The NBA / Gordon Edes : Walton Returns, but Celtics Take His Comeback One Step at a Time

Some perspective on Bill Walton's comeback, three games into the red-haired one's return to the Boston Celtics:

"Bill is running well and jumping well, but he's not jumping at the right time," said Jan Volk, general manager of the Celtics.

"Right now, we're not issuing him any gum."

Just issuing him a uniform, however, was enough for Walton's teammates.

"Thank God, he's healthy," Kevin McHale said. "It's great to see Bill back. We're not concerned what Bill does out there as long as he's out there."

Leave it to Larry Bird to say what would have happened if Walton hadn't come back from another round of foot problems that required him to undergo surgery three months ago.

"They were going to make paste out of him," said Bird, showing as much compassion for crippled backup centers as he does for broken-down horses.

But after two weeks of running for 30-40 minutes daily on California beaches, Walton felt he was ready to try playing again.

"The beach absorbs all the shock (on the foot)," said Tony Daly, the physician who supervised Walton's therapy. "It's a really good way to get in shape. And that was something he couldn't do in Boston."

Walton played in all but two games in the Celtics' championship season of 1985-86, but he broke his left thumb in a pickup game before this season, then began having trouble with his foot again while working out. In December, he underwent arthroscopic surgery to have bone chips removed from his foot.

"Why he broke down this time, I don't know," Daly said. "Maybe he overdid it, and got too rambunctious because he broke his finger."

Walton played four scoreless minutes in his first appearance, but in his third, against the New York Knicks Sunday, Walton had 9 points, 4 rebounds and 2 blocked shots in 16 minutes. Daly said that if the Celtics don't push him too hard, and play him no more than 18 to 20 minutes a game, there's no reason why Walton shouldn't be able to continue.

"I feel pretty good," Walton said. "I'm still not out of the woods with my ankle injury. I've got to continue to walk that fine line between getting some conditioning and not rushing it too much."

Rest assured that the Lakers are aware of Walton's return.

"He's going to help them if he can perform in the same capacity he did last year," Kurt Rambis said. "They have to have him, in my opinion."

With Walton back, Daly was asked, did he expect to be going to the Forum for a Laker-Celtic final?

"Do you think the Lakers are going to make it?" he asked.

More from the comeback trail: Ralph Sampson, the Houston Rockets' 7-4 forward who underwent arthroscopic surgery for torn cartilage in his left knee, is back in Houston after working out at home in Virginia, where he was running up to six miles a day and swimming. Sampson hopes to play by the final two weeks of the season.

To the list of Sampson's detractors, however, add the name of Hot Rod Hundley, the Utah Jazz broadcaster and former Laker.

Said Hundley: "I think (he's) the most overrated basketball player since me."

Hundley was even tougher on Golden State center Joe Barry Carroll: "Dog. I don't like him. He has a terrible temperament, he doesn't give his all for the cause, (and he's) way overpaid."

Say what? Philadelphia Coach Matt Guokas, asked how he plans to play Andrew Toney now that Julius Erving has come back from his injury, said: "We'll jump off that bridge when we get to it."

Home-state disadvantage: The Celtics have lost to the Pacers in Indiana, Bird's home state, at least once in each of Bird's eight seasons in the NBA.

In their 116-109 loss to the Pacers last Friday night, Bird was held to two points in the second half while subjected to some very physical defense from Chuck Person and Wayman Tisdale.

"You either put up with it, or you walk off the floor. And they pay me too much money to do that," said Bird, who was 0 for 4 from the field in the second half. "To me, that's not basketball. But I'd do it, too, if I could get away with it."

The Lakers' nine-game winning streak in November is the second-longest of the NBA season. The Atlanta Hawks have a 10-game winning streak going into tonight's game against the Washington Bullets.

The Hawks opened the season by winning 18 of their first 22 games, then experienced a series of injuries. Spud Webb, the league's shortest player at 5-7, was one of the first to go down, missing nearly four months with a knee injury. Then it was starting guard Randy Wittman, Mike McGee and center Tree Rollins, who all missed substantial playing time.

"The pieces are now starting to come back--Wittman, McGee, Rollins, and now Spud's back," Atlanta Coach Mike Fratello said. "It's more fun playing with a full deck.

" . . . I'm concerned that we remain healthy, that the guys who have been out get back to the level where they were before they were hurt. Spud is a long way from being in condition, and Tree is limited in practice."

Add Hawks: Team president Stan Kasten, who built the Hawks into a winner and has been entrusted by owner Ted Turner to do the same with baseball's Atlanta Braves, said he had a nightmare just before the league trading deadline.

He dreamed that Bobby Cox, the Braves' general manager, had traded Hawk star Dominique Wilkins to the Clippers for a second-round draft choice.

Don't wake Sleepy: John Hillyer of the San Francisco Examiner set the field for the technical-foul race heading into the last month of the regular season. The leader? Akeem Olajuwon of the Rockets with 12, followed by Utah's Karl Malone and Dallas' Mark Aguirre with 10, and Golden State's Eric (Sleepy) Floyd with 9.

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