Bill Walton has played only 223 games since being drafted by Portland in 1974 and he missed all last season with an injury that has sent others into early retirement. Yet, he still may be in a position to save the foundering San Diego franchise in the National Basketball Association.
When Walton signed with San Diego in May 1979, his extraordinary talent and popularity were expected to boost ticket sales in the laid-back city. Instead, he was besieged by injuries and played only 14 games in three years. That, plus the loss of Kermit Washington, Kevin Kunnert and two No. 1 draft choices to Portland as compensation, turned the Clippers into one of the worst teams in the NBA.
Now Walton is playing again and Clippers Coach Paul Silas is having a difficult time restraining his enthusiasm over the possible return of the 6-foot-11 former all-star center.
"Bill really has been looking good," Silas said from his home in a San Diego suburb. "I watched him play in Los Angeles last week and he's playing with the same reckless abandon he always did. His timing is a little off and he has a fatigue problem, but he's still doing all the things he used to do.
"He's prancing around like a young kid," the coach continued enthusiastically. "When he makes a shot, he's still the first one down the court on defense. He still makes all the right passes, rebounds and plays great defense. I'm trying not to let myself get too excited because you never know."
Walton, who has had three operations on his left foot, played 34 minutes July 31 in a charity game at Caesars Palace between alumni from UCLA and the University of Nevada-Las Vegas. In his first game since reinjuring his foot in a exhibition game Sept. 26, 1980, he had 24 points and 21 rebounds. He made 10 of 19 shots, seven of 11 free throws, blocked five shots, made two steals and had three assists.
"My confidence is coming back," Walton told reporters afterward. "My big thing is that I not try to do too much too soon. I have to keep in mind that I have a long way to go. But it will come in time."
His second performance was just as impressive. In a California Summer Pro League game Aug. 12, he played 32 minutes, made 11 of 20 shots, scored 27 points and had 12 rebounds.
Walton has been cooperative with the media after these games, but otherwise has refused all interview requests because, he says, "I don't want to be in the papers for awhile."
The three-time all-America from UCLA who led Portland to the NBA title in 1977 thought his career was over in March of '81. At that time the Clippers announced that Lloyds of London had agreed to pay them $1.25 million on the permanent disability insurance policy carried on Walton.
"Realistically, the odds and physical problems are all against me ever playing again," Walton said at the time.
The following month he had more surgery and began a long, tedious rehabilition program under the direction of Anthony Daly, an orthopedic surgeon, and Dr. Ernest Vandeweghe, a specialist in sports medicine who also is Walton's financial adviser.
"Bill is on a preplanned schedule Dr. Daly and I worked out, taking all his medical and physical conditions into account, and right now he's a couple of months ahead," Vandeweghe said by phone from his office in Inglewood, Calif.
"Now the question is whether to advance him or keep him on a limited schedule. Right now we're letting him play hard one day a week and then just work out lightly the other days. We've tried to limit the pounding he absorbs on his foot."
Vandeweghe explained that in the last operation Walton's foot was completely rebuilt. The navicular bone (on the inner side of the foot in front of the ankle bone) was fractured three times and could not withstand the continual stress.
"We took out the high arch which gave him so much trouble, rebuilt it," the doctor said. "Then we had to shave the navicular bone. It takes about a year to develop a new surface, then we started the present program.
"Bill has progressed faster than we expected," Vandeweghe continued. "It used to hurt him just to go running with his kids. Now he's pain free. He plays tennis, but gets most of his conditioning from riding a bike because he doesn't have to put too much stress on his foot.
"He's shown remarkable improvement, but, of course, with stress fractures, there's always the possibility it will reoccur. Once you begin to hammer it, it can crumble. There never was and isn't now a way to determine that."
Irv Levin, former owner of the Clippers, has filed a suit seeking more than $17 million from Walton, Vandeweghe and Daly, claiming they misrepresented Walton's condition during negotiations leading to the center's signing with San Diego.
Levin is asking the court to rescind Walton's contract, relieving his corporation of paying Walton $700,000 for each of the next three years. If Walton plays again, of course, the suit will be thrown out. Levin sold the Clippers to Donald Sterling in the summer of 1981.
Walton's day of decision will come a couple of weeks before the Clippers begin training camp Oct. 1. He has completed his first year of law school at Stanford and will have to decide whether to enroll in the fall semester or devote all his time to basketball.
"If Bill keeps progressing, he'll probably just take some correspondence courses," Vandeweghe said. "He enjoys reading and studying and he'll have free time because he'll be on a limited practice schedule."
Silas knows that if Walton returns, it will be on a limited basis for awhile. Silas says he has plenty of help on the front line, particularly if the injured Swen Nater (knee surgey) returns to join holdovers Jerome Whitehead, Michael Brooks and Tom Chambers. He also is counting on first-round draft choice Terry Cummings, a 6-11 forward from De Paul.
"When we talked, Bill made it clear it's still in his mind to come back, but he doesn't want to cause an uproar," Silas said. "He wants to go at his own pace. He knows he's a long way from playing 82 games or four in five nights.
"He's trying to be cautious, but he's not favoring the foot. He still has the intimidation factor. He still does all the right things. He could make me a smart coach real quick."
More important to the San Diego franchise, Walton can sell tickets. The team, which tried and failed to move to Los Angeles in June, is in such financial trouble and disarray that six front office people have resigned this summer: the business manager, controller, box office manager, director of marketing and director of public relations.
"We're like the 10 little Indians, somebody disappears ever day," said General Manager Ted Podleski. "Our ownership has different ways of effecting different people."
Podleski said the fans are taking a wait-and-see attitude about Walton's return because they've been disappointed before. But, he said, once the big center proves he can play, it could boost season ticket sales to 6,000.
"Bill is one of the very few players who has the charisma to bring people into the stands," Silas said. "The other night there were 4,000 people in L.A. to see him play a summer league game that usually draws a couple of hundred. I'm sure there are basketball fans all across the country who are anxious to see him play again."