because when I drive, now I can drop the ball off to Bill. We're playing right-on basketball."
After Walton's encounter with Abdul-Jabbar, Lenny Wilkens, who has elected to become a player-coach this season, was asked to assess his rookie's performance. "To compare Bill with Kareem at this time, after only one game, would be unfair. Bill is still learning. But who could he learn better from than Kareem? And no matter how great Bill does become, he will always be a different player from Kareem. This one game doesn't prove anything at all. All this proves is that Kareem is one heckuva player."
And what about Walton's performance over the long season?
"It can only improve," said Wilkens. "If you mean physically, in camp he was tested. He knows what it is all about. He moves so well, he's not so easy for guys to pound. I don't think it will be a problem. A player can be strong without being well-built. He's wiry strong."
After the game, Abdul-Jabbar went back to his hotel room. He was lying on the bed watching television when three friends came in: Walton, Wicks and LaRue Martin, Portland's other center, who suddenly has begun playing very well. On the tube the sportscaster began talking about how badly Abdul-Jabbar had outplayed the rookie. For a moment the room was quiet. And then Abdul-Jabbar, staring at the ceiling, said softly, "Big deal."