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BILL PLASCHKE

Upbeat Dad

An injured Bill Walton can't be with his son during the playoffs, but he gets his message across to the Lakers' forward

May 25, 2008|Bill Plaschke

The e-mails are filled with pain.

Bill Walton wishes to keep the details of those e-mails private, but you don't need to know details to understand that pain.

He misses his job. He misses his game. He misses his life.

More than all that, he misses his son.

"Could you tell Luke how much I love him?" he writes.

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The voice mails are filled with laughter.

Luke Walton doesn't do e-mail, so this is all he hears, his father calling him before each of the Lakers' first two postseason series with an important message.

An imitation of an opposing star talking trash.

Before the first series, the imitation was of Carmelo Anthony, four minutes of Anthony telling Luke how much the Denver Nuggets were going to kick his butt.

Before the second series, the imitation was of Carlos Boozer, four minutes of the same thing, only this time promising that the Utah Jazz would kick his butt.

"I played the voice mails for my teammates, they're really pretty funny," Luke says.

Before the current series against the San Antonio Spurs, though, the tenor changed.

"He said he wanted to imitate Tim Duncan, but Tim Duncan doesn't talk trash so he couldn't," Luke says, shaking his head, missing it.

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The pain that the father shares with his friends and associates, he tries to hide from the son.

Sadness in one message, lightness in another.

Bill Walton recently spent much of an entire month lying on the floor of his San Diego home in agony, but his son wasn't going to feel it.

Bill Walton has been absent from his celebrated duties as an ESPN basketball commentator for three months because of serious back and hip problems, but his son wasn't going to miss a step.

Bill Walton did not want to be interviewed for any story about the effect of his condition on his son because there would be no effect, he would not allow it.

"I am not the story," Bill writes. "Luke is the story."

In all, a nice fatherly try.

But it hasn't worked.

For three months, no matter what his father has said, Luke has heard him, and felt him, and sometimes struggled without him.

While his father has been in hiding from the rest of the sports world -- his absence particularly conspicuous during these NBA playoffs -- he is in the center of his son's mind and game.

"As an athlete, I know what he's going through, it's really hard, I really feel for him," Luke says. "As a son, well, I just really miss him."

Luke says his disappointing regular season had nothing to do with this absence, but you wonder.

Luke says his playoff resurgence, particularly in the first round against the Nuggets, had nothing to do with those funny voice mails, but you also wonder.

"Every time I tell him I feel bad for him, he says I shouldn't, that this is only a bump in the road," Luke says. "But I love him, you know?"

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The last time Luke Walton saw his father was during the All-Star break.

It is the only time of the season when Luke can visit San Diego without his father scolding him for wasting energy on a four-hour round-trip drive.

He saw him just before his father left for All-Star weekend.

And, yeah, he worried.

"He takes those long flights to ESPN in Bristol, that's a long day, and he does it all the time, it has to be tough on his body," Luke says.

Those fears became a reality when his father became injured a couple of weeks later.

"He said that he was trying to get off the plane from Connecticut but couldn't stand up," Luke recalls.

According to Luke, the diagnosis involved a pinched nerve.

At that moment, as impossible as it seems, Bill Walton disappeared.

No more television. No more interviews. No more games.

"There was a period where he would get up at 5 in the morning, roll over on the floor, and stay there the rest of the day," Walton says. "He couldn't do anything. I felt so bad for him."

While Luke has always credited his mother Susie with being the main force in his upbringing, he has found peace with his father's larger-than-life presence.

Those college fans who used to shower the former Arizona star with abuse because he couldn't match his father's legacy?

"I rarely hear it anymore and when I do, it's like, 'Oh, c'mon,' " Luke said. "After what I went through at Stanford and Cal, this is nothing."

Those teammates who used to chide him for his father's sometimes outlandish televised statements?

"I remember my rookie year, Shaq [O'Neal] and [Gary] Payton and [Karl] Malone said they were just gonna kill me because of my dad," he says. "But after a couple of weeks, it stopped, because they understood I'm a different person."

And even when they do nudge him, Luke has learned to laugh.

This year, when Luke jokingly took the microphone at Kobe Bryant's MVP news conference, Bryant told him to ask a better question than his father would ask.

"A few years ago, I might not have liked that," Luke says. "But now, it's funny."

Now, it's funny, but now, he's gone.

"Bill is continuing his rehabilitation for back and hip injuries, and there's been no definite timetable set for his return," says an ESPN official, reading a statement. "We will continue to evaluate him on a week-to-week basis."

Week to week, voice mail to voice mail, a father and son separated, but still moving closer.

"The other day, one of my friends told me, 'You sound so much like your dad, it's disgusting,' " Luke says.

A compliment?

"It could go either way," he says, laughing, trash talking, shadow dancing, with love.

--

Bill Plaschke can be reached at bill.plaschke@latimes.com. To read previous columns by Plaschke, go to latimes.com/plaschke.

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