When Bill Walton joined the Boston Celtics last fall, it strained the imagination to see him as anything more than Muhammad Ali or Willie Mays at the end. Too many foot injuries, too many broken noses, too many years and too few games.
Even when the Celtics traded for Walton, a 6-foot-11 center, in September, General Manager Jan Volk said the whole thing was "fraught with risk."
But now, midway through Walton's 12th NBA season, anybody who has seen him play recently knows he is more than just a film clip. So far, he has played in all but one game -- unprecedented for him -- practices every day, has suffered nothing more than another broken nose, and actually might have become the best sixth man in pro basketball, backing up center Robert Parish and forward Kevin McHale. People around the NBA, specifically some in Boston, believe that if he can continue to play as he has the last month, Walton will make the Celtics better than the defending NBA champion Los Angeles Lakers.
At 33, he is one of the NBA's oldest players. Yet he is hardly fading ignominiously into retirement, as the Lakers and Philadelphia 76ers learned last week and the Bullets probably will learn tonight at Capital Centre when they play the Celtics.
Walton has been averaging seven points and seven rebounds in about 18 minutes per game. He can't play 35 minutes a night anymore but he doesn't need to. It's the quality-time he wanted when he came here, and that's what measures his value to the Celtics, especially in recent big games. First, in a victory over the Lakers, he made five of six shots from the field, had eight rebounds and blocked seven shots in 16 minutes.
Four days later, on Super Bowl Sunday against the 76ers, he had 19 points and 14 rebounds in a boffo performance on national television that led Boston to a comeback victory and showed everybody the old man still can play.
"Can't you see the flashes?" a considerably younger teammate, Rick Carlisle, asked after the Philadelphia game.
Carlisle was talking about the flashes of the old Bill Walton, the all-around greatness that made him the dominant college center of the 1970s, the stuff that helped UCLA win two NCAA titles and Portland win the NBA title in 1977. But Carlisle just as easily could have been referring to the flashes that light Walton's face now that his feet don't hurt, now that he's where he probably should have been all along, and now that he's obviously happier than he's been in nearly 10 years.
After spending six relatively unproductive years with the San Diego/Los Angeles Clippers, two of which he didn't play a single game, Walton -- who was about to become a free agent -- called the Celtics' team president, Red Auerbach, and said he wanted to play in Boston.
"I just wanted to play on Larry Bird's team," Walton said in a recent conversation.
It's that, but it's more. In Portland, he had two of the greatest seasons in NBA history in 1976-77 and 1977-78. In the first, the Trail Blazers won the title. And they were headed for another, with a record of 50-10, before he hurt the arch of his right foot and missed the rest of that season and most of the next five.
His experience with the forlorn Clippers was strictly part time, largely unpleasant and, in basketball terms, worthless.
"I wanted to come to Boston to play in games like this," he said after the victory over Philadelphia. "The games on national television, the big games that you dream about in the summer. There's nothing I'd rather do than play basketball. This is the big picture. The players, the fans, the ex-players, Bill Russell coming into the locker room before a game . . . "
Walton seems to revel in the tradition of the Celtics, and particularly of this veteran Boston team, which appreciates his contributions so warmly.
"It's the ideal situation for me," he said. "I'm feeling strong every night, sharp every night. The big thing is that my minutes are kept down so that I'm never burned out on any night. If I had to go somewhere and play 30 minutes a game, I'd be in a situation where I would not be able to practice. But spelling Kevin and Robert is the ideal situation for me. This was the place for me to come . . . It's that sense that we can get it done."
If anything, Walton has added to that sense, especially for Parish, the 7-foot center who was worn down by the time the Celtics lost to the Lakers last year in the NBA championship final.
If any player was happier than Bird to see Walton arrive, it was Parish, who sometimes refers to Walton as "Mr. Walton."
"I can't tell you how glad I was," Parish said. "I ran out of gas last year. I just pooped out in the finals. We need him.
"He's so fired up. I just love the enthusiasm of a guy who's been beaten up as much as he's been beaten. And I never met a guy who dislikes losing as much as Mr. Walton. It's great he's here."
It's also ironic that he's here. As Celtics Coach K.C. Jones pointed out the other day: "We have a legendary center as a backup. But were he completely healthy, he wouldn't be here."
The problem all along, of course, is that Walton never has been completely healthy since he left UCLA. He has played only 419 of a possible 944 NBA games because of: hurting his left foot in his rookie season; stubbing a toe, tripping over a sprinkler the following offseason; breaking his left wrist twice in 1975-76; spraining his right knee the next year and assorted injuries the championship season; injuring his right foot so badly in 1978 that it required surgery, which was followed (in the playoffs) by a broken left foot that led to his disillusion with the Trail Blazers' medical practices and him asking to be traded.
The left foot, which had been broken three times, later developed a stress fracture, which needed reconstructive surgery in 1981. One of his doctors said he didn't think Walton ever would play again.
There has been a visit to a biologist who prescribed a mineral drink to strengthen Walton's bones; a trip to Arizona's healing waters resort, where he applied mud packs to his feet and soaked them; and many other desperately sought treatments.
"It's a weird thing about sports," he said. "There's very little relationship between athletic injury and how hard you work." If there were a strong relationship, he might have played 943 consecutive games. Teammates and opponents talk of his enthusiasm.
"What did surprise me about Bill," Jones said, "was his enthusiasm and intensity. The way he goes after it in practice. Injuries have shortened his career; it's not a question of age."
Before David Halberstam wrote his book, "The Breaks of the Game," he spent a season with the Trail Blazers. Fittingly capturing the essence of Walton's career, Halberstam wrote: "The best thing about him . . . was his love of what he did, a love which was rare even for professional athletes in that it was absolute. He was almost childlike in his pleasure; a big, joyous kid who believed he could do anything on a basketball court; and whose enthusiasm was infectious, for his teammates, for the fans, even for those he was playing against."
That joy still is apparent. "You can still see the anticipation on his face when he's sitting on the bench," Carlisle said. "Maybe he can't flow the way he did in '77. But nothing means more to him than the great effort."
Walton's greatest effort may have come in the summer of 1984 in San Diego, when he played full-court games as often as possible to overcome, as he calls it, "the fear of injury.
"That psychological fear of injury was the last thing to come," he said. "It took awhile. I left that fear in Municipal Gym two summers ago. Getting knocked down, driving to the hoop every time I could, getting back up and knowing my foot wouldn't break on me helped me get my confidence back."
The specific components of his game -- defense, passing, inside scoring -- seem pretty much intact. Against Philadelphia, his play in the last seven minutes was as criticial to Boston's victory as Bird's 28 points.
Once, after missing a layup, Walton hustled back down court and made the steal that led to Bird's three-point shot and a 101-99 lead with a minute to play. With McHale injured, Walton was there at the end, too, just as we remember him, coming from the left side of the court to get an offensive rebound on the right side of the basket that saved the game with fewer than 20 seconds left.
He probably imagined himself doing those things the last few years, even in a Celtics uniform, because, he said: "I've always been a fan of Celtic basketball."
Even in Portland, he was, in effect, playing Celtics basketball. Portland's low-post passing differed slightly from the perimeter passing game Boston plays, "but the styles are very, very similar," he said.
An hour after the victory over the 76ers, he shed his No. 5 uniform -- a number last worn by a backup center named John Thompson -- and played happily with two of his four sons in the Boston locker room. People who know Walton say he rarely has appeared happier.
He said that things "just feel right," now. And when someone asked him to recall the last time things felt this right, he rubbed a hand through his red, wet hair, as his face grew into a half-frown, and said: "I really don't know. I'll have to think about that one for awhile."