The ponytail is gone. As is the beard, the macrobiotic diet and the fence of silence he built to keep his shyness in and the public out. They belonged to his youth, and Bill Walton, at 32, is no longer young. But he still radiates an incandescent joy, prancing on the basketball court like a pony, and still wears his Grateful Dead shirts off it. After changes upon changes, he is more less the same.
Nobody ever loved the game more than Walton.
And nobody who ever put so much in, got less back.
If the history of basketball were written today, then sealed forever, these four men would be commemorated as the most dominant centers: George Mikan, Wilt Chamberlain, Bill Russell and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar.
Bill Walton belongs in that select company. Had his body not failed him, he surely would be. Three times, at UCLA, Walton was the college basketball player of the year. His teams won two national titles and 73 of the record 88 straight games. He was the NBA's first draft choice in 1974, and three seasons later, in 1976-77, the only time in Walton's professional career he was fully healthy, he led Portland to the NBA championship. He was the hub of the wheel, around which all the spokes revolved, a great team player who made everyone else on his team better.
But Walton's Achilles' heel -- almost literally -- was his left foot. If the rest of him was etched in stone, he had a foot of clay. The various stress fractures he suffered since 1978 kept him idle through three full seasons of his athletic prime, and in the parts of the three seasons he did play Walton appeared in but 102 games for the then San Diego and now the Los Angeles Clippers.
He is not now, nor will he ever be again, the player he was. Walton's not a franchise any more. He retains his uncanny instincts and his perfect fundamental defensive positioning, but the crispness and the spring are gone from his game, crusted over by time and inactivity. Rust never sleeps.
But the fact that he can play at all thrills him.
"I'm probably more excited about playing now than I ever have been," Walton said Thursday night at Capital Centre after the Clippers-Bullets game. "Over the last six years I haven't been able to play nearly as much as I'd have liked to." He shook his head softly, and in his tremulous voice he said, "I missed it a lot."
Which part did he miss most of all?
He smiled. "Every part."
As he says, he "knows better than most" because he's had "to learn the hard way that an athletic career is a day-to-day thing." This still-fresh season has been no exception. After playing in San Diego's first four games, Walton's left foot was kicked in a game against Utah, causing him to miss the next two games, and limiting him to just 17 minutes against the Bullets. Offensively, he scored only four points. But he was effective on defense against Jeff Ruland, frustrating Ruland into poor shots by denying him advantageous position.
"I still have a good game; if I didn't think that, I wouldn't play," Walton said. "I'm glad I'm here. I'm just sorry I didn't get to play more."
As he sat in the Clippers' locker room answering questions politely, if not enthusiastically, Walton adjusted the bandage wrap on a bag of ice that seemed to be growing off the side of his left foot like a huge bunion. Over the years, seeing Walton bound in tape has become an all-too-familiar sight. Yes, he said, he envied Abdul-Jabbar. Not for the points or the rebounds, but for the playing time. Bill Walton, you see, has a Basketball Jones.
"The only thing I don't like about the NBA is the injuries I've suffered," Walton said, a melancholy smile splattering like drizzle across the strawberry fields of his face. "The hardest thing was the psychological barriers I've had to overcome. You see, my injuries weren't the violent kind. I didn't just break something, lay out and come back again, healed. With stress fractures, you never know when they'll reoccur. It makes it hard to open up and go flat out.
"I never voluntarily chose not to play pro ball. I was hurt. If not for the injuries, I'd have been out here all this time. I like the games, the life, the travel, the camaraderie with the players, the give and take with the fans. If I could choose to do anything in the world, this would be it. It's really fun."
He shrugged, and his exhale sounded like a sigh. "I just wish I could do it more."
Still, he said, he doesn't sit and think about what might have been, had he stayed healthy, had the center cut of his career not gone limping away. "I try my best not to," he said, looking away from his foot. "It's not gonna do me any good. I have certain limitations on me, and I have to live with them."
After a short while the nature of this conversation clearly wore on Walton, and he sought to channel it elsewhere. "I don't really know how to answer these questions," he said. "You're asking me about life -- I haven't been thinking about life lately." He grinned goofily and said, "Lately, all I've been thinking about is my jump shot."
Zipping up his sweatsuit, Walton called out to the trainer, "Hey, any beers back there? You wanna give me about six of them?"
There was a bus to catch to the hotel in Arlington, then a plane for a game in Houston against Ralph Sampson, who may someday be placed in Walton's company and not just in his league, then another plane, back home to Los Angeles, where Bill Walton once was young and strong, and king of the mountain.