I’m currently reading Bill Walton’s memoir, Back from the Dead. It reads a lot like Walton sounds when he broadcasts- a breathless stream of words. It’s a jack-in-the-box of superlatives – turn the page and they burst forward in all directions.
I’m not done yet. I’ve just finished the Clippers era, which was the nadir of Walton’s career and then his (brief) rejuvenation with the Celtics at the end of his professional career. With the Clips, he missed three full seasons in a four-year period after leading the Portland Trailblazers to an unlikely championship in his third season, 1976-77. The lost years resulted from an endless series of broken feet and other awful injuries. Indeed, the book starts with Walton recounting the period between 2007 and 2009, when Walton was in such constant, excruciating pain that he essentially lived on the floor in his living room, more or less unable to move. Pain has stalked Walton his entire adult life, an outgrowth of what Walton describes as a congenital deformity in his feet that led to all those breaks and myriad other problems.
Walton writes in such overhyped terms about EVERYTHING that it’s hard to know what’s real and what isn’t.
But a few random thoughts on what I’ve read so far.
1)Walton was a great, great player at UCLA and in his early years in the NBA, before the injuries. At UCLA he was utterly dominant and he appeared headed for similar greatness as a pro. In that championship season with the Blazers, he averaged over 14 rebounds a game, best in the league, had over three blocks per game also best in the league and almost four assists per game (which is a lot for a big guy). He also averaged 19 points a game while shooting a very high percentage. In the championship series, which the Blazers won in six games over a loaded 76ers team, Walton was a monster, averaging 18 points and 19 rebounds per game. Even in a diminished state, when he was 33 years old and had been through dozens of surgeries, Walton was a key bench player on the 1986 Celtics team that won 67 games on its way to the championship. Big Red was still a rebounding and shot blocking machine and a highly efficient offensive player.
Walton is one of the all-time “what if” guys – it’s really too bad he lost so much time and physical capacity to injury.
2) refreshingly, Walton is outspoken and unapologetic about his politics. He was a vocal critic of the Vietnam war as a student at UCLA in the early 1970s. It was a different era, of course, one in which athletes were far more likely to take clear political stands than has been the case in the past generation or more. Walton pulls no punches in describing his contempt for the Nixon administration, the horror of the war, including its expansion into Cambodia and the criminality at the heart of the endeavor. Later, Walton refers obliquely to a meeting he had with a then-retired President Nixon. That’s one of many moments in the book that are so vague that they make no sense.
Speaking of different eras. Walton describes his typical summer during his years in college – either biking or hitchhiking all over North America. Can you imagine the highest profile college athlete in the country – whoever you think that is – doing that now?
3) one oddity in the book is that Walton recounts with great joy the birth of his four sons, but never so much as mentions the name of their mother. The first son drops in 1975 before we’ve even been introduced to a woman in his life. A bit strange to be so cryptic about all of that.
4) As is well known, Walton was a fanatic music fan, notably of the Grateful Dead. Wikipedia tells me he attended over 850 shows, and joined them on their tour of the pyramids in Egypt in 1978. I mention this primarily because the first Grateful Dead concert I went to was in 1986 in Providence, Rhode Island. Walton was a Celtic at the time. He was also present at that show. I remember clearly the tall redhead standing and dancing near the stage during the concert.
5) The single person in the book for whom Walton reserves the greatest contempt is Tommy Curtis. Curtis was a teammate at UCLA, a point guard with whom Walton played for all three seasons (freshmen were ineligible in those days). To back up for a moment, when Walton arrived at UCLA for the 1970-71 season, the Bruins had already won four consecutive national championships and six in seven years. During Walton’s freshman year, they won a fifth. In Walton’s first two seasons on the varsity team, UCLA never lost a game. In the 1973 championship game against Memphis, in his second year on varsity, Walton had arguably the greatest game in championship history, scoring 44 points while hitting an astonishing 21 of 22 shots, as UCLA rolled to a sixth straight title (in the book, in which again, bizarrely, he doesn’t recount his statistical line from that day, though he talked about his stats from many other games, Walton says he had four baskets waved off because of the no-dunking rule in place at that time).
The first time Walton lost a collegiate game was in his senior season, after UCLA had reeled off a record 88 wins in a row. That year, which ought to have been a coronation, became among the most bitter experiences of Walton’s life. The Bruins lost three games during the regular season and then fell to eventual champion NC State in the Final Four. And to hear Walton tell it, the reason UCLA fell from its previous heights was the fault, more or less, of Tommy Curtis. The starting point guard during Walton’s first two seasons was Greg Lee, a close friend of Walton’s who remained so for decades after. Lee was a highly regarded floor general, one Walton describes as the epitome of selflessness, team play and fortitude (now bear in mind that, in Walton’s world, everyone and everything is the epitome of *something*). But at the start of that final year, Coach Wooden confronted a number of players about whether they’d smoked pot. Walton did all the time (as did, apparently, approximately 99% of the student body at UCLA in those years). But he lied and told Coach that he didn’t. In another of his cryptic passages, Walton suggests that Lee gave a different answer. And because he did, Wooden benched him for the start of the season and continued to play him sporadically throughout the year. That account doesn’t quite make sense to me. Regardless, Tommy Curtis grabbed the bulk of the playing time at the point, after backing up Lee the previous two seasons.
Here’s some of what Walton wrote about Curtis:
“When you look at all that has gone wrong in basketball today, with little punk guards dribbling incessantly, and without purpose other than to draw attention to themselves and to promote some individual culture of idiocy, selfishness and greed and where the most beautiful game in the world grinds to a halt while nine guys watch an wait for one guy who is dribbling for no reason other than to show off, then you have witnessed the madness and all-consuming disease of conceit that defined Tommy Curtis.”
Seriously, Bill, tell us how you really feel.
At other times, Walton said Curtis took more shots in a single game than Lee took in a month.
Still later, Walton says that “after forty years of reflecting on it,” “there was nothing as devastating as Tommy Curtis continued presence in the lineup.”
And Curtis was a trash talker, which combined with all of his other horrible qualities, made him a cancer on the team, anathema to everything the game was really all about.
As it happens, Lee was white and Curtis black. I don’t say this because I think Bill Walton is any more a racist than I am. Indeed, there’s much evidence to the contrary in his many relationships. But I note with dismay that that his characterizations of his two collegiate point guards are the, um, epitome of the polar racial stereotypes one hears about athletes.
I was also curious – how bad was Curtis, really?
So, heeding Casey Stengel’s advice, I looked it up.
They kept fewer stats in those days. I cannot, for example, find data on minutes played. I know Curtis played more minutes than Lee. But I can’t tell how much more. No one tracked turnovers until a few years later, either.
But here’s what we know:
- Curtis played 30 games in 1973-74.
- Lee played in 29.
- Curtis took 199 shots, fourth most on the team. That works out to about six and a half a game. Another back up guard, Pete Trgovich, took 188 shots.
- Curtis shot 44% that year. Lee, who had 111 field goal attempts, shot 40%.
- Curtis had 104 assists. Lee 85. Lee almost certainly had more assists per 30 minutes. But there was also very little difference in their shot attempts per 30 minutes.
Of course, I wasn’t there, didn’t watch the games, blah, blah, blah. Inspired by Shawn Fury, who watched tons of tape while researching his book on the jump shot, I’ve spent some time watching old video of the Bruins. I can only view snippets, but it’s impossible for me to see the monster Walton describes. That, combined with the above statistical evidence, is not consistent with the picture of Curtis Walton’s claims paints.
Where else are you going to find this kind of forensic effort to investigate whether Tommy Curtis really was a ball hog in 1974?
6) When Walton was in Portland, Maurice Lucas was his power forward and enforcer. Walton loved Luke. As he tells it, Lucas punched every NBA player in the NBA in the face at least once. This appears to have brought Walton endless joy.
7) Walton stuttered very badly throughout much of his life. Until well into adulthood, he was loathe to speak at all in any public setting and even in many private conversations.It’s quite a turn of events that he became a broadcaster after he retired. The stutter might explain some of the breathless quality of his speech. Perhaps a strategy for managing stuttering is to speak through whatever self-consciousness you might experience, as well as to rely upon familiar, well-worn tropes and phrases..
Walton has, amazingly, recovered from the agony through which he suffered just a few years ago.
Good for him.