Over the past several months, Bill Walton has been so frustrated that he has listened to every theory, weighed every possibility and considered almost any idea that would help hasten his return to the NBA.
"When you're at my stage, you try anything," he says. Literally. And that in part explains two special drinks Walton now consumes daily because of a deficiency in his blood of trace elements, especially manganese, which is essential in the formation of bone. One drink contains calcium, phosphorus, magnesium and copper. The other is composed of iron, fluoride, zinc and manganese. "Oh, they taste real bad," says Walton. "The more you drink, the worse they taste. The calcium drink looks like water. The iron drink is dark, like oil. It tastes even worse. The amazing thing is that after two months of this stuff they still can't find any manganese in my blood. But I keep drinking it. I've tried weirder stuff."
For all of the new decade and quite a bit of the one just past, Walton had been trying to do what he does best—play basketball. And last week—at 7:57 p.m. on Tuesday, Jan. 29, for the record—with 1:44 left in the first quarter of a game against the Phoenix Suns, he accomplished just that when he unfurled himself from the bench of the San Diego Clippers, threw off his warmup jacket and trotted onto the floor as the hometown fans gave him the applause they had been saving for months. It was Walton's first regular-season appearance since April 21, 1978, when he hobbled away from a playoff game between Portland and Seattle with what turned out to be the first of two fractures of the tarsal navicular bone in his left foot.
Now after a seemingly interminable period of rehabilitation, Walton was back, and his return came at a most propitious time for the Clippers, troubled as they were with lagging attendance and a six-game losing streak. Walton eased both crises, as 11,428 fans, about 4,000 more than the San Diego average, showed up to watch the player some Clippers have dubbed "the Stranger" help San Diego to a 133-121 victory.
Walton played slightly more than 13 minutes, and the time was parceled out in eyedropper fashion. His longest stint was but four minutes and 19 seconds. Still he made four of five shots, grabbed four rebounds, blocked a shot, intimidated several Phoenix players and did a lot of the subtle, deft things that make him a textbook player. Clipper owner Irv Levin, who signed Walton to a $7 million, 7-year contract last spring, took a look at the crowd of reporters still gathered around Walton an hour after the game and said, "Tonight was great show business. If he can stay healthy, we've got a lot of fun ahead of us."
The first bit of fun occurred the next morning when Walton came up not limping. Sure, there still was a little tenderness in his foot, but nothing serious. He attended a Clippers practice and did some swimming and weightlifting. Walton's rehabilitation program calls for him to play basketball every other day. Because of the All-Star break, the Clippers had seven days off following the Phoenix game, and they don't play back-to-back games until this weekend. "We'll see how I feel next week and then make a decision about whether I can go two days in a row," Walton said.
Without question, Walton's odyssey over the last 22 months, as he went from star to stranger, has been an odd one. Since hurting himself in 1978, he had quit the Trail Blazers amid bitter allegations of inept medical treatment; signed with San Diego, which heralded his arrival with skywriting: WALTON IS A CLIPPER; endured operations for the removal of bone spurs on both ankles; undergone a personality change, switching from the unapproachable political activist to the equivalent of an effervescent habituè of Main Street; and confounded a battery of doctors, scientists and friends who wrestled with diagnosing the cause of the ache in his left foot.
Walton thought he had licked the injury until a Sept. 28 exhibition game against the Los Angeles Lakers, when he took himself out and went to the locker room to stick his foot in a bucket of ice. Mysteriously, it hurt again. A week later he was on crutches, and soon he was seeing a variety of doctors in hope of getting a correct diagnosis. After a month of tests that failed to show any fracture, Walton's friends and physicians, Dr. Ernie Vandeweghe and Dr. Tony Daly, thought the injury to be a sprained ligament. Finally, after two sets of special X rays called tomograms, a new break in the tarsal navicular bone, a crack one-fifth of an inch deep and not located near the original fracture, was discovered. It had been virtually undetectable because of its minute size and because, inexplicably, Walton felt the pain from it in a different part of his foot.
As the months dragged on, he was confronted with not only the tedium, exasperation and boredom attendant to his injury, but with a variety of rumors as well. Among them: that he was a malingerer content to collect his salary; that his teammates, especially high-scoring Guard Lloyd Free, resented him; that his vegetarian diet had made his bones brittle; and that his skills had eroded, partly from all the injuries, partly from the inactivity.
However, the tomograms confirmed that he's no rip-off artist; no one, after all, can run on a broken foot, though Walton tried. And after the Phoenix game, Free was so enthusiastic about the Stranger's return that he all but led cheers. As for brittle bones, it seems that Walton breaks them for two reasons; 1) he regularly crashes to the floor from on high, and 2) his feet have extremely high arches, which coupled with his weight of 225 pounds, puts great strain on the bones in his feet. As for his ability, well, there were moments last week when he seemed to be the best player on the floor. "No one except Bill Walton could've come back and played the way he did tonight," said Swen Nater, the Clippers' starting center, who will be relegated to the bench if Walton recovers fully.
"I felt I helped the team win," said Walton the day after the Phoenix game. "Obviously I'm limited physically right now because of my conditioning, and I don't have confidence in my leg. That is going to be the hardest thing, the subconscious worry I have about it. Right now I'm not able to do some of the things that I've done in the past, and that I'll be able to do in the future."
The Clippers' coach, Gene Shue, who might be the reigning expert on the rehabilitation of players, judging from his penchant for taking in the league's rejects and wayward souls, was ecstatic over that prospect. "This is really exciting, and it couldn't have come at a better time," he said. "I'm just trying to get Bill through this season without getting hurt. The idea is to build up his strength and his confidence."
Walton started workouts several weeks ago and was immediately encouraged in practice sessions against players from the University of San Diego and his old school, UCLA. In a scrimmage at his alma mater, he took a couple of nasty falls, including one in which he landed hard on his left foot. Afterward, Larry Brown, the UCLA coach, told him, "That was a good workout today, Bill. You went to the floor twice and you didn't break your foot."
In his six-year pro career, Walton has missed 257 of 467 regular-season games, including 160 straight before playing against Phoenix. Over the years he has accumulated a staggering list of injuries: five broken noses, three broken fingers, two broken feet, a broken leg, a broken wrist and damaged knees. Along the way he has had eight operations, which may account for his new bedside manner with the press.
To alleviate the strain on his feet, his physicians have prescribed larger shoes, because Walton was wearing sneakers two sizes too small, and they recommended softer, more supportive inserts in his shoes to better distribute the pounding his feet take in games. They also made him stop eating shellfish, which Walton had been consuming in large quantities, because it was apparently giving him too high a level of arsenate, which slows bone growth.
Walton's return—though welcome—will require some adjustments for the Clippers, because on offense San Diego has been going for the long-ball this season. Free, the Clippers' top gun, doesn't shrink from self-publicity; he has billed himself as "All-World"—perhaps with some justification. Free is the second-leading scorer in the NBA with a 31.4-point average, and was selected to start for the West in the All-Star game. Free, Brian Taylor and Freeman Williams, San Diego's three best guards, think nothing at all of pulling up on the fast break and letting loose three-point attempts; in fact, Taylor leads the league in three-pointers attempted (179) and made (69).
Of Walton's impending return, Free was quoted as saying, "He may be a superstar in his world, but I'm a superstar in mine—and he better be aware of it." Free also said, "Gene Shue has already told me there's no way he's going to change my game." And All-World wondered how Nater, the league's second-leading rebounder and Walton's backup in college, would react to riding to the bench. "It must be killing him inside. I know it would me," Free said.
Against Phoenix, Free played tentatively in the early going, shooting poorly, which prompted a fan to shout at one juncture, "C'mon World, we still love you." Near the end of the first quarter, Free hit Williams with a good pass. A short time later, during a break for a free throw, Walton walked past Free and whispered, "Nice pass."
"Let's work," Free replied. In the second half he made six of 11 shots and finished with 32 points. Late in the game, with the Clippers leading 110-103, Walton loped downcourt with his hands held high, indicating San Diego's 1-4 play. "That's for me to take complete control," explained Free. "He knew the game was close, and he knew what I could do. That really made me smile."
Free swished a 22-footer, and when the ball rippled through the net, Walton swung his fist triumphantly. Afterward, Free sounded as if he had just found a new friend. "There's no negative vibes about the guy," he said. "He's going to be a great leader for us because he knows what's going on out there on the court. He showed me why Portland won a title."
The Clippers tried 12 three-pointers and made half of them. And inside Nater shot seven for seven from the floor, scored 17 points, had 21 rebounds and even played forward for a short spell, scoring a basket off a nice feed from Walton. "The only style really important is a winning style," Walton said the next day. "Our guards can score points. It would be nonsensical to try to change that."
Then he was asked what the key would be to the remainder of the Clippers' season. "The key is for me to stay in there—for more than three games," he said. "I was real pleased with last night. Hey, I'm walking around today." Outside, after several days of rain, the skies over San Diego were clearing up. For Walton it just felt so good to be able to walk around knowing that he could wear a uniform again instead of a fiber glass cast. "I've played the game a million times in my head," Walton said. "Now I can let my legs play it."