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Clipper Suit Claims Walton Not Fit : But His Attorney Says It Implies Player Had Used Drugs

Times Staff Writer

Gary Vandeweghe, Bill Walton’s attorney, said Wednesday that vague wording in a lawsuit against Walton is a not-so-thinly veiled implication by the Clippers that Walton had used drugs.

The Clippers are suing Walton, their former player, claiming that he was unfit to play basketball during the term of his five-year contract that he signed with them in San Diego as a free agent in 1979.

In the suit, which was filed in Superior Court in Los Angeles last Dec. 18, the Clippers say they should no longer make deferred payments to Walton, whose contract calls for him to receive $200,000 a year through 1996, or $1.6 million.

According to the suit, the Clippers have no obligation to continue to pay Walton because he “engaged in certain activities detrimental to his health.” The suit further states that Walton’s activities “caused him to experience sinus infections . . . and had an adverse affect on his attitude and psychological fitness to play professional basketball.”

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Said Vandeweghe: “They’re being about as overt as they can be. (The Clipper charges are) just some euphemisms about smoking joints or some damned thing. The whole idea is to embarrass Bill, to hold him up to public scrutiny, that he used cocaine and smoked marijuana, rubbed Ben-Gay on his back or whatever they may say, it’s meant to get Bill to just drop it to avoid scrutiny by the media.”

Alan Rothenberg, president of the Clippers and partner in the law firm that filed the suit against Walton, said the word cocaine is not used.

Douglas Walton, who filed the suit on behalf of the Clippers, said: “Things are a little delicate at this point.”

Vandeweghe said that Walton Wednesday flew from his home in San Diego to New York, where he will attend an arbitration hearing on the dispute today.

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The hearing was arranged after the National Basketball Assn. Players Assn. had intervened on Walton’s behalf. An arbitrator’s decision could supersede the Clippers’ suit.

In Walton’s original contract with the Clippers, dated May 12, 1979, he agreed to a base salary of $5 million for five years through the 1983-84 season. Walton was to receive deferred compensation of $200,000 a year for 12 1/2 years, beginning Oct. 1, 1984. According to the terms of the contract, Walton should already have received $900,000 in deferred payments.

Not only are the Clippers suing to halt the guaranteed payments, but also for undetermined damages as well as additional unspecified damages equal to or exceeding what Walton already has been paid.

The suit’s key issue appears to be the Clippers’ choice of the words,"certain specified activities” by Walton.

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Paragraph 17 of the standard NBA players contract prohibits a player’s involvement in specific activities such as professional boxing or wrestling, motorcycling, auto racing, sky-diving and hang-gliding. Each player who signs the uniform contract agrees not to participate in such activities because of possibly impairing his ability to play basketball.

In Walton’s contract with the Clippers, the provisions went even further. It said that Walton would not be entitled to his deferred payments if he were unavailable to play because of injury or other disability as a result of activities in Paragraph 17 or “as a result of drug abuse or alcoholism.” The Clipper lawsuit mentions neither one, only “certain activities.”

Walton missed all of two seasons because of injury while under contract to the Clippers. The suit said that had the Clippers known of Walton’s so-called activities, they would not have entered into the contract with him. According to the suit, the Clippers were unaware of “the activities which were detrimental to Walton’s health” until late 1987.

Vandeweghe said the Clippers’ suit has no merit because the insinuations of any drug use by Walton are dated.

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“Those kinds of stories have been in the newspapers since Bill’s days at UCLA,” Vandeweghe said. “Such old news, my God. They’re just dredging up old stories.”

Vandeweghe acknowledged that the suit’s reference to activities that could have caused sinus infections sounded like a reference to cocaine usage.

“I have never had any direct evidence of it,” he said. “We’ll find out about all that. And smoking joints of marijuana--(that has) got to be six years old. They’re going to have to find something new if they want to embarrass Bill Walton.”

Once before, the Clippers tried to void an agreement because of apparent drug references. In 1985, the Clippers filed suit in federal court seeking to cancel a six-player trade involving Marques Johnson, for whom they had traded, because they were unaware Johnson had sought help in a Minnesota substance-abuse center in 1983. The matter was settled in an arbitration ruling that went against the Clippers.

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The Clippers later sued Johnson in 1986 and stopped payment on the $1.4 million they owed him because he refused to have an operation. Johnson and the Clippers settled the dispute out of court.

Last December, the Pittsburgh Pirates and former outfielder Dave Parker settled a suit over Parker’s admitted drug use while he played for the team. Parker’s 1979 contract required the Pirates to pay him $5.3 million in deferred payments through the year 2007. But Parker had admitted using cocaine in testimony before a grand jury.

Walton, 36, has not played since the 1986-87 season when he appeared in only 10 games with the Boston Celtics. Since then, Walton has had operations to remove bone spurs from both feet. He is an unrestricted free agent.


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