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New Celtic Walton Is Adjusting : Thrill of Winning May Offset Winter Weather in the East

Hartford Courant

The dreaded days of winter, of slush-luscious sidewalks, frozen crystal patterns on the windows and tires spinning on the ice are still about three months away.

But when they do come, as nature dictates they surely will, they will be relatively new phenomena to Bill Walton, who has never resided anywhere east of California’s Death Valley.

Getting used to the joys of a New England winter won’t be his only adjustment. He will also have to get accustomed to playing on a basketball team that wins more than it loses and has rabid fan support, a more-than-equal swap for the inclement weather, at least in his mind.

For after a summer of often turbulent negotiations, the once quintessential, laid-back, Grateful Dead-worshipping, backpack-toting Californian is ready to live and play in the East for the first time.

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He has given up his ponytail, his beard, his macrobiotic diet, and, for the time being, his West Coast lifestyle. But he has not yielded an inch to his one true passion, which has outlasted the countless personality changes. Bill Walton still loves basketball. Madly. And he is as happy as a Californian in a hot tub to be playing it again for a living. And to be playing it for the Celtics.

Walton was not the only new face at the Celtics training camp, which opened Friday. But he surely is the most visible, the most famous, the most curious and, probably, the most important. He carries with him a personal and professional history that would make soap-opera writers envious and would be hard to fathom were it not factual.

On a short-term basis, from 1976 to early 1978, there may never have been a National Basketball Assn. center as dominant as Walton. His team won one NBA title and was on its way to a second when injury intervened.

For the next four years, there surely was not an NBA center as dormant as Walton. His left arch, as fragile as Royal Doulton and equally costly, collapsed under the weight of umpteen years of running up and down basketball courts.

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To the purists of the game, this was an unspeakable crime. To rob basketball of a man with the ability, enthusiasm and attitude of Walton was heinous. Here was someone who played the game the way it was meant to be played and who played it as good or better than anyone else.

It was football without a healthy Gale Sayers, hockey without a healthy Bobby Orr, baseball without a healthy Mickey Mantle. The would-haves and could-haves are endless. And, in Walton’s mind, unfair.

“There are so many would-haves and could-haves in this world,” he says. “You really have to stay away from those thoughts or they’ll kill you. You can’t dwell on what could have been or should have been. You have to dwell on what is.”

That is what the Celtics are doing. They care only that he is presumably healthy and that his karma is in the right place.

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And yet, with Walton, it is impossible to isolate the present. His past is remarkable and is so much of the fascination. We are talking about a three-time college player of the year at UCLA, where his team won 88 straight games and two NCAA titles. We are talking about a player who was approached by the then downtrodden (as in 9-73) Philadelphia 76ers during the 1973 NCAA Final Four to see if he might leave college a year early. Walton, who had been moved to a luxurious suite to avoid the madding crowds in Kansas City, looked around his spacious digs and wondered how pro ball could be better than this, then said, no thanks.

We are talking about the most litigious player in NBA annals, one who has sued two employers and also has been sued. In college, he accused former President Nixon of ghastly things, associated himself with left-leaning lawyers and advisers, occupied a college building in a student protest and declared he would forgive a black man who shot him because of the history of prejudice toward blacks.

Today, Walton tries to be less visible, less histrionic. He calls himself a registered voter and is “very aware that Massachusetts was the only state McGovern won.” He would not touch a question concerning his views on President Reagan, though he did say it would be pleasant to meet the president as a member of the 1986 NBA champions.

“That would be a good reason to get invited (to the White House),” he says.

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But what comes to his mind when he is reminded of those not-so-silent times, the days of Jack Scott, “real men don’t eat meat” and going to Egypt with the Grateful Dead to play drums in the shadow of the Pyramids?

“Everyone goes through a lot of different periods in their life,” he says. “I’ve certainly gone through a lot. But I’ve learned not to look back. To build to the future.”

The future not so long ago was one of courtrooms rather than arenas. In his four years of forced idleness resulting from an injury, Walton played only 14 games. He believed he was through with basketball and enrolled in law school at Stanford University.

But as surgeons reconstructed his shattered foot and Walton worked on the rest of his body to stifle shattered dreams, the game soon became a reality again. And that is what makes basketball and Boston the sweetest of combinations in 1985.

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“I had an unfortunate layoff,” Walton says. “I am incredibly lucky to be playing basketball today. I was told then to forget about basketball and forget about sports, to find something that I could do not on my feet.

“But during that time, I learned how important basketball is as a game and as a profession, how much it meant to me and to my personal happiness. Just being able to play. And play for the Celtics . . . “

Law school has been put on hold. He has completed half the workload and is on an indefinite leave of absence. What started out as a weekend commute from Palo Alto, Calif., to NBA locales for the Clippers in 1982 evolved into 67 regular season games last year.

But just playing was not enough. Walton also wanted to win, something that has been alien to the Clippers since they left Buffalo, N.Y., for the West Coast. Would the Celtics be interested, he inquired this past summer? They were. “I’m glad they were,” he says.

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But the price was hardly cheap: Cedric Maxwell and a No. 1 pick. And there were the repeated false alarms during negotiations, which frustrated him. But time resolved everything.

“Basketball, to me, is playing to win the championship,” he says. “Playing in the big games.”

The Celtics, who usually do both, hope he can give them 20 to 25 minutes a game to relieve overused Robert Parish and Kevin McHale. His goal is to play in every game, though that also was his goal last year, when he fell 15 short. He already has stated he has an innate animosity for the 76ers, “but it’s an animosity out of respect for their talent” he is careful to note.

And he has settled in Boston. Like any infrequent visitor to the area with more than a passing interest in the game, Walton is amazed at the support the Celtics receive. He has been doted on by real estate people and others eager to make his relocation as painless as possible. He likes the social and cultural opportunities in the area.

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As for the climactic adjustment?

“I guess that’s something I’ll just have to get used to,” said the man for whom rainy days and Mondays in Portland, Ore., represented nature’s havoc at its worst.

And as he prepared for his first day of practice, New England braced for its worst hurricane in years. It almost seems like every move Bill Walton makes generates something. He is hoping it no longer is controversy.


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