I had been a fan of Basketball and the NBA for many years before I became aware of just how great Bill Walton was. I knew he was a former player, father of then NBA player, now NBA coach Luke Walton and a broadcaster for ESPN. It was when reading the final pages of Bill Simmons The Big Book of Basketball, that I got a sense of both how great he had been and how much greater he could have been! Simmons interviewed him for the Epilogue, making clear to his readers just how special Bill Walton had been to the NBA.
Bill Walton, born William Theodore Walton III in 1952 was an NBA player in the 1970’s and 1980’s. After leading the UCLA Bruins to 2 NCAA titles in 4 years, winning College Player of the year in 3 of those years, he joined the NBA. Taken by the Portland Trail Blazers with the first pick of the 1974 NBA Draft he went on to win two NBA titles, one finals MVP, one MVP and one sixth man of the year title. He was listed at 6ft11, 210lbs and played Centre. His second title and sixth man of the year came as back up centre to Robert Parish on the 1986 Boston Celtics team. Widely considered to be one of the best teams ever to play basketball.
So why all the fuss? Why was he so great, he only won two titles? One of them he was a substitute! To steal a phrase from Bill Simmons, Bill Walton is one of the biggest what if stories in NBA history.
Bill Walton – place in history
Bill Walton was ranked 27th on Bill Simmons all-time Pyramid when his last edition of the Big Book of Basketball was published in 2009. He is just ahead of Dwayne Wade and just Behind Rick Barry. Although it is clear from Simmons writing that if Walton had been able to stay healthy, he would have a much higher rank. His unusually dominant college career was a sure sign that he was destined to be one of the NBA greats. Back when it was common for the best players to stay at college for 4 years, Walton was NCAA player of the year 3 times. Winning two titles. He was drafted number 1 as expected in 1974. It was his rookie year that the first sign of injury trouble would cloud his career. Eventually he would stay healthy enough to lead his Portland Trailblazers to the championship in 1977. During the season he averaged 19 points, 4 assists and 15 rebounds, however it was his wider impact on the team, on both ends of the floor that elevated him to super star status.
The next season, 1977/78 Walton would dominate the league. His Trailblazers won 50 of their first 60 games. However a broken foot stopped him from competing in the Playoffs and another title would have to wait almost a decade. He had done enough however, to ensure that he won his one and only regular season MVP. In the process being named Centre on both the All NBA team and All Defence team. Quite simply Walton was the most dominant centre of his time. If he had been able to remain on the floor, he would have even more titles and records to his name.
Bill Walton – Boston Resurgence
When Bill Walton signed on to play the 1985/1986 season with a stacked Boston team, featuring back to back MVP Larry Bird, it was unclear what, if anything he would be able to contribute on the court. The previous year he had managed to play the most games of his career for the Clippers. Playing 67 games, starting 37 and averaging just 24mins per game. He had been effective, but not the dominant force he once was.
His role coming off the bench for the Celtics behind Robert Parish allowed him to play 80 regular season games and all 16 Playoff games as the Celtics stormed to the title. The 1986 Celtics are always in the conversation for best team ever, despite featuring stars like Bird, who would collect his third MVP title in a row that year. They are seen as a team that achieved more than the sum of their parts. Walton is a large part of that. His basketball IQ, skill level and willingness to do what ever it took for the team to win ensured the Celtics never let up on either end of the floor. Would the Celtics have won the title in 1986 without him? Possibly. But they certainly wouldn’t have dominated like they did without Big Red anchoring the paint for the second unit.
Bill Walton – retirement
Bill Walton would return for the Celtics the following year again plagued by injuries. He returned for the Playoffs, but eventually injuries forced him to retire for good in 1990 at the age of 38. His total games played over his career
are very low. Injuries wrecked any chance he had of breaking into the top echelon of the game’s elite stars. However, those who saw him play and those that know basketball will always hold him up as one of the biggest what could have been in NBA history.
Bill Walton and the modern era
As the game has evolved in many ways since his retirement, it is an interesting thought experiment to project him in the modern game.
Firstly, better footwear, medical treatment and a focus on rest and recovery would certainly have protected him from many of the injuries he faced.
Not playing 4 years in college, as is tradition for top prospects now. Would have seen him under the supervision of NBA team doctors and trainers from a much younger age. Not squandering his potential in college and helping him develop habits and routines that would have seen him stay much more durable.
His skill level was immense, so although big men are having to find a different way of playing. Think a better version of Nicola Jokic, who can also protect the rim. Scary right?
Bill Walton was a man born before his time.