Shared experiences as cryptic, oft-misunderstood superstar players and unselfish passers who endured the crucible of massive expectations as the great white hopes of their time helped make Bill Walton and Larry Bird kindred basketball spirits.
In addition, both suffered devastating injuries after winning titles and MVP awards along the way, linking Bill Walton and Larry Bird before they teamed up to form a transcendent tandem in the mid-1980s.
When the two greats combined forces late in Walton's career and at Bird's peak, their unique skills and intangibles helped make the 1985-86 Boston Celtics arguably the greatest team ever.
Easily the greatest center/forward passing combination to ever play together in the NBA, Walton and Bird both took circuitous routes to superstardom.
On the court they shared a rare synchronicity and sense of where the other one was that manifested in superb anticipatory passing, sheer joy in playing with one another, and a rarely seen, completely unselfish style of winning basketball.
Even if they were open and had a makeable shot, if a teammate had a closer or easier shot, they would happily pass it to them. In Bird's case especially, since he was such a great shooter and scorer, it was even more unselfish to do so since he was likely to make any open shots within 20 feet.
In the summer of 1985 when Bill Walton called Red Auerbach to inquire whether the Celtic patriarch was interested in acquiring his services (after the Lakers had turned the southern California native down down), Bird happened to be in Red's office at the time.
Auerbach paused the phone and asked Larry what he thought of acquiring the injury-plagued Walton, and Bird immediately said "you go get him," excited at the prospect of playing with his high-school idol. (1)
The Lakers' loss—GM Jerry West, a friend of Walton's, told Bill no because "I have seen your foot X-rays"—became Boston's big gain, at least for one transcendent season.
Disgruntled by what he saw as Cedric Maxwell’s lack of dedication in rehabbing a knee injury, Red then swung a deal of former Finals MVPs, sending Cornbread (1981 MVP) to the Clippers for Walton, eight years and countless surgeries removed from his spectacular 1977 championship season for Portland—and over a decade away from his dominant days at UCLA.
Walton came to Boston freshly shorn, with a shortened haircut and no beard, and with an impressively muscled upper body. Long gone was the uber-skinny vegetarian body. He had been beardless in his last two seasons with the Clippers, but his hair had still been long in the back. The new-look Walton signaled the fresh-start mindset he brought to Boston.
Energized by the enthusiastic, relatively healthy and rejuvenated Walton, a deep Boston squad rolled to a 67-15 record in 1985-86. Called by many the greatest team in NBA history (Bird always says it is the best team he has seen),(2) Larry won his third straight season MVP and the Finals MVP, Walton took home the Sixth Man of the Year award, and the Celtics rolled to their 16th title with a 15-3 playoff record.
Eleven of their 15 postseason wins came by double figures. The double-overtime win over the Bulls despite 63 points from Michael Jordan highlighted a round-one sweep. The 4-1 whipping of the Hawks was underscored by an epic 36-6 third quarter in the game five, 132-99 clinching embarrassment of Atlanta.
Boston then avenged a 1983 sweep at the hands of Milwaukee by crushing the Bucks four straight in the conference finals by an average of 15 points per game, with only one victory coming by fewer than 11 points.
The championship series blowout of Houston was almost a foregone conclusion. The decisive win in the sixth game belies a dominating Celtic Finals where Boston's four wins came by an average of 13.5 ppg.
Along the way, the skilled and fiery Celtics embarrassed the opposition with great passing, teamwork, defense, rebounding, size, precision offense, and basketball smarts. If not for a couple of uninspired overtime losses to the lowly Nets and Knicks (after blowing a 29-point lead on Christmas Day), the Celtics could easily have tied or broken the then-record for wins in a season (69, set by the 1971–72 Lakers).
Not only did they possess the league's best sixth man in Walton, but if there was a seventh man award it would have gone to sharpshooting swingman Scott Wedman, a former two-time All-Star with the Kings.
The game came so easily to that group of seven current or former All-Stars that sometimes they made it look too easy and could occasionally get complacent, hence their losses to some weak teams.
As evidence, eight of their 15 losses came to sub-.500 clubs. They went an all-time record 40-1 at home in the season (losing only to Portland) and posted a perfect 10-0 mark at the Garden during the playoffs.
Only a questionable inadvertent whistle late in game three of the Finals in a 106-104 loss at Houston made it a six-game series, but the outcome was never in doubt, as Boston registered three blowout wins over the Olajuwon/Sampson, Twin Towers-led Rockets.
For weeks a joyous Walton—finally back on top after such a long, strange trip marred by countless injuries, stunted comebacks, self-doubt and questions about whether he could even play again—would answer his telephone by saying "Boston Celtics, 1985-86 champion headquarters."(3)
One of the best memories of the 1986 Finals-clinching game-six win came on a play involving Bill and Larry. Bird cut through the lane and couldn't cleanly handle a Walton feed, but he recovered it, then dribbled the ball out beyond the three-point line behind an improvised l screen from Walton (he was always looking to help out Larry with a pass or pick) in the corner directly in front of the Houston bench.
A master of dealing out three-point psychological damage, Larry let the dagger trey fly and nailed it to give Boston a nearly 30-point lead. In a rare show of emotion, Bird raised his right arm in triumph as he ran back down the court on defense, knowing the championship coffin of Houston was now sealed.
"He said I wanna put a pin in the balloon," exclaimed Celtic legend Johnny Most from his radio perch atop the 58-year old Garden.
When Bird reluctantly came off the Garden floor in the closing minutes of game six for the final time in that magical season, he slid off the hug from Rocket rival Robert Reid (his defensive nemesis in the 1981 Finals win over Houston), trudged slowly to the bench as the Garden crowd roared to its feet in appreciation of his Herculean hoop efforts—and high-fived his teammates, including Big Bill, with whom he fell into a hug. Their championship mission was accomplished.
Walton was joyous, but a slightly-smiling Bird also appeared a bit sad that the season was over, despite the title. (And Alexander wept, for there were no worlds left to conquer...)
The game had been fun and great again because of Walton, who energized the entire team with his enthusiasm, fine play and his role as willing butt of the constant Celtic barbs. Bill, back on top and a literal and figurative center of attention again on a superb team, loved every minute of it.
Ainge loved his addition too because now Walton, not the mischievous Danny, was the main target of the harsh needling Bird and McHale in particular doled out. As just one example of their tough love, Ainge dubbed Walton "Mask" for his perceived facial and red-haired resemblance to the lionitis-disfigured Rocky Dennis title character played by Eric Stolz in the famous 1985 Cher movie.(4)
When Walton, who led the Green team second unit in practice against the supreme five Celtic regulars, would boast that the second unit would win, McHale made fun of his stutter and laughed him off. "We're gonna kill the Green team today," McHale would say with disdain. The practices were usually better, more fun and often more competitive than the Celtic games.
When Walton would make a good play, McHale would jokingly say "flashback 1977!" To which Big Bill would reply as he ran downcourt in his stammer, "A-a-a-absolutely!" while the rest of the team laughed.
"I just rode the coattails of these two big freaks," joked Ainge in the post-sixth game 1986 championship locker room, arms draped around Walton and his best Celtic buddy McHale, whom he had also dubbed Herman Munster.(5,6)
Alas the incredibly fun ride of 1985-86 came to a crashing halt the next season. Top draft pick Len Bias died shortly after being selected number two overall from a devastating cocaine overdose to start a run of bad luck that seemed to run through the early retirements of Bird, Walton and McHale due to injuries, on to the death of Reggie Lewis and the Rick Pitino fiasco.
It took the fabled franchise almost two decades to recover.
Walton broke a finger in pre-season, then re-injured his foot while pedaling furiously on a stationary bike out of frustration as he watched his teammates practice. Big Bill only played 10 games in the 1986-87 season and was ineffective in the playoffs. Almost as draining, the team was constantly teased as they expected Bill to return, only to be consistently disappointed. Seventh-man extraordinaire Wedman missed most of the season with heel issues and, like Walton, never played again for the Celtics.
Walton was not the only Celtic to suffer substantial injuries in that 1986-87 season. In the midst of McHale’s greatest season, which culminated in a first team All-NBA selection alongside Bird (making them the only forward tandem ever to make first team all-league the same year), McHale broke the navicular bone in his foot—the same debilitating injury Walton originally incurred with Portland in 1978. Against his doctor's advice, McHale valiantly played in the playoffs with not only that broken foot but also the flu and a sprained ankle, and he limps to this day for gutting it through that grueling post-season.
Stoic center Robert Parish also sprained both ankles multiple times, Danny Ainge sprained his knee in game seven vs. Milwaukee, and sharpshooting third guard Jerry Sichting was bothered by a stomach ailment much of the season as well.
Having lost 17 pounds late in the season in an effort to get quicker (he swore off beer and used a 7-Up and popcorn diet), Bird played a record 1,015 playoff minutes and led Boston through arguably the gutsiest march to the Finals in NBA annals.(7)
The two defeats Boston suffered in the conference finals against Detroit after going up 2-0 were reminiscent of the infamous "Lost Weekend" that Walton's top-ranked UCLA squad suffered on consecutive days to Oregon and Oregon State late in his senior season of 1974. (Back then the Pac-8 usually played its league games on Friday and Saturday nights.)
After eventually losing in the Finals to the Lakers in six games,(8) Boston would not return to the Finals for 21 years—ironically, against the Lakers, whom they beat in six games—and sadly, Walton and Bird would never play another NBA game together. Bill missed the entire 1987-88 season, then hung up his size-17 sneakers for good.
Game six of the 1987 Finals proved to be his last NBA contest, and he scored two points (Bird was held to 16) in one of the most difficult-to-swallow defeats in Celtic history.
There are only a few great passing center/forward tandems I can think of in the same breath as Bill and Bird. Jack Sikma and John Johnson of the late 1970s Seattle SuperSonics and Jerry Lucas and Bill Bradley of the 1971-74 New York Knicks come to mind. Dave Cowens and John Havlicek were also fine passers together for the 1971-78 Celtics, although the 6’5” Hondo played a lot of guard in his later years too. Walton and underrated small forward Bob Gross of Portland in the late 1970s were also a great duo.
I suppose LeBron James and Kevin Love of the current Cavaliers merit mention if Love plays center for Cleveland.
The Hall of Fame careers of iconoclasts Cowens and Bird also overlapped for one superb 61-21 season in Larry's rookie campaign of 1979-80, which was the foot-injury-plagued Dave's last in Beantown.
Rick Barry, Billy Cunningham and Chris Mullin, other great passing forwards, never really played with a top passing center at their peaks. When Wilt Chamberlain led the NBA in assists for the 76ers in the late 1960s, Sixer sixth man Cunningham was not yet a great passer.
Alvan Adams, a superb 6-foot-9 passing center for Phoenix from 1976-88, never played with a real good passing forward, although Walter Davis was a pretty good disher when he wanted to be.
Arvydas Sabonis, the 7-foot-3 Lithuanian and Walton's only peer at center as a passer, never played with a truly good passing forward after he came to Portland in his early 30s when age as well as knee and Achilles injuries had robbed him of his athleticism.
But none of those combos at their best were as good as Larry and Big Bill together. The all-too-infrequent minutes they spent together on the floor in 1986-87 were a clinic in big-man basketball passing, unselfish hoops artistry at its highest, most skilled and smartest level.
Larry was usually the point forward and passer on the Celtics, but when Walton joined the team and was on the floor with him, an energized Bird always moved extra hard without the ball—knowing he finally had another transcendent big-man passer he trusted would get him the ball if he shook free, even with the slightest sliver of daylight.
In fact, each reveled in the chance to thread the needle to the other through the smallest cracks, and they were usually successful.
Walton was a superior athlete, especially for a seven-footer. He was extremely quick, a good leaper with great timing and hands, and was exceptionally fast off his feet, able to jump well and contest shots without flexing his knees deeply.
Although he almost always drove right (usually for a jump hook, pull-up jumper or if he got all the way to the hoop, a layup or dunk), he got away with it against most other big men because he was almost always quicker and had better lateral movement.
Walton loved to shoot a short to mid-range angle bank shot from both wings, something Wooden drilled into him at UCLA. Larry did not often bank jump shots, with the notable exception of his game-winner from 15 feet in the final minute of the 91-90 Celtic win over Philadelphia in game seven of the epic 1981 Eastern Conference finals.
Walton's lone weaknesses were bad arches on his feet and a tendency to overdo everything he tried to excess until he would get hurt, then train too hard in rehab and/or come back too soon.
Bird was not quite as superficially physically gifted as Walton, yet he was far more athletic than given credit for. People tend to remember Bird as the relatively immobile Larry in the latter stages of his career when he was riddled with back and Achilles injuries.
Yet in his college and early Celtic days Bird ran the floor well, jumped reasonably well, and had a quick first step made even quicker by his deceptive fakes and shooting ability that forced defenders to guard him more closely.
Larry had a 28-inch vertical leap, not great by basketball standards but far better than people tend to think. Bird also possessed excellent body control that allowed him the sliver of daylight he needed to get off his shot. Of course, he was also the most ambidextrous scorer in the NBA.
Above all, Bird had unsurpassed hands and hand-eye coordination, as well as great vision.
"He had the best hand-eye coordination of anyone ever, maybe, to play the game," said Indiana coach Bob Knight in the ESPN SportsCentury “Top 50 athletes of the 20th century” profile of Bird. His first Celtic coach Bill Fitch called Bird "Kodak" for his ability to mentally take a picture and see where all 10 players were at any time on the floor.(9)
Bird also possessed an uncanny ability to foresee the play developing ahead of time. Legendary Celtic passer Bob Cousy once said that Larry, himself and Ernie DiGregorio were able to see the play develop ahead of time better than anyone.(10) "Quickness is about anticipation, and Bird played the mental game better than anyone," said Walton.(11)
As a passer, Walton liked to face up in crouched attack mode from 16 feet on in, the ball often cocked off to his right side where he could quickly rifle a pass off the hip to an open teammate or drive. He also liked to hold the ball in one hand, wave it around and then hit cutters out of the post with clever feeds. Occasionally, he would "one-time" (in hockey parlance) a pass to a teammate.
Walton was a superb outlet passer, the first to consistently start a fast break by tossing the first pass out while he was still coming down with a defensive rebound, often twisting his body in midair to do so.
Of course, Bird was a much better and deeper shooter (and a far superior foul shooter) than Walton, and an even more creative passer. Not only was Bird a superb post entry feeder (a lost art today), he always hit his teammates in stride and on time with a firm but soft feed. He also mastered the quick touch pass, and the long baseball feed.
A college baseball player, Bird especially liked to jump out of bounds quickly after an opponent scored and defuse their momentum with a long strike to a streaking Ainge or Parish for an easy layup.
His passing arsenal was littered with lookaway feeds, legitimate no-look over-the-head or shoulder passes, and even feeds through opponent’s legs. Yet he never made a pass flashy unless it was necessary to complete the play.
Walton was the superior individual defender and shot blocker, and his intensity, ability to play angles and lateral movement helped him guard forwards well, such as when he shut down James Worthy in a 1986 regular season meeting after begging K.C. Jones to let him guard the North Carolina star.
Big Red intimidated the normally almost unstoppable Worthy in the post with his quickness, size, reach and quick leaping ability, as well as his extreme basketball smarts and ability to pounce and block shots well.
Even at 34 and with many foot surgeries behind him, he shut down the 25-year old Worthy. A healthy Walton still maintained an intimidating aura from his uber-dominant UCLA days, especially on those who had watched him growing up. He bounced when he ran upcourt with the gait and confidence of the superior athlete who knows he is great.
Walton is still the youngest man to ever play for a U.S. team in an overseas tournament. At 17, as a high-school senior, he competed for Team USA in the FIBA World Championships at Yugoslavia. Bird was the oldest player for Team USA on the original Dream Team in 1992 at age 35.5.
Bird and Walton had many differences (especially off the court in terms of politics, food choices and in terms of being outspoken) but they possessed more similarities, particularly on the court.
Fired by growing up in the era of civil rights and Vietnam, Walton was the epitome of the baby boomer/flower child as an outspoken serial protester in a time of great social upheaval.
The inquisitive, energetic youth was also the product of liberal southern California attitudes fostered by the times. His active mind and open-minded, progressive social worker/librarian parents, who preferred music and reading over sports, imbued him with a love of learning.
When Bill was a teenager riding in his dad's beat-up old station wagon one day, he told his father he was going to win the NBA MVP award and give him the new car that came with the honor.
While driving the old jalopy, his father turned to Bill and said, "What's the NBA?", recounted the redhead in his ESPN SportsCentury profile. Big Bill never even shot baskets with Ted Walton, not one time.
Yet amazingly, Ted and Gloria Walton produced two pro athletes since Bill's older, stockier brother Bruce later became a lineman for the Dallas Cowboys. Bill's first-ever shot as an eight-year old was a halfcourt heave which went in, and he was hooked on the game. He grew from 6-foot-1 to 6-foot-7 at age 14, and his skills grew along with his height.
And as unorthodox as Bill was off the court, he was the ultimate orthodox, fundamental, team-oriented player.
As his UCLA coach John Wooden said, when between the lines, Walton was the perfect player. Outside the lines with his constant envelope-pushing and protesting, he was an endless worry to the aging coach.
"On the court Bill was a leader, but off the court he was a follower," Wooden summed up in the recent Seth Davis biography "Wooden: A Coach's Life." He implied that Bill was easily led by protest groups that took advantage of his enthusiasm and gullibility, and wanted to use his fame to advance their cause.
In some of his many demonstrations, Walton was among hundreds of students protesting, but often it was his photo that ended up in the newspaper or on TV, because he was famous. Bill's good friend, guru and UCLA teammate Greg Lee said in the Davis book that no one he knew threw himself as completely into new causes and with the excitement that Walton did.(12)
Unlike joiner Bill, the wary Bird was a reserved semi-loner, not at all politically oriented. From a very poor family of six children, Larry hailed from a conservative, rural and poverty-stricken region of southern Indiana. His quiet personality and growing up in hoops-mad Indiana lent itself to countless hours of shooting practice and thinking about the game, however.
Walton used the great weather of San Diego to play basketball outside all day long, developing his amazing skills and coordination in the southern California sun. In high school, the then-San Diego Rockets used to practice at times in his high school gym, and the young Walton would scrimmage against the pros and hold his own as a high school phenom with the likes of Elvin Hayes.
Bill had many other interests besides basketball, although it was his chief passion. With Bird, basketball seemed to be on his mind 24/7. He was not interested in politics or art or philosophy, at least not publicly.
"With Larry it was all about love of the game," said 1979-85 Celtic teammate Cedric Maxwell in the three-part ESPN “30 for 30” about the Lakers vs. Celtics series that aired in 2017.
Bird rarely missed games until his Achilles tendons both gave out early in the 1988-89 season, unlike the oft-injured Walton.
Yet despite their political and personality differences each was a consummate winner on the floor. Their shared experiences and idea of how the game should be played - unselfishly and smartly with high skill and competitiveness - meshed perfectly.
Bird and Walton were extremely intelligent, highly-skilled and fierce, team-oriented basketball fundamentalists at heart with great individual skills to take over a game when needed.
Walton and Bird enjoyed many similarities on the court, some trivial and some deep, that helped drive them both to great hoop heights as well as to forge like-minded basketball savants.
Both were driven by powerful external forces beyond the normal competitive drive that the greats possess - Walton by his debilitating stutter, Bird by poverty, his father's suicide and constant doubters.
Bird's mother Georgia once noted that Bill Walton was the only player she remembered hearing Larry look up to and truly admire when Bird was a high schooler. Walton was four years older than Larry and would have been a standout at UCLA when Bird was starring for Springs Valley High School.
Both wore jersey number 33 in high school. Walton switched to 32 in college and wore 32 for the first 11 years of his injury-plagued pro career until he got to Boston in 1985. Kevin McHale, who idolized Walton growing up, already had number 32 in Boston, so Walton switched to 5.
Larry wore 33 throughout his high school, college and pro career, the same number as his older brother Mark—and legendary Hoosier and Purdue All-American sharpshooter Rick Mount in his mid-1960s high school heyday.
It is likely that Mark and in turn, Larry, were influenced to wear 33 because of the ballyhooed Mount, who was the first high school cager ever to be featured on the cover of Sports Illustrated. Many observers still consider Mount to be the best shooter ever to come out of Indiana, a basketball-mad state that has produced more great shooters than any other.
Each employed unusual shooting but accurate techniques. Bird's shot changed over the years due to right finger and back problems. In college his release tended to be higher and straight over his head, and further off the ground. In the pros his shot became progressively lower and off to the right side of is head as he aged, especially from further out, and he jumped less.
Walton employed a very unique shooting style whereby he locked his wrists on either side of the ball in the same position, literally forcing the shot to go straight. This locked wrist style was not conducive to shooting well outside 15 feet, but most of Walton's attempts were from 12 feet on in anyway, and he was quite accurate from 13 feet and closer.
Both inspired their teammates to their maximum level, and their passing skills got the most out of them offensively. Walton's intensity, exuberance and energy lifted his teammates, and his on-court leadership/chatter made his team defense even greater.
"He was an air tower at both ends of the court you ran your offense and defense through," said esteemed Boston Globe writer Bob Ryan in the ESPN SportsCentury profile of Walton. He opined that no big man ever affected the game on both ends as much as a healthy Walton.
The more grim, reticent and serious Bird led by example, and his willingness to play hurt, hard and at his best in the clutch inspired his teammates.
Both Bird and Walton despised the media spotlight their immense basketball ability turned on them. Walton dealt with the glare by hiking, cycling, protesting, reading, going to Grateful Dead concerts, and other pursuits.
After the rigors and travel of the uber-long NBA season, Bird preferred just to go back home to rest and enjoy the slow pace of small-town southern Indiana. Back home he mowed the lawn, shot baskets and refined his game, fished and hung out with his old high school friends.
Sports Illustrated, the premier sporting publication before the Internet and ESPN took over, was so obsessed and or captivated by Walton that from 1972-81 he appeared on their cover 14 times, and was the subject of numerous feature articles. Many articles were written during and about his injury-plagued "lost" years from 1978-82 when he barely played. One article in this time was all about the author riding a 150-mile, two-day bike trek through Oregon with Walton.
The constant SI articles about Walton illustrate a fascination with the counterculture icon at that time, a center who was so great when he played and possessed a multi-faceted and ebullient personality to go with an inquisitive mind. Big Bill was a three-time Academic All-American at UCLA.
To many he represented the epitome of what was best about the flower child protest/baby boomer generation. And in turn hoop purists and fans saw the unselfish Walton as epitomizing the "right" way to play basketball in a team-first manner that resonated in particular during that kumbaya era.(13)
Bird was not talkative off the court and neither was the stutter-impaired Walton (although Bill was very outspoken about civil rights and was very politically active). Walton mostly did not conquer his stutter until after he retired. Bird was very shy, taciturn and wary, and once took an F in an English class in school instead of making a speech.
Both were the great white hopes of their mini-era, Bill in the first half of the 1970s and Bird in the latter half of the decade. Bird is the rarest of mega-superstars in that he actually somehow managed to exceed the greatest hype, and thrived on the pressure to succeed amid the massive buildup he came into the NBA saddled with.
Walton met his also huge expectations, leading a young Portland club to the title in 1977 (in their first playoff foray) after two injury-riddled NBA seasons, and his two-season run at the mountain top was transcendent. But it was all too brief and tragically shortened by injury and controversy over how his foot was treated.
Big Bill won two NCAA titles (1972/73) and was a two- or three-time NCAA Player of the Year, depending on which awards you go by. He led UCLA to three Final Fours, as well as an 86-4 record after an unbelievable 73-0 start to his Bruin varsity career.(14)
An all-time UCLA fan favorite because he truly was one of them, his Bruins never lost a home game at Pauley during his three varsity seasons (freshmen were ineligible then), all of which were first team All-American campaigns.
Bird was consensus NCAA Player of the Year as a senior and a two-time first team All-American at Indiana State. He led the Sycamores to the 1979 finals and a 33-0 record before losing to Michigan State in the title game. In his three varsity seasons ISU went 81-13 and lost only one home game.
Both had a connection to John Wooden—Walton of course starred for the Hoosier native and legendary coach at UCLA. Wooden grew up in Martinsville, Indiana, not far from French Lick and home of Larry Bird's car dealerships today. Wooden also coached two seasons at Indiana State in the late 1940s before heading west to UCLA for 27 seasons and 10 national titles.
Wooden almost played for nearby Indiana University but instead went to Purdue, originally to study engineering, while Bird enrolled at IU before leaving after 24 days on campus in 1974.
Wooden once said that he had thought Oscar Robertson was the greatest all-around player ever—until he saw fellow Hoosier Bird play. He also said that all-around "when all phases of the game are taken into account" and when healthy, that Walton was the best center ever.(15)
Both had colorful manes—Walton flaming red hair, Bird blonde. Early on in Portland, Bill wore a ponytail and always sported a beard. Bird had a wispy blonde mustache throughout college and the NBA. Ironically Bird sported a longer haircut when Walton arrived in Boston than Bill.
Both were all-time great passers, arguably the best-ever at their positions, and consummate team players. Both seemed to get as much or more of a kick from assisting a teammate to score than score themselves.
Each was a great rebounder, especially on the defensive glass. Both were extremely smart players and great competitors who played hard and sacrificed their bodies.
Both had their careers shortened by injuries. Walton had over 30 foot surgeries, an injured knee in high school, numerous broken noses and played the 1986 playoffs with Boston despite a broken right wrist bone.
Bird played the last seven years of his NBA career with a bad back, and in 1988 underwent double Achilles surgery that limited his 1988-89 season to just six games. He also suffered a fractured cheekbone in 1982 and numerous finger injuries on his right hand.
Walton suffered torn knee cartilage in high school that morphed into chronic tendinitis; Bird missed much of his high school sophomore season with a broken ankle. While on crutches, a manager used to shag balls for Larry while he continued to practice his shooting.
Each endured excruciating pain and injuries in a continuing effort to play as they aged. Walton's knee injury in high school never healed despite surgery (the first of 37 orthopedic surgeries he has undergone) because he was growing so fast.(16)
Walton missed more regular season games in his career from 1974-88 than any player in NBA history due to injuries, including the four full seasons of 1978-79, 1980-81, 1981-82 and 1987-88. In addition he only played 10 games in 1986-87, and 14 games in 1979-80.
Out of a potential 1,066 regular season games from 1974-87, he only played in 468.
Bird endured agonizing back pain for much of 1985-92 until he retired. In his final season after games or practice, he would wear a full-body brace similar to that of Hannibal Lecter (without the mask) for hours to counteract the effects of playing NBA basketball.
After the season was over, an angry Bird reportedly took the full-body brace outside and shot it to pieces.
After years of running differently to compensate for his back—and due to playing hard deep into the postseason virtually every season over his first nine years in the NBA—Bird eventually developed painful bone spurs in his Achilles. He underwent double Achilles surgery six games into the 1988-89 season and did not come back until the following campaign.
Both were NCAA Player of the Year and later NBA season and playoff MVP winners, something only a handful of players have accomplished. Walton was the NCAA PoY in 1972 and 1973, as well as Final Four MOP both years. He won the 1977 playoff MVP after leading Portland to the title, and was the regular season MVP the following season of 1977-78.
After leading the TrailBlazers to a 50-10 start in 1977-78, and 44 straight home wins, a broken foot ended his regular season and their dreams of an almost certain repeat championship, the first since the 1968-69 Celtics in the NBA. He came back for the playoffs but re-injured the foot badly while playing under the influence of painkillers.
With Walton sidelined Portland lost to Seattle, led by future Celtic teammate Dennis Johnson. Walton never played again for Portland, signing as a free agent with his hometown San Diego Clippers after an infamous, bitter and costly legal dispute with the Blazers and their medical staff.
Bird is still the only non-center to win three straight NBA season MVP awards (1984-86). He was also the NBA Finals MVP in 1984 and 1986. In 1978-79, he was the unanimous college Player of the Year after leading Indiana State to an undefeated regular season. Walton led UCLA to two perfect seasons of 30-0.
Each was well-known for a lack of sartorial splendor, embodying a substance over flash mindset with little regard for the fancy, attention-getting fashion statements many NBA stars make. At the NBA awards banquet, Bird picked up an NBA MVP trophy (which sat atop his mom's refrigerator) in a bowling shirt. Walton, a well-known political activist and hiker/cyclist, also preferred casual wear.(17)
Long after both retired, Walton would occasionally visit Bird in his native Indiana, playing chess (as they often did on the court) and rehashing their time together as Celtics. As Tom Heinsohn noted while calling the CBS broadcast of the 1985 NBA All-Star Game, Bird was "playing chess when everyone else was playing checkers" on the hardwood.
It is basketball’s and the fans' loss that this transcendent duo did not get to play longer together. Walton's joy at playing lightened even Bird's legendary grim, occasionally grumpy exterior. He made it fun for Larry, took some of the pressure off of him.
Perhaps only Walton and Pete Maravich (also a Bird Boston teammate briefly in Larry's rookie season in 1980) could understand the pressures of being the game's great white hope in that era.
Unfortunately, Pistol Pete retired before the Celtics won it all in 1981. Larry and Bill were able to combine forces for one glorious title run in 1986, and an injury-plagued near miss to repeat in 1987, before Bill finally had to quit.
Almost ten years after the defending-champion Blazers were destined to repeat before injuries hit, the same fate befell Boston, Bird and Bill.
Then again, it is almost inevitable that anyone as big as the mercurial Walton and cursed with bad arches/ankles - plus playing 100 games or more in the marathon seasons of the NBA like his hair was on fire - was bound to get hurt and flame out.
Bill Walton's hoop career was like a comet that streaked across the sky, burning brightly, impatiently, with boundless energy. He did almost everything he tried to excessive excess, with great intensity, and was destined to burn out or disappear under the NBA's grueling demands. Some might say he lived and played fully, and then some.
But each time he appeared to burn out for sure and disappear from the hardwood forever, he would come back again, a little wiser and less impatient in his rehab—yet always brimming with his trademark optimism, energy and hope.
All the injuries, litigation and despair could not keep Walton down—until the final injuries literally grounded him. After he hurt himself working out at home trying to make yet another comeback in 1990—he had to crawl on the floor from his garage into the house to phone a friend for help—Walton finally gave up on playing pro ball ever again.
Shortly afterwards his ankle bones were fused together so he could walk, but never run again, nor body surf nor backpack, the things he so much loved to do. Never again would he experience the joy of running and jumping and passing and rebounding, shooting and blocking shots and playing on the beach.
Yet he found a new challenge. He took up a new kind of surfing on the Internet to feed his voracious brain. He conquered his stutter and took up basketball announcing for the Clippers. Some people say he hasn't stopped talking since in an attempt to make up for lost time.
Then in 2009 relentless and severe pain following a spinal collapse literally floored Walton, sapped his zest for life and had him contemplating suicide - before he got a new spine and made a miraculous, triumphant recovery detailed in his 2016 book "Back from the Dead."
Rejuvenated yet again, today he remains active by cycling and announcing Pac-12 ("conference of champions" as he incessantly repeats on air) basketball for ESPN in his typical bombastic, high energy, hyperbolic style.
"Bill has led a charmed life," said his brother Bruce in the ESPN SportsCentury profile on his famous sibling. "He has experienced more high highs and low lows (by 40) than most people ever do."
While Bird was very intense, he also knew when to dial it back some and relax back in French Lick. But after years of abusing his body playing the game he loves, he also had to have a back fusion surgery after retiring that ended his playing days completely - although he can still shoot, and shoot well, of course.
Would both of these basketball legends do it all over again if they knew their post-playing lives would be somewhat crippled in large part from playing basketball for a living? Emphatically, yes.
Both greats played with zest and a purist's mindset, as if basketball was life, or a metaphor for it at least. They played with a pure love for the game and as an escape from poverty or stuttering. The game was about passing, teamwork and and maximizing their teammates, sharing the ball in a communal effort to win and be the best they could be, to reach a natural high.(18)
To contact the author, email Cort Reynolds at email@example.com.
- May, Peter, The Last Banner: The Story of the 1985–86 Celtics and the NBA’s Greatest Team of All Time (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2007).
- CBS/NBA TV replay of Game 6 1986 Finals
- May, Last Banner.
- They swept the Bulls again in round one. After nearly blowing a 3-1 lead, Boston then survived vengeful Milwaukee 4-3 with a last-ditch rally in the final minutes of game seven, only to be rewarded with another grueling seven-game epic played in 12 days. Not finishing off the Bucks in game five at home would come back to haunt the short-handed, tired team. Beat-up Boston dug deep to take down the younger, hated Pistons in a controversial eastern finals marred by fights, reverse racism, physical and verbal cheap shots - and punctuated by Larry's miraculous steal and assist to DJ that snatched victory from the jaws of defeat in a 108-107 game five win for the ages. The first four games of this rancorous, wearing series were played in just six days, as Boston’s 2-0 lead evaporated quickly on back-to-back weekend days in a crowded, raucous Silverdome.
- In the 1987 rubber match Finals vs. LA, Boston had little left for a rested and healthy Laker team that cruised through a weak west with an 11-1 mark against TWO sub-.500 teams and a 42-40 Warrior squad. Read that again, please. Arguably, the Bulls team Boston swept 3-0 in round one was as good or better than any of the three weak sisters LA rolled over, including a 39-43 Seattle club in the West FINALS! Not to mention the fact that the East was far more physical and thus grueling than the weak, run-and-gun West was back then. Yet two days after surviving Detroit 117-14 in a brutal seventh game where Bird played every minute and authored a 37-point triple-double, the Celtics had to fly cross-country to take on LA. Bird also had to deal with the firestorm created by Isiah Thomas and Dennis Rodman making sour-grapes, racist comments after their game seven loss about Larry being overrated. McHale was so hobbled he used a pool lounge chair as a walker, and was jeered by the rabid Laker fans in game two when he hobbled off the court on one foot after re-injuring himself. Yet the Celtics almost gutted out a historic repeat title. They won game three and led by 16 in the second half of game four before some horrid officiating, plus stellar play by Jabbar, Worthy and Johnson, gave the Lakers a 107-106 win. The Lakers shot 14 free throws in the fourth period on the road to just ONE by Boston, and six calls at least were blatantly missed in the second half, allowing LA to rally instead of the series being tied 2-2 with game five still ahead in the Garden. A vengeful Boston blew out the Lakers in game five to stay alive down 3-2, then had to go back to LA for games six and seven, if necessary. Pat Riley's thinly-veiled zone defense stretched a weary but game Bird to the limit. Still, after some nearly-perfect half court offensive execution a valiant Boston led game six 56-51 at intermission. Ominously though, all three Celtic centers had been whistled for three fouls already, and a pair of three-point play drives by Bird and McHale were mysteriously waved off. The Lakers blitzed and fast broke Boston with a 30-12 third period to seize control before a rabid Forum crowd that had never seen LA win a title at home vs. the hated Celtics. Resilient Boston finally ran out of gas and miracles, and the poised Celtics uncharacteristically unraveled as no answers came from the bench or the floor as they fell in six. Yet for all the Celtics overcame to come so close to repeating, one could easily argue they were the true champions of 1987.
- May, Last Banner.
- “Larry Bird’s 50 Greatest Moments”, NBA TV, 2006.
- Jack Scott, Bill's one-time advisor and Portland housemate, was a noted radical author and college athletic director/sports guru. In the mid-1970s when Walton was at the peak of his fame as a cage great (and political agitator) Scott supposedly housed kidnapped heiress Patty Hearst, grand-daughter of media mogul William Randolph Hearst, and other Symbionese Liberation Army members to help them elude a massive police search. Hearst later claimed she had been brainwashed by the SLA (an extreme, left wing American activist organization headed by a prison escapee). But Scott claimed she was a very willing SLA guerilla and one of its most zealous members.
- His Portland title team was destined to carry on the torch of great team championship ball from the 1960s Celtics and early 1970s Knicks before a rash of injuries caused that splendid team to crater. With their shocking demise also went fan interest as the increasingly black league was seen by a white majority fan base as a bunch of selfish one on one players (and ABA refugees) who were supposedly doing a lot of drugs, turning white America in particular off. Thus when injuries knocked him out of the NBA and killed the budding Blazer dynasty, the league not coincidentally declined precipitously in attendance and TV ratings and was thought by many to be ready to fold up before Bird and Johnson rescued the league.
- The 71-70 upset loss at Notre Dame on January 19, 1974 where the Irish rallied from 17 down at one point and scored the final 12 points of the contest to end UCLA's incredible record 88-game win streak, and was Walton's first loss since junior high. So painful was the defeat that Bill can tell you right now how many years, months and days have gone by since the epic collapse. Walton had not played the previous 12 days due to a back injury suffered on a vicious undercut foul. Still, he canned 12 of 14 field goal tries at Notre Dame, but missed his patented turnaround banker (which he rushed for one of his two misses that day) in the final seconds that would have won the game. UCLA turned the ball over four times and missed its last six shots at ND over the final 3:22, while the Irish made their last six shots, to pull off the epic upset from a 70-59 deficit. Angered, Walton and UCLA came back with a vengeance the next week in the rematch at Pauley Pavilion, leading by as many as 27 points while Big Bill sank 16 of 19 from the field in a 94-75 Bruin blowout of ND to regain the number one ranking - until the infamous lost weekend at Oregon and Oregon State later in the Pac 8 season knocked them from the top spot for good. So high was the bar raised at UCLA that his senior season three-peat try, which ended up with a third-place finish in the tournament after a double overtime semifinal loss to eventual champion N.C. State, was considered a major failure.
- Hollander, Zander, The Modern Encyclopedia of Basketball (2nd. ed.), (Dolphin Books, 1979).
- The injury was exacerbated when Walton endured grueling conditioning practices in preparation for the 1970 FIBA tournament at age 17 under the obsessive regime of Air Force head coach Hal Fischer. Walton suffered from knee tendinitis from then on. Before every practice or game at UCLA he would warm up by putting heating pads on both knees until they were crimson. After he played each time, he iced the knees down. He offered to play in the 1972 Olympics if he was allowed not to try out - even though his doctor had advised him not to play in order to rest his knees. But American team coach Hank Iba insisted Walton, easily the best big man in the country, try out like everyone else, so he balked.
- Both possessed great fundamental skills and superb anticipatory passing skills, seeing the play develop ahead of time. Interestingly, rookie Bird and Walton narrowly missed playing against each other in a CBS Sunday nationally-televised game in January of 1980 at Boston Garden, a game in which Larry poured in 36 points. Walton had missed the entire season to that point recovering from foot surgery, yet would make his Clipper season debut just two days later against the Lakers. Perhaps in homage to Walton's Portland days and controversial end there, Bird had some of his best games against the Blazers. In 1985 at Boston he canned a fadeaway three-pointer from the deep left corner at the buzzer (over two defenders no less) to give Boston a classic 127-125 win. On Valentine's Day of 1986, he scored 20 points left-handed and 47 overall at Portland in a 120-119 overtime win. He added 14 rebounds, 11 assists and the winning basket on a left elbow jumper in the final seconds - after he hit the shot to force the extra session. The win avenged the lone Celtic home loss of the championship season to the Blazers in early December. In his final season in March of 1992, slowed by a bad back, age and two repaired Achilles, Bird authored the highest-scoring triple-double in NBA history in his last epic performance vs. a young and physical Portland team. Despite taking a physical pounding from Blazer forwards Buck Williams and Jerome Kersey, Larry scored 49 points, grabbed 14 rebounds and passed out a dozen assists to lead Boston to a memorable, nationally-televised double overtime 152-148 win over the team with the league's best record. Larry's desperation running, one-footed three-pointer from the left wing at the end of regulation rattled in to send the game to OT. It is awfully hard to find another outlet in life that combines basketball skills and creative opportunities with those qualities, and harder still for abnormally tall people who have grown up playing the game at the highest level. Walton played 90 of a possible 164 games with Bird in Boston from 1985-87, and 28 of 41 potential playoff contests, although he was very limited for the 12 games he played in the 1987 playoffs as Boston valiantly battled to the Finals. No player of his stature and career length ever missed as many games as Big Bill. But in the 1985-86 Celtic championship season, he rose from the grateful near dead to play a career-best 80 of 82 games at just under 20 minutes a night. Walton became the latest incarnation of the venerable Celtic sixth man tradition, carrying on the high standard of play set by Frank Ramsey, John Havlicek, Don Nelson and McHale admirably, if only all too briefly. He also played 65 games of 82 at 34.8 minutes a night in the 1976-77 Blazer title campaign - not coincidentally, his teams won the championship in both of his most healthy seasons.