Luke Walton has always been one to pass the ball, even in his days on the blacktop as an 8-year-old at St. Vincent de Paul School.
He grew up in San Diego, son of an NBA champion, and learned early the key part to succeeding in pro basketball. His father, Bill, told him that the best players were the ones that made their teammates better.
Of course, there were more practical reasons to pass the ball. Walton often played with his older brothers, Adam and Nate, under one condition: let them do all the shooting.
“So I became a really good passer,” Walton said in an interview with The Times. “Then all the older kids wanted me on their team instead of making me sit on the sideline and watch.”
Sharing the wealth, the future coach of the Lakers realized, had its privileges.
Walton, 36, walked onto the court at Chesapeake Energy Arena last month for a Golden State Warriors practice with a ball nestled in his arm and a wide smile on his face.
It was an odd expression for someone whose team had just been thumped by 28 points the previous day by the Oklahoma City Thunder in the Western Conference finals. There was no intended message for the players; it was just Luke being Luke.
“He is so comfortable with who he is, he knows himself very well and it allows him to be very relaxed and have this kind of cool-hand Luke thing going where he comes across brilliantly to guys,” said Warriors assistant Jarron Collins, who has known Walton since Collins played at Harvard-Westlake High in North Hollywood and was one of Walton’s rivals.
Several months earlier, Walton had considered the best way to reach his players after an exhbition loss. He was in charge of the Warriors while Coach Steve Kerr recovered from back surgery, famously guiding them to a 39-4 record that included an unprecedented 24-0 start before Kerr returned.
Neither, it turned out. Walton got the Warriors back on track by having them walk across the parking lot from Oracle Arena to Oakland Coliseum to take batting practice on the Athletics’ home field. “It was pretty cool,” Collins said. “It was a way for everybody to kind of decompress and refocus.”
Walton also showed that while he was the NBA equivalent of a substitute teacher, he was no pushover. When Draymond Green loudly questioned a drill the Warriors were struggling to grasp, Walton matched the voluble forward’s decibel level and explained the importance of the drill while demonstrating the correct way to complete it.
“What you see is what you get and in this business, that doesn’t always exist,” Warriors assistant Bruce Fraser said of Walton.
Walton signed a five-year deal last month to coach the Lakers after two seasons as a Warriors assistant coach and a 10-year playing career with the Lakers and Cleveland Cavaliers.
They’ll play the right way, they’ll play a good brand with his IQ. So I would be excited if I was in L.A.
“They’ll communicate, they’ll have fun without the working culture and they’ll be competitive, have that competitive spirit,” Fraser said. “They’ll play the right way, they’ll play a good brand with his IQ. So I would be excited if I was in L.A.
“I’m not excited; I’m sorry to lose him.”
The first pass of Walton’s high school career belonged to his father. Bill requested that Luke refrain from playing on the varsity at University High in San Diego as a freshman, prompting his coach to utilize him as a point guard with the junior varsity for his entire ninth-grade season.
The wiry Walton became a point-forward for the balance of his high school career, his priority always looking to his teammates rather than i the basket. “He liked a good pass more than a score,” said Jim Tomey, Walton’s high school coach. “That’s kind of who he was. He just wanted to win.”
Walton played alongside high-profile teammates, including Mark Prior and Carlos Quentin, who went on to become All-Stars in Major League Baseball. Walton made meaningful suggestions in timeouts and passed along insights to his coach whenever he came by the bench during dead balls, his brilliance belying his laid-back Southern California vibe.
The scoreboard was the only affirmation Walton needed. His teams advanced to the state title game three times, finally winning his senior year.
His selflessness remained a theme at Arizona. Coach Lute Olson recalled Walton as a player who would obliterate zone defenses. The Wildcats would get the ball to Walton in the high post as soon as they crossed half-court and watch him make smart passes to the corner, a wing or a teammate cutting toward the basket. “He had some skills that you don’t teach that I think were genetic,” Olson said. “Bill was a great passer and Luke was also that way.”
Olson suggested that Walton’s basketball sorcery was a result of unparalleled influences long before he was mentored by Phil Jackson and Kerr. His father won championships at UCLA and in the NBA, all the while touting the philosophies of John Wooden, the revered UCLA coach. Walton also was a teammate of Boston Celtics icon Larry Bird.
Walton’s coaching tree would sprout a new branch before he left college. Arizona teammate Josh Pastner figured he was watching high-level coaching material as Walton’s feel for the game molded him into a second-team All-American and helped the Wildcats reach the national title game in 2001 before losing to Duke.
The duo would reconnect during the 2011 NBA lockout. Walton joined Pastner’s coaching staff as an assistant at the University of Memphis. Walton received what amounted to an impromptu internship and Pastner added an assistant who could wow his players with tales of playing alongside Shaquille O’Neal and Kobe Bryant. During his 3 1/2 months on campus before returning to the Lakers, Walton helped the Tigers devise defensive schemes for pick and rolls and assisted with player development.
Walton’s pro coaching debut came before what he hoped was the end of his playing career. He joined the Lakers’ Development League team, the D-Fenders, as a player development coach for the 2013-14 season while yearning to latch on with an NBA team that might covet his veteran savvy. The call never came.
Walton forged ahead, working primarily with the D-Fenders’ big men but making everyone better when scrimmaging with the team to stay in shape. He also resided in a sweet spot of being young enough to identify with the mostly twenty-something players but experienced enough to seize their attention after winning championships with the Lakers in 2009 and 2010.
Walton’s career served as a template of sorts for the D-League players, most of whom lack the pure basketball talent to become mainstays in the NBA. If Walton could last a decade by moving the ball, being clever and working hard, why couldn’t they?
One thought continually struck Casey Owens, the D-Fenders’ lead assistant, as he watched Walton interact with the players.
I thought he was going to be the head coach of the Lakers. I just didn’t think it would be this soon.
“What I would say all the time was I thought he was going to be the head coach of the Lakers,” said Owens, who is now the D-Fenders’ head coach. “I just didn’t think it would be this soon.”
Walton catches the Lakers at a bizarre time.
They’ve set a franchise record for fewest victories in consecutive seasons, combining to win 38 of 164 in that span. The Kobe era is over, youth and inexperience dot the roster, and the Lakers have $55 million to spend on an unpredictable free-agent market this summer.
They will almost surely end up with either LSU’s Ben Simmons or Duke’ Brandon Ingram in Thursday’s draft. Free agency could bring a number of possibilities ranging from remote (Kevin Durant) to more plausible (Al Horford, DeMar DeRozan and Nicolas Batum, to name a few).
One thing is certain. Walton wants character. It’s been instilled in him since his Arizona days.
“None of us were McDonald’s All-Americans; we were a tier below that,” Walton said. “But we’d get there, we’d work our tails off and it worked.
“By the time [Olson] got done with us at Arizona, we ended up being a lot better and making it into the NBA. Kids that were ranked higher coming out of high school didn’t have that same experience.
Two hours before the Warriors lost in Game 7 against the Cavaliers on Sunday, Kerr revealed another side of Walton. Part of their game-day ritual this season was going together for an hour of hot yoga in the morning.
It made sense. Both Kerr and Walton were disciples of Jackson’s Zen mindset.
It’s yet another way that Walton remains calm. It’s something he might have to do more often as he prepares to start his dream job.
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