t was an apparently trivial moment in the fourth quarter of a San Diego Clippers' loss, but an apt metaphor nonetheless for the unfolding of a storybook plot:

Bill Walton backs in toward the basket and rises for a hook shot, only to have the ball stripped at waist level with ease by an opponent, who races upcourt, leaving Walton alone to finish a pantomime of the play.

But one eyeblink later, San Diego's Randy Smith has stolen the ball back and lobbed it in to Walton, who has not yet started his return upcourt. To this point he has spurned any spectacle, opting for teasing layups, but now Walton dunks the ball with all the strength of two arms trained to heft law tomes.

He came back to earth and planted his left foot, then ran toward the other end. His face -- older now, more cautious -- gave no hint of the pride, but you could sense the adrenaline.

It was just a dunk against the Phoenix Suns in the opening game of the season, but it signified the state of the Walton watch: he's been given a second chance at adolescence.

On Bill Walton's book shelves there is a volume called "The Boys Life Book of Sports Stories." His tale belongs there. It's not just the dominance of the man, or the second chance he has given to a lost generation of basketball fans tired of the rip-and-run offense. It's a San Diego boy come home to a city tired of its license to lose.

"I'm very happy -- very, very happy," he said later. "Losing the game is not that much fun, but I'm just happy to be able to go out there and walk away."

The next morning, lounging on a backyard bench, Bill Walton, who turns 30 this Friday, reflected on his step back into history. His eyes had lost none of their laughter, even though one of them was now blackened.

"I feel very fortunate in the opportunities I've been given in my life right now. I like Stanford (where he is a second-year law student) a great deal. It's a very lively situation with great classroom discussion, good friends, things like that. The faculty is superb. It's a very stirring experience. And the law is a great vocation."

There's a moment's pause, and the stiltedness of the words hang in the air against the cries of his children in his cavernous home. The change in facial expression is not subtle. A large smile runs rampant across his face.

"But I love being a basketball player. I love living the life of a basketball player. The game, the training, the travel, the practices, the guys, the feel.

"I feel as if I'm playing again, and I enjoy that very, very much. I love the state of mind it gets you in. The anticipation of the plays, trying to outprepare the other man, using that preparation to outperform.

"I don't want to sit and speculate about what might be, because I've got a long way to go. But I intend to make it. I intend to play again in the NBA. I want it to happen more than anyone else. I want to do what I can to make sure it does happen, that it doesn't just fly away with the wind.

"Believe me. I'm about the happiest man in the world right now. I can't express how much I appreciate what's happening to me, that I can go out and play."

Bill Walton's once-a-week-in-the-NBA is not unprecedented. Ernie Vandeweghe played only home games with the Knicks. Lenny Wilkens sandwiched his NBA service into the military.

But it's unusual.

"The first time he came into the office and said he wanted to play on a limited basis, I was adamantly opposed," said Ted Podleski, the former Clipper general manager responsible for making it possible. "Everything I knew about pro sports told me he had to be with the team all of the time.

"But we got together several Sunday afternoons, and just watching him shoot baskets in the driveway, the incredible enthusiasm he has for the game, I started to think. One Sunday we spent about three hours playing horse and I began to sense how badly he'd suffered.

"And one day my wife said something that finally made me change my mind. She said, 'He's a human being, not just a player. If you believe in people, you help people.'

"I'm not a great humanitarian, but I've always wanted to help my players. And (Coach) Paul (Silas) agreed with me. And that's what we were trying to do. That's all. I know people won't accept it that way. I don't care."

Still, there's the nagging thought that part-time professionals contradict all the cliches of teamwork.

"I totally agree with what he's doing," said teammate Al Wood. "He is so doggone valuable to this team and the NBA. It's like adding three or four new dimensions to this team. There's a whole new electricity to this team when he's in."

"He's the smartest big man in basketball," says Silas, who will dictate which games Walton plays in at the rate of one a week, as his physician, Tony Daly, has advised.

"It's either Bill once a week or not at all," Wood said. "Which one would you want? As long as he stays healthy, it's great."

The asterisk, of course, is always there, the instant possibility of pain and injury. He has had those three operations to repair a metatarsal in his left foot.

" . . . Right now it's great," Walton said. "I have to stick to the basics in working out -- jogging, weights, sprints, hook shots -- and accept my limitations. And see what happens in January."

January, Walton hopes, will signify six months painless play. Then, if the foot is sound and the left leg -- slightly atrophied now -- is strong, don't bet the second mortgage on Bill Walton staying in law school.

Before Friday night, when Walton scored 20 points in 28 minutes, it had been 2 1/2 years since he played regular-season NBA basketball. A large part of two of those years have been spent in the law library at Stanford.

He now moves back onto the world's stage, opening the life of his wife Susan and four boys to the crowbar subtlety of a media pack trying to jimmy its way into his life. The cameras and note pads will find that, in some ways, it is not so unusual for this man to take a step back into time. In some ways, he never left it.

His home, a soaring Spanish-style structure fronting a canyon in a fashionable section of town, is largely empty of furniture. Instead, floor cushions with Moroccan motifs are scattered about at the bases of the walls. Guitars snuggle into corners. Macrame hangs from the ceiling.

The Grateful Dead still sing on the stereo ("They were great then, and they've gotten better.") The book-shelves speak of our bodies and ourselves, of sun signs and bee pollen, of biorhythyms and Back to Eden.

He drives (with a touch of the maniac) a large Ford Ranger with a stretch cab, mud splattered over the hood and Oregon plates that expired two years ago. The appointments of his home reflect none of the polished glass and teak ethos of Southern California.

But something inexorable has shifted. Walton has taken a giant step away from Jack Scott. He has shed most his suspicion of the human race; some of the anger has been chipped away by the elements of time. In his two games in San Diego this month, he has dawdled with the press for more than an hour after each contest, patiently enduring both the trite and the trickster. He is extraordinarily polite with people, and quick to laugh at anything at all.

"I've matured a hell of a lot," he says, steering the Ranger through traffic in pursuit of a toy store on Halloween eve. "A lot of things in my life are very different. For one thing, I have a lot more responsibilities with four kids."

(Adam is 7, Nate is 4, Luke is 2 and Christopher 1, a staggered lineage of mini-Waltons darting through the halls and empty rooms chasing balls and dogs of various sizes. "It's great," he says of his brood. "But it's enough.")

He will no longer tour the globe with the Dead, nor will he demonstrate against his country's involvement in Central America -- not because his political stances have shifted, but because there's no point in risking exploitation. Bill Walton came to symbolize a number of things 10 years ago, and his name was often evoked for causes in which he held no stake.

"I never really understood, or felt comfortable, with that. Sometimes I didn't realize it was going on, much to my detriment. It used to bother me, and I came to dislike it. I let that dislike concern me.

"Now I accept it and make the best of it, and believe me, that's a whole heck of a lot easier."