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Making Peace With Bill Walton

Reading the comments following Ben's fine write-up up the Bill Walton press conference yesterday it's clear that even thirty years after he last laced up sneakers for the Blazers Walton remains a polarizing figure.  Hardly a surprise, I suppose.  Even in his all-world days peopled loved him, hated him, or both at once.  But the passage of decades usually dampens the intensity on such things and turns old combatants into comrades.  Not so for many here.

In a way, I think Bill should be darn proud of this.  Friend or foe, he's certainly made a mark on this town.  How many people can say that?  Guys like Walton make life more interesting.  It's not like he's an axe murderer or Miley Cyrus.  Everything--the joy and the annoyance--should be in good fun.  Thirty years of good fun is a long, long run.  If we can't have Playboy Buddy Rose making us boo and hiss, at least there's Bill.

That aside, I believe Walton has gotten a raw deal around here.  If it's not fun for him to play the heel anymore we ought to let it go and embrace him for what he truly was: the guy who provided the most shining, amazing, defining moment this franchise has ever seen and a player of some of the most beautiful basketball ever known.

Mind you, I am not without misgivings about the Walton era.  I was quite young when the Blazers won it all.  That was my first exposure to sports and dreams and athlete-heroes.  It was life-changing.  I remember clearly my sister taking me to an autograph session where Walton and Maurice Lucas were signing.  I was abuzz for days beforehand.  I could barely sleep the night before.  My stomach was performing a ballet on the car ride to see them.  But when I finally got there I couldn't go up to them.  I just stood six feet away staring, my piece of paper slack by my side in my right hand.  My left hand was curled around my sister's leg.  I literally could not move.  Walton and Lucas looked at each other, looked at my sister, then laughed.  They said something along the lines of, "Come here, my man!  It's OK."  I took some halting steps forward and they looked at me.  They shook my hand and asked if I wanted them to sign my paper.  I gave it to them.  They smiled and as he handed it back Bill put a hand on my shoulder and said, "There you go!"  The only words I could manage were the ones that had been drilled into my brain for such situations:  "Thank you."   Then I walked back to my sister.  But inside I was ecstatic to the point of being out of my mind.  Bill Walton and Maurice Lucas just shook hands with me!  They smiled and talked to me!  They even signed my paper so I could prove it!!!  Unless C.S. Lewis or J.R.R. Tolkien rise from the dead and invited me to a conversation over tea I don't think that moment can be duplicated in my adult life.

If you can understand that feeling you will also understand that the Blazers being eliminated in the 1978 playoffs by the Seattle Supersonics was one of the biggest disappointments of my life.  It was the first big realization that the good guys didn't always win and that dreams often fall apart as quickly as they coalesce.  And the guy that everyone tabbed for the '78 demise and the ongoing journey to mediocrity that followed was none other than Dollar Bill.  Again, I was just a child and was far too young to form opinions on the subject.  But I clearly remember hearing what people were saying even if I was not yet able to comprehend it. 

"He's too lazy to come back."

"He just doesn't care."

"We're paying him hundreds of thousands of dollars per game played."

"He's ruined himself with that lifestyle."

"He hates the city and just wants to get out."

"He's a traitor to the team."

Through modern adult eyes these statements border on the ridiculous.  Walton could have retired at any point and been comfortable.  He battled back to play for the Celtics because of his passion and commitment to the sport and so he could go out on his own terms.  The lifestyle comment is comical.  Bill was a green granola dude at a time when nobody knew what those words meant.  As for hating the city and the team...nobody can get in his mind but his own statements seem to show the falsehood there.  Had things gone differently for him physically I believe Walton would have happily finished his career as a Blazer.

Blazers fans as a whole have learned a few things about the game and the league in the last thirty years.  You have to remember that in 1977 even adults approached that title with a reverence near to my childlike wonder of the time.  They were a far cry from the average wizened, stat-wielding, web-educated devotee you'll find haunting the halls of Blazer fandom today.  Nobody had any experience with this kind of thing.  Few realized why or how it happened...other than it was the Blazers and they were good!  That was part of the magic that will never be duplicated, save among those who actually are wide-eyed kids when the Blazers next win it all.  It also meant that the fanbase as a whole was not yet acquainted with some of the harsh realities of the league which would have helped their understanding of Walton's situation.

One of the more obvious realities is simply that seven-footers get injured.  You can't run that fast and put that much of a pounding on that big of a frame without consequences.  And when a giant gets a foot injury you can all but turn the lights out.  The wheels are the foundation.  Without them nothing else moves.  You can't train a foot with cardio or lift weights to build it up.  The solution to any foot injury isn't to work harder, it's to stay the heck off of it.  This holds even with the advances in athletic medicine over the last four decades.  Walton's era might as well have been the Dark Ages comparatively.  He didn't have a chance.  People heard "foot injury" and thought, "That's such a tiny thing.  Why can't he just get over it?"  The big things they were imagining would be harder to repair would have been far better afflictions for him to have.

Furthermore, I don't believe people understood (and some still don't understand) how much Walton meant to the Blazers.  He's a victim of what he helped create, which was one of the most glorious, unselfish, court-flowing teams of all time.  The Blazers were trumpeted as a team, celebrated as a team, and remembered as a team.  It was the polar opposite of the Jordan Bulls two decades later.  And this is exactly the way Walton wanted it, not only because he shied away from the spotlight but because he believed in winning and communal effort and Jack Ramsay five-man basketball.  But that same corporate memory of the title team as a cohesive unit also diminishes Bill's perceived role in anchoring that team.  Both Walton and Dave Twardzik were starters on that team, both have rings, and both have their number retired today.  But that doesn't mean they were equally important.   To illustrate who Bill Walton really was all I have to do is point out the records.  Walton playing?  A title and a 40-8 start the next season.  Walton out?  Same surrounding players, same coach, same uniforms and fans and immediate single-series playoff exit and nobody gets within sniffing distance of the Finals for the rest of the era.  This was a team because Walton helped make it that way.  This was not anywhere close to the same team without him.  He was everything to those Blazers and thus to the championship.

Neither did the general public understand the tenuous relationship between athletes and the media.  We hadn't yet seen the Great Expansion in information dispersal.  We hadn't become acquainted with the media's invasive eye.  We hadn't seen enough blatant sensationalism to teach us to view media reports with healthy skepticism.  Anybody with any sense nowadays knows to be at least a little afraid when the media come around.  Therefore we expect some reservation from our athletes as public figures.  Some players had that reservation in the 70's too, especially the ones who were countercultural (or, as Walton, afflicted with stuttering).  But back then it appeared closer to treason than common sense.  Whether Walton really had reason to be wary of the media and the public I am not qualified to say.  But I do know it wasn't interpreted as, "That guy's being careful about letting too much out because of how he might be portrayed."  Rather it was, "Walton is weird and won't talk to us." 

Last, but not least, the endearing naïveté which made Portland fans so wide-eyed and giddy during the title run also led them to believe that potential championships were plentiful and the Blazers would remain tantalizingly close to all of them.  I can still remember when we were kids talking back and forth about how all we needed was one player (ironically, a center) and we could vanquish the Magic-Kareem-Worthy L*kers and reclaim our rightful spot at the top.  This innocence had a dual effect.  First, it diminished the significance of what Walton and his team had done.  Far from being an everyday occurrence, to this point the trophy coming to Portland is literally a once-in-a-lifetime event.  Blazer fans were well-acquainted with how neat winning was but quite mistaken about how difficult of an accomplishment it was.  If it was possible to be spoiled after only a season and a half of delicious success, Portland fans certainly qualified.  And feeling entitled to championships made the lack of them more bitter.  In the end, it was easier to cast blame than it was to smarten up and admit that our perceptions were in error.  (It would take falling just short three years straight in the Drexler era to finally hammer the reality home.)  The easiest person by far to pin blame on was Bill Walton, even after he was long gone from the team.  Fairly or not, to this day Walton is known in equal measure for bringing one championship and for not bringing if those extra titles were somehow our birthright that we were cheated out of.

Of course Walton suing the team didn't help matters.  It kept the ill-feelings alive long past the end of the active relationship.  Our lack of medical sophistication and our tendency to view the Blazers as sacrosanct made this the final nail in the coffin.  When pushed to a choice we loved the uniform over the player and cast Walton out of our hearts.

Walton's semi-nutty public persona, particularly the hyperbole-laced analysis he offered during telecasts, gave Blazer fans few reasons to repair the relationship as years passed.  Some considered him entertaining, others annoying.  Neither falls anywhere near endearing.  He was that crazy uncle your family only tenuously claims relationship to and who never gets invited to Thanksgiving.  That his proclamations skewered the Blazers as much as praised them helped little.  That he was sometimes correct helped less.

So now the Prodigal Center returns home.  Or at he least stops back home for a minute to say hi.  His speech is at equal turns apologetic, outlandish, wistful, and proud.  How seriously to take it, let alone believe it, is a matter of taste.  Bill Walton shares much with another former Blazer who has become part of the entertainment industry, Mychal Thompson.  Either is liable to say anything at any time.  I love Thompson, but he strikes me as the kind of person apt to say whatever he feels the listener will most appreciate whether he believes it or not.  Walton, on the other hand, seems completely genuine, saying exactly what he believes.  One has to understand, though, that he's likely to genuinely believe something different in ten minutes.  In that way he's never lost that child-like aspect that made him a great match for early Blazermaniacs, whether they understood it or not.

As for me, I tend to take Walton at face value.  He's funny, aggravating, but most of all expressive, talented, and distinctive.  Like a Great Dane who thinks he's a lapdog he'll often overstep boundaries most would consider self-evident.  But how you react to that boundary-breaking says more about your attitude than it does about the mastiff.  He just means well.  That is always who Bill Walton has been for this community.  He's the guy who reveals who we are, for better or worse...and there's some of each.

If I stood before Bill today, I would probably just say the same thing I did thirty years ago...this time not because of nervousness, but because it really is the most appropriate thing to say.  Thank you.  For the title, for Blazermania, for the bike riding, for standing out, for not being afraid to be yourself, and for giving us the chance to celebrate, get frustrated, laugh, become annoyed, and simply gape in wonder and astonishment...thanks Bill.  It's been a great ride.

--Dave (