It is not merely that Bill Walton has had three haircuts and at least that many showers in the past few months. Nor that he has sworn off rutabaga omelets, lumberjack ensembles and incendiary manifestos in support of the Siamese Refrigeration Army. What has caused such a stir in the ranks of professional basketball is the fact that out there in the beautiful Pacific Northwest of clean air, pine needles and sometimes a great notion. Bill Walton has emerged as the best all-round basketball player in the world.
As the Portland Trail Blazers rushed to the Pacific Division lead with a 15-6 record last week, Walton was largely responsible for his team's 13th straight victory at home—112-108 over Milwaukee on Saturday night—and for the Blazers stealing a couple of victories on the road. The 6'11", 225-pound mountain man was averaging more than 21 points a game while leading the NBA in rebounding (16.4), blocked shots (3.19) and growing up.
This last is no trivial accomplishment. Indeed, it is phenomenal to those who, for Walton's injury-plagued first two pro seasons, thought of him as some doped-up, whacked-out, weirdo, Commie-loving, acid freak hippie with lice in his hair and Patty Hearst's phone number in his datebook.
It seems only yesterday that Walton was wearing a ponytail. burning incense in airport terminals, answering questions from the FBI, and leaving himself open to charges of faking every sort of illness this side of schistosomiasis. But it was not just yesterday, it was two long years ago. And as for his basketball, which is all that should have mattered anyway, it must be understood that before this season Walton was never 100% physically sound. Never.
Ever since he began this season by not only devastating all competition but also actually looking joyful again—the way he did while winning two national championships at UCLA—the Portland center has been subjected to various and sundry psychological investigations intended to explain "the new Bill Walton." But aside from shearing his fiery orange locks and abandoning his exotic wardrobe of woodchopper getups, Walton says he has not changed. He basks in the same counterculture life-style, has the same friends, believes in the same political theories, eats the same cucumbers. What's so different?
"I'm just healthy," Walton said last week while wearing a lavender Grateful Dead T shirt. "That's all. For two years I wasn't able to run up and down the court freely without making a conscious effort out of it. Without thinking about it. That's no way to play basketball. I love this game. I always have. And I always knew how good I was. It's just that when you're going up against guys you know you can take anytime, but you can't because of a bad ankle or too much weight or a broken hand or something else, it is too discouraging. And not any fun."
Not any fun. Another carrottopped basketball player quit the game the other day because it was no longer any fun. And of course in his mind Bill Walton must have quit, too, that first year when the hurts—bone spurs, "brain spurs," whatever—piled up, the pressure and slanders crashed down and the rains came to Portland, leaving one of nature's true sun kids in a blue funk. Walton, at 22, could not be expected to cope with something like that the way a Dave Cowens, at 28, could and did.
In retrospect, Walton's troubled NBA beginnings were preordained when he chose to play for an expansion team wracked by conflicting personalities. Probably the UCLA graduate was a bit overrated as an instant dominating NBA center, if only because that kind of rare people—Russell, the defender; Chamberlain, the overpowering giant; Abdul-Jab-bar, the offensive genius—were specialists, while Walton simply did everything well, but nothing well enough to turn a bad team around by himself. And Portland was a very bad team.
In addition, Walton bitterly resented being thought of as the pro game's first "great white hope" dominator. So he wandered through 35 games during his rookie season and 51 last year while the resident Trail Blazer stars, Sidney Wicks and Geoff Petrie, continued sniping at each other as well as undermining management and criticizing their young pivotman's social behavior.
"Lack of harmony keeps a team from ever really developing," says Larry Steele, one of two Blazers left from pre-Walton days, "and there was never the basic respect for one another here. I think Bill, who always enjoyed basketball only within a team concept, was overwhelmed by the atmosphere."
It is little wonder that when Dr. Jack Ramsay came from Buffalo to coach Portland this year, he cleaned house. Petrie was traded, Wicks sold. The new boss said he was "a Walton man" and, with General Manager Stu Inman, Ramsay went out and got quick, smart players, men of good will and character who could surround and complement a hale and hearty Walton as well as run circle routes, Z-outs and fly patterns and haul in his outlet passes.
Walton used to loaf up the court in Portland's setup style, but he was always, as the song goes, born to run—and Ramsay ordered it. To date, the Trail Blazers have scored 45 points in a single quarter against Atlanta (after which Hawk Coach Hubie Brown pointed to the scoreboard and screamed at his troops, "Look up there. You know what that means? That means 180 damn points at the end"). They have scored 145 points against Indiana, 146 against Philadelphia. They lead the NBA in scoring average. "If I wanted to give a clinic on how to run the break, I could show our home-game films," says Ramsay. With a pressing, shot-rejecting defense at the other end of the floor, they also are sixth in league defense.
Portland's fast start can be attributed to its favorable early-season schedule at home, where the team has drawn a succession of sellouts or near-sellouts. Still, the Blazers' success seems fairly remarkable, in that seven members of the 12-man group are brand new this year and only Maurice Lucas ever played on a winner in the pros.
"What the coach has done is treat everybody the same," says one Blazer. "He is consistent in dealing with each individual. He's concerned with team attitudes, not just the stars'. Bill never got that equal treatment, not even at UCLA. He loves that here."
Walton has found some real soul partners, too. Lucas, the fearsome ABA enforcer, is another vegetarian, in addition to being one of the most complete power forwards in the league; at times Walton appears stunned when, high over the backboard, he glances across the rim to witness Lucas ripping another rebound asunder and scattering the bodies below him. "Bill's a gorilla until the fight starts. Then he goes in hiding while I straighten things out," Lucas says.
"I think most of Luke's friends are in homes," says Walton.
Two other Blazer starters would make any basic trivia exam. Bob Gross? Dave Twardzik? The 6'6" Gross is a deceptively talented second-year man out of Long Beach who shares Walton's devotion to ultraviolet rays whenever the schedule sets the Blazers down in a warm climate. And the 6'1" Twardzik is an ABA veteran from Virginia who made a reputation for himself by hitting the floor more often than Floyd Patterson while taking charging fouls and diving for loose balls. He is Walton's partner on four-wheel Jeep forays.
The duties of Gross and Twardzik mainly consist of harassing enemy dribblers until the ball goes up. At which point it is as if somebody fires off a pistol for the 100-yard dash. Woosh! With Guard Lionel Hollins, another burner, they are out of the blocks and filling the lanes as Walton and Lucas climb the boards, retrieve the ball, then hurl it downcourt.
Until last week Portland had been unable to get this scorching fast break cranked up on the road. In the process of adapting to one another, the back-court—rookie Johnny Davis and veteran Herm Gilliam spell Twardzik and Hollins—had been inconsistent and error-prone. Hollins alone threw away at least five fast-break opportunities in an embarrassing 115-106 defeat at Milwaukee on Tuesday.
The next evening at Indianapolis, the Blazers scored the first 12 points of the game. Then, after leading the Pacers 64-50 at halftime, Portland suddenly stopped running, scored only 15 points in the third quarter and had to struggle to save a 101-100 victory.
Though it was their first road triumph, the Blazers' inability to sustain poise away from home had not been cured. That didn't happen until they got to Phoenix last Friday night.
As a collegian Walton usually demonstrated that he was ready for a big game by dancing on the sidelines, glaring across the court, wrapping his lips over his teeth and blowing out great gusts of air from puffed-up cheeks. In those fine moments he had the appearance of some raging Neanderthal man preparing for death, and it was always a scary sight. In Phoenix, Walton was puffing his cheeks again.
Against the physical Suns, Walton and Lucas dominated the inside, sharing 44 points and 32 rebounds. Twice Portland led by 20 points, and when Phoenix cut the margin to 82-75 early in the fourth quarter, Walton simply took over. He banked in turn-around jumpers, spun for sky jams and either hurtled over or banged everybody into the dust for rebounds. He scored 11 points in a little more than seven minutes, and Portland won 113-99.
"The guy just keeps storming at you," said Phoenix Center Alvan Adams, shaking his head. "They should win the division easy."
In the Trail Blazer dressing room Walton was in rare form. "Listen up," he demanded of his teammates. "Tonight we stayed aggressive even in foul trouble. The bench picked us up [Gilliam had contributed 21 points]. Nice going, bench. Nice going, team. Now we got to keep rolling."
It was an invigorating moment for the young Blazers as well as an indication of the transformation Walton has undergone in his professional life. Though he is loath to admit to any immaturity during the past two years—Walton says he does not regret his notorious "the FBI is the enemy" line—he does say he "has learned some things about life." The Trail Blazers elected him team captain before the season, but his responsibilities go deeper than that.
Long ago Walton abandoned his "dream house," the $100,000 A-frame in the Portland suburbs, and last summer he moved into a large, old center-hall house near downtown Portland where he lives with his longtime friend Susie Guth and their 15-month-old son Adam. Walton's onetime spiritual leader, the sports militant Jack Scott, Scott's wife Micki and Walton's younger brother Andy are among others who "share our home."
Though Walton has kept his politics under wraps recently, he is not hesitant about sponsoring fund-raising get-togethers for the American Indian Movement (AIM) in his home and has commented that the recent Presidential election "went favorably for us."
All in all, Walton seems more settled, serene, happy and, yes, adult. Certainly two years of having to grow up in the newspapers and on television would tend to have that effect. Even his discomfiting stammer is notably cleared up.
"Bill's war with the people is over," says his good friend and former teammate Steve Jones. "Maybe the hair was the symbol. No more tangles, no more tears. At some point Bill realized he's a basketball player first, a political activist or whatever next. Maybe it was while he was rafting down the river."
Or riding his bike. Or munching his bran muffins. Or reading his Steinbeck and Vonnegut. Or bouncing his son on his knee. "I kidded Bill the other day about the haircuts," says Herm Gilliam. "I said pretty soon he'll have a crew cut and the American flag in his window. He laughed and laughed."
It is a marvelous sight to see Bill Walton laughing again. And puffing his cheeks, too.