In August of last year John Papanek wrote our cover story on Bill Walton's broken left foot and his decision to leave Portland (SI, Aug. 21, 1978). A friendship developed between the two, eventually leading to their decision to spend some time this summer hiking in the Sierras.
"Walton and I grew up similarly, though in different places," says Papanek, who is 27 to Walton's 26. "The social and political questioning he went through at UCLA, I experienced at Michigan, and I found we had similar views on things. The difference, of course, is that he was a basketball star, and his opinions on such subjects as Vietnam got into print. My feelings were not made public. When we graduated, he had a tougher time fitting, with his personality, into the sports world than I did into sports journalism. Journalists seem a little more tolerant than basketball owners.
"We started the Sierra trip at 7,000 feet, and I was sucking wind from the first step," Papanek recalls. "Bill was cruising up the John Muir Trail, stopping every mile or so for me to catch up. I just kept following those size 17 boot prints. And watching for bear droppings." (A bear in fact did later wipe out their supplies.)
By the second day, Papanek was transcending himself, perhaps because he'd been eating Walton's health food. "I was tied into Walton's energy," he says. "I was on his heels all the way and felt like one of his teammates being swept along to a championship."
October 14, 1979
Papanek had brought a new camera with him to document the trip, and the picture on pages 102 and 103 of his story about Walton in this issue is Papanek's, as is the other, on page 106.
"Bill is 6'11", but he seemed tiny in the mountain setting," Papanek says. "And every time I began to take his picture, he was onto me immediately and shied away from the camera. He felt it was an invasion of his privacy."
Back in San Diego, Walton and his family posed readily for additional photographs, but when it came to the cover shot, Los Angeles-based photographer Peter Read Miller called on another branch of the media, radio station KPRI-FM in San Diego, to set the mood. If Walton had clutched at the sight of Papanek's camera, he was really uncomfortable posing for Miller in that three-piece suit. It might help if he could listen to some music, Walton suggested, and Papanek and Miller agreed. "Tell them what we're doing and they'll know what to play," said Walton as Papanek telephoned the station, and five minutes later a deep deejay voice boomed through the speakers, "Hello to Bill and John and Peter at the Sports Arena. Here's your music...."
"They played Uncle John's Band," says Miller, "and it made for a magic moment. Walton threw back his head and roared, and I went click. I shot for a few more minutes, but all three of us knew the first would be our cover." It was, it is, and to photographer Miller, to a music-loving redhead, to that deejay on KPRI-FM in San Diego and to a band of musicians called The Dead—SI is Grateful.