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Scott Ostler

Bill Walton Sure Looks Great in Green

February 18, 1986|SCOTT OSTLER

It was an unprofessional thing for me to do. Sportswriters are supposed to be tough, detached and objective when dealing with athletes.

I hate to see a sportswriter kissing the feet of a ballplayer. Lord knows those guys get their feet kissed enough, they don't need journalists slobbering over them, glad-handing and backslapping for the sake of a few good quotes or to feel like a big shot. It's just not cool.

So I hesitated. Then, what the hell--as Bill Walton was leaving the locker room at the Forum Sunday, I stopped him and told him it was good to see him back, healthy, playing real basketball with a real team.

In Walton's early days in the NBA, a decade ago, he was a jerk with the media. And probably some vice versa. But I've had occasion to deal with the guy from time to time over the last eight seasons and have found him about as aloof and intimidating as a puppy dog.

Beyond that, though, is the fact that Walton doesn't have a heart in the middle of his chest, he's got a basketball. Through a decade of bad feet and bad teams, Walton has pressed on, because he loves to play.

OK, that's all nice, sentimental stuff, worth considering for a moment or two. But now Walton is no longer an object of sympathy or nostalgic admiration.

Now Bill Walton is the most important player in professional basketball. He is not the best player, not even on his own team, not even close. He isn't even a starter. But Walton has destroyed the delicate balance between the Celtics and the Lakers.

Last season, the Lakers were better than the Celtics. This season the Celtics are better than the Lakers. The reason is Walton. He is the difference.

"I think he is the big difference now," Magic Johnson said after the Celtics had dominated the Lakers Sunday. "You can pick up shooters anytime. There'll be a hundred shooters in the draft tomorrow. But you can't get a big man who can do all the things he does.

"Look at his enthusiasm. He wants to be out there, he wants to play . Last year he got caught up in (the Clippers') losing. It was like, 'I'd rather be out climbing a mountain, or listening to the Grateful . . . ' What is it? The Grateful Dead?"

The Grateful Dead, by the way, is Walton's favorite band, not a nickname for last season's Clippers.

Speaking of dead, Bill Walton isn't. It only seemed that way in recent years. What has happened is that Bill Walton has been Celtified.

It's a strange phenomenon, a mystical transformation that comes over washed up or mediocre players who get traded to the Celtics. Scientists believe that a leprechaun takes over the soul of the player, or that he falls under Red Auerbach's hypnotic spell, a state of euphoria induced by the smoke of cheap cigars.

Dennis Johnson got Celtified, went from has-been to major star when he got to Boston. Robert Parish was a journeyman player at best with Golden State but became an outstanding center with the Celtics.

Now the Celtics have made another mountain out of a molehill. They have created, or at least revived, another green monster.

"I'm a Celtic, baby," Walton said Sunday. "I'm a Boston Celtic, through and through. There's no looking back."

With that disgusting missionary zeal characteristic of someone who has been Celtified, Walton waxes almost poetic when talking about Auerbach, K.C. Jones and Larry Bird.

"Red is so much like John Wooden, the overall shadow he casts over the team," Walton said. "He demands excellence. He's around all the time, hanging out in the locker room before games, at practice, giving tips all the time. I love Red Auerbach."

Gag me with a shamrock.

The Lakers could have had Walton. Late last season, approaching free agency and desperate to jump the Clipper ship and get onto a good team, Walton phoned Red Auerbach. Walton also phoned the Lakers, and others. Not only did the Lakers and all the others turn him down, they laughed at the Celtics for signing this overpriced, 33-year-old bag of fragile bones.

Now all Walton does is come off the bench for 20 minutes a game and light up the Celtics like a skyrocket. He is their Magic Johnson and Pete Rose.

Late in Sunday's game, the Lakers were rallying. James Worthy was smoking, burying his unstoppable 10-foot jumper. Automatic. Beautiful.

With 3 minutes 5 seconds left and the Celtic lead down to four, K.C. Jones looked down the bench and signaled for Walton to get back into the game.

"Let me have Worthy," Walton said.

Jones nodded.

Walton, wearing two very ugly Celtic-green kneepads, shuffled onto the court like an old man. Worthy, pressured by Walton, missed two jumpers. The Lakers went three minutes without scoring.

"He made me work harder," Worthy said. "It's hard to shoot over a guy like Walton. . . . All of a sudden (this season), it's like he's a new player."

Pro basketball can be a deadly boring sport. The season is too long, the pounding too brutal. Even great teams can lose the spark, can start to dog.

Then, once in a while, a player comes along who makes games matter, who won't allow boredom, who plays with a combination of skill and passion and fun that makes you glad you paid 60 bucks for a pair of seats.

When that happens, sometimes it's not such a bad idea to let the guy know you enjoyed the show.

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