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Walton turns 50

Posted: Thursday, November 07, 2002

He played for John Wooden, against Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, alongside Larry Bird, and with the Grateful Dead in concert.

The funny thing? Those were all way down on Bill Walton's wish list for when the big day arrived.

''No. 1 was just to make it, and No. 2 was to still be upright, and I'm close on both of those,'' he said. ''No. 3 was to spend it with my family, and I'm headed to my parents' house next.

''They still live in the house we grew up in and I'm going over there,'' Walton added, ''to thank them for the greatest life that anybody ever had.''

His life.

But don't let the testimonial throw you. Walton's summer began with his 30-games-in-30-days chronicling of last season's playoffs, and his schedule has tapered off only a little since. The redhead isn't retiring or even slowing down, just pausing (briefly) to reflect on the eve of his 50th birthday.

Walton will actually spend most of the day on a cross-country flight to New York, where he'll prepare to work Wednesday night's NBA telecast. So he was taking Monday off at home in San Diego, catching up with family, putting together a new wish list and resting an ankle that was surgically fused a few weeks ago -- his 32nd operation.

''I'm getting ready for the next 50 years,'' he cracked, and whatever you think about Walton and his relentlessly upbeat style, you have to admire the way the man gets around -- and always has. The arc of his career would be perfect for a basketball version of ''Forrest Gump.''

Walton was one of the greatest college players ever when Wooden's UCLA dynasty was at its brightest. One magical night, in the 1973 NCAA championship game against Memphis State, he took 22 shots and made 21. Some people still believe it was the best game ever played by anybody.

The next year, he was the top pick in the NBA draft. Three years after that, the center of a championship team in Portland, and the league MVP the year after that. Walton didn't arrive in time to play against his childhood idol, Bill Russell, but saw plenty of Abdul-Jabbar, whom he followed at UCLA and considered the best big man ever.

Then, just as his pro career was taking flight, Walton was grounded by a series of foot, leg and ankle problems that would make him ''the poster boy for injury in the NBA.''

''I missed more than 9 1/2 of 14 seasons I played,'' Walton recalled. ''It's why I hate seeing guys unable to play. I know what they're going through.''

Injuries wiped out his 1978-79 season, and after a trade to the Clippers, two more seasons after that. Celtics boss Red Auerbach rescued Walton in 1985 with a trade that brought him to Boston. There, as the league's best sixth man, he helped Bird put another championship banner in the rafters.

That second chance resonates throughout Walton's work as a broadcaster. It's why he argues to let Michael Jordan play for as long as he wants, why he lectures fans to be patient enough to allow Yao Ming to develop.

''There's a good chance he could become the most dominant player in the game in a few years,'' Walton said, ''but we've got to cut this guy some slack.

''Just think of the adjustments he's trying to make -- language, culture, going from a place where everyone told him 'No' -- to everything -- to the 'Ritz-Carlton life,' where everybody on the other end of the phone is always saying, 'Yes.'

''Plus, he's never played at anywhere near this level and the NBA is full of tough, nasty, vicious cutthroat guys making a living, and this guy is still only 22 years old.''

The third of Walton's four sons is the same age, and not a bad basketball player, either. Arizona senior Luke Walton is one of the Wildcats' two candidates for the Naismith Award and a big reason why Arizona could wind up atop The Associated Press preseason poll.

The son plays forward instead of center, but with Luke's all-around skills and his ability to orchestrate what happens on the floor, the pedigree is unmistakable.

The father, though, worries more about passing along other lessons. One of them is about striving, always. Having performed onstage with his beloved Grateful Dead, Walton is already scheming to play the piano in Carnegie Hall, backed by a symphony orchestra.

''The single most important person in my life outside of my parents has been Coach Wooden. He didn't just teach basketball, he taught us lessons about justice, opportunity ... about making the world a better place.

''I look at him now, always on the go, and every time we cross paths, he's the one who tells me, 'Slow down, you're racing around too much.' Then, I remember Coach Wooden is what now, 92?'

''And you know what that tells me?'' Walton said, barely hanging around long enough to answer his own question. ''It tells me I'm not doing nearly enough.''

Jim Litke is a national sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at jlitke@ap.org



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