I can remember only one time when the Flintstones were interrupted by a newsbreak.
On March 27, 1974, Channel 12 sports reporter Jimmy Jones broke into the Fred's follies to inform his juvenile audience that the Portland Trail Blazers had won the coin toss with the Philadelphia '76ers and would receive the first pick in the 1974 National Basketball Association draft.
That story was so big that I wasn't even mad that Jones had disturbed my daily hour with my cartoon friends. That one toss of an uncirculated 1946 half dollar (the NBA was established in that year) gave the Blazers the right to draft a guy by the name of Bill Walton out of UCLA.
But this 6-ft., 11-in. pony-tailed redhead/Deadhead was no ordinary guy. He had already had a profound effect on the hoop world and it was anticipated that Walton--like another player out of UCLA named Lew Alcindor--would continue this dominance in the NBA.
More than 4,000 days have passed since that momentous coin toss, and Walton's career has been one of the most uneven of any NBA star. Tonight at Boston Garden will be a sort of homecoming for Bill Walton, when he suits up for the Celtics against his original team, the Blazers.
It will likely be a typical Celtics game, but this will mark the first time that Walton--who had always played with winners until he left Portland for San Diego in 1979--will face Blazers while on a winning team.
The end of Bill Walton's tenure at UCLA also marked the end of an era for the Bruins, who--under the coaching of the legendary John Wooden--won three NCAA titles with Walton in the middle and four straight titles before Walton came. The UCLA Bruins didn't just have a winning tradition in NCAA basketball during the late 1960s and early 1970s, the Bruins were NCAA basketball.
Bill Walton's next-to-last game for UCLA was nearly his last. North Carolina State beat the Bruins in the semifinals of the NCAA tournament in 1974. It was the first time UCLA would not play in the championship contest in almost a decade.
Bill Walton, who was not used to losing, did not want to play in the consolation game against Kansas, but he did play, and UCLA won easily. But after that final college appearance, people began to doubt Walton's dedication.
On the day of the big coin flip, the free-spirited Walton said, "I'm no longer a basketball player. I'm a sun lover. I won't play in any city where the weather is inclement." Those were harsh words from one of the most highly-touted college players ever, but Walton agreed to play in Portland.
In his third season with the Blazers, after struggling for two years with nagging injuries, the redhead led the his team to the NBA Championship over the '76ers. He was a winner once again.
The next season Walton led the Blazers to a 50-10 record before he was injured once again. Although he played in only three-quarters of the games that year, the NBA awarded him with the Most Valuable Player trophy, and many basketball experts said Walton was the best center ever to play the game.
That was seven years ago. In the interim, Walton left the Blazers, sat out two seasons with injuries, and spent time playing for an unmotivated and losing team in sunny San Diego.
Now the times they are a-changin' for Walton. He is a member of that exclusive club they call the Boston Celtics--a name synonomous with winning. And, with his experience and love of basketball, Walton is making a great team even greater. For the first time in seven years, Bill Walton is a winner once again.
The only people from the championship team who are still in Portland are coach Jack Ramsay and trainer Ron Culp.
Bob Gross, to whom Walton sent sweet backdoor passes, is retired. Maurice Lucas, with whom Walton teamed to snag rebounds, hit a 60-ft. shot at the buzzer the night before last for the L.A. Lakers. And Dave Twardzik, to whom Walton would throw his perfect outlet passes, is working in the Blazers' office after a stint as the color commentator for the team's radio broadcasts.
Bill Walton comes off the bench now. He doesn't play as many minutes as he used to in order to protect himself from injury. But he still blocks shots, he still grabs rebounds, he still dishes off backdoor passes to guards streaking to the hoop, and despite Boston's inclement weather, he still loves playing basketball.
Tonight, Bill Walton will play for a winning team against a club he once made into a winner.
And it doesn't matter whether the Celtics or the Blazers win. Bill Walton will still love every minute he's on the court. He'll break out in a mammouth grin every time Larry Bird completes an impossible pass or nails a 25-ft. jumper or each time Dennis Johnson makes a tenacious defensive play.
UCLA was once synonomous with winning. The Celtics have always been synonomous with winning. And one thread runs common throughout Walton's career.
Bill Walton is a winner.
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