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Saturday, September 23, 2000
Updated: July 5, 4:14 PM ET
Walton weathered injuries to win titles

By Lisette Hilton
Special to

"One of the saddest days for Coach Wooden was the day he came down and had to bail me out of jail after I got arrested in the anti-Vietnam protest. He said, 'Bill, I know you feel very strongly about this, but I just don't think that you getting arrested and taking part in this demonstration is what it's all about," says Bill Walton on ESPN Classic's SportsCentury series.

Before the injuries hampered his professional career, Bill Walton dominated college basketball.
From 1972-74, Bill Walton led UCLA to an 86-4 record and two national titles.
At UCLA in the early '70s, the 6-foot-11, 235-pound center was the linchpin of the Bruins winning an NCAA record 88 consecutive games. Walton didn't just play basketball; he understood the soul of the game.

He learned about competition early, beginning at Blessed Sacrament Elementary School in La Mesa, a suburb of San Diego. A shy and nervous seventh grader who stuttered, Walton was in no hurry to leave the restroom before the tip-off of a local Catholic league championship game.

His coach, Rocky Graciano, took note of the promising player's trepidation and told him, "Bill, you've got to learn to love these moments because this is what sports is all about, playing for the championship. You're going to play in a lot of these championship games before you're through and you have to look forward to each one as if it's the greatest opportunity and the greatest moment of your life."

Walton never forgot the message. He won two high school championships (1969 and 1970), two NCAA crowns at UCLA (1972 and 1973) and two NBA titles (with the 1977 Portland Trail Blazers and 1986 Boston Celtics).

The once shy Walton became a ferocious, outspoken and controversial player and person. He immersed himself in basketball and the times. A fan of the Grateful Dead, Walton was known for joining fringe causes. He was arrested while he was a junior at UCLA during an anti-Vietnam War rally. Walton was just as intense about the physical and mental games of basketball.

UCLA coach John Wooden described Walton as "intelligent" and "inquisitive." In the forward of Walton's book, "Nothing But Net," Wooden wrote, "As a player, Bill was one of the greatest who ever performed at his position at every level of competition -- high school, college and professional. There are many true students of the sport who consider him to be the very finest when all aspects of the games are taken into consideration."

Walton was born on Nov. 5, 1952 in La Mesa. He grew up in a middle-class home where his parents didn't own a television until the mid-sixties. His father Ted was more interested in music and literature than in sports. Still, his dad never discouraged him from playing basketball.

In his senior year at Helix High School, Walton averaged 29 points and 25 rebounds in leading the team to a 33-0 season and its second straight championship. Almost every major college was offering him a scholarship.

Walton greatly respected Wooden and chose UCLA. Under the wizard's guidance,
Walton won three Player of the Year awards at UCLA.
Walton became the consummate center - rebounding, passing, blocking shots and scoring. Not only was he a three-time first-team All-American, he also was the Division I Player of the Year each season (1972-74).

UCLA went 30-0 in both of Walton's first two seasons. He scored 24 points and grabbed 20 rebounds as the Bruins defeated Florida State 81-76 in the 1972 NCAA championship game.

A year later, Walton put on perhaps the greatest display in an NCAA tournament game as he made 21-of-22 field-goal attempts in scoring a finals record 44 points in an 87-66 rout of Memphis State.

UCLA's winning streak reached 88 before it was snapped at Notre Dame 71-70 on Jan. 19, 1974. Counting back to high school, Walton's teams had won 129 consecutive games.

His collegiate career didn't end on a high, however. Seeking to win its eighth consecutive NCAA championship, UCLA lost to North Carolina State and David Thompson, 80-77, in double overtime in the Final Four.

The Walton Gang went 86-4 in three years, with the big redhead scoring 1,767 points (20.3 average), grabbing 1,370 rebounds (breaking Kareem Abdul-Jabbar's school record with his 15.7 average) and also being the second most accurate shooter in UCLA history with a .651 field-goal percentage.

After graduating with honors, Walton was made the first pick in the 1974 draft by the Portland Trail Blazers. But he never fulfilled the greatness he showed in college because of injuries.

While he was sidelined for only three of 90 UCLA games, he missed more contests (680) than he played (488) during his NBA career. Only once in 14 years did he play more than 70 regular-season games.

As a rookie in 1974-75, an injury-prone Walton was limited to 35 games and averaged just 12.8 points. The next season, Walton played 51 games; he averaged 16.1 points and 13.4 rebounds though the Trail Blazers finished last in the Pacific Division.

He made his mark during Portland's 1976-77 championship season, when he played in 65 games and won the NBA's MVP award.
Walton led Portland past Dr. J and the 76ers in the 1977 NBA Finals.
He averaged 18.6 points and led the NBA in rebounding (14.4) and blocked shots (3.25). After the Trail Blazers, who finished second to the Lakers in the Pacific Division in the regular season, swept Los Angeles in the Western Conference finals, it rallied from a 2-0 deficit to win the NBA Finals in six games over the Philadelphia 76ers. Walton was voted the Finals MVP.

In 1978, Walton was named All-NBA First Team for the only time after averaging career-highs in points (18.9) and assists (5.0). He also averaged 13.2 rebounds and 2.5 blocks. But injuries hit him again and he played in just 58 games. After a 50-10 start, the Trail Blazers finished 58-24 and didn't even reach the Western Conference finals.

Walton missed the entire 1978-79 season because of a foot injury. He wanted out of Portland. He was so dissatisfied with the quality of medical care he received from the Trail Blazers' medical staff that he filed a malpractice suit.

On May 13, 1979, Walton, a free agent, signed a $7-million, seven-year contract with his hometown team, the San Diego Clippers. After just playing 14 games in 1979-80, he missed the next two seasons because of injuries to his feet.

Walton passed the time by attending Stanford Law School. When he returned to the NBA in 1982, the Clippers gingerly played the center, who appeared in only 33 games. By the end of the 1984-85 season, the Clippers' first in Los Angeles, Walton was embarrassed by his stats: 10.1 points and nine rebounds, though he did play in 67 games.

On Sept. 6, 1985, Walton was traded to the Celtics, where he would back up center Robert Parrish. He made it through 80 regular-season games (averaging 7.6 points and 6.8 rebounds in 19.3 minutes a game) and won the NBA's sixth man award. Playing 16 of 18 playoff games, he helped Boston win the championship.

But Walton suffered stress fractures in his foot the following season, and played in only 10 games. After spending the entire 1987-88 regular season recovering from major surgery on his right foot, he tried to return to practice, but the pain was too great. Walton called it quits.

For his career, Walton averaged 13.3 points and 10.5 rebounds. His field-goal percentage was .521 and his foul-shooting percentage was .660. In February 1990, almost three years after Walton had played his last NBA game, he was contemplating a comeback - until his most devastating injury took hold. He got up and couldn't walk. His foot and ankle were so badly damaged that they were partially dislocated and the disintegrating bones were grinding together.

All his accomplishments seemed like nothing compared with the devastation of undergoing an ankle fusion.

Walton found that getting off the court didn't mean getting out of basketball. Since the early nineties Walton, who had gotten over his stuttering problem, has expressed his views as a television basketball analyst.

"Among the nicest and most satisfying rewards of my new career as a broadcaster," he said, "is that I get to work and I don't get hurt physically."