Original Old School: The Defiant One
SLAM 32: You can argue Bill Walton’s place on the NBA’s Top 50 list, but you cannot argue Bill Walton’s skills.
SLAM: Did the Bulls achieve that, or were they too focused on Michael?
BW: Oh, the Bulls were phenomenal. I love that triple-post offense. Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippen are the two best players in the league and it’s not because of their athleticism or individual talents. It’s because they are stars who play within the team concept. Jordan has the best fundamental skills level by far, and he’s the best conditioned athlete and the most dedicated team player. Michael can do anything on the court, yet it’s always within the context of winning. And Scottie’s just a step behind him.
You learn a lot of life’s most valuable lessons in sports, and maybe the most important ones come when you stumble, because adversity is a great teacher. Michael’s a guy who was no good when he was 16, was actually cut from the team but kept coming back. Most people are not aware of how much effort, pain and sacrifice are involved in Michael Jordan achieving the level they see when they turn on the TV. You’re not born with that. That’s a lifetime in the gym, a lifetime dedicated to physical fitness. Then you have to mold it to a team concept, and that’s what Phil Jackson brought to Michael; he challenged him to bring it to that level. And that’s the hardest thing to do with pro players, because they are set in their ways and convinced of their own greatness, since they’ve been told about it since they were 12.
SLAM: You are one of the few players whom John Wooden ever personally recruited for UCLA.
BW: I think he told me he had done 12. His approach as a recruiter was always low-key, based on a firm belief that UCLA could sell itself, and he only wanted players who really wanted to be there. I was probably the easiest recruit he ever had, because I had no second choice.
The very first basketball game I ever saw on TV was the 1965 NCAA championship, Michigan vs. UCLA. Michigan came out on the floor first, with Cazzie Russell and all these terrific, powerful-looking guys with rippling muscles. UCLA had these scrawny little guys like Keith Erickson, Gail Goodrich and Kenny Washington, and I said to myself, “They have no chance.” Then the game started, and UCLA just ran them off the court with quickness, ball movement, teamwork, fundamentals, execution and discipline. Gail scored 42 points, and I said to myself, “That’s the kind of ball I want to play.” And I was fortunate enough to get to play for coach Wooden in a similar style and to break Gail’s record for points in a championship game.
SLAM: Your senior year, you and coach Wooden had some serious conflicts over your lifestyle.
BW: We had conflicts all the time, and it was all about stupid stuff, like hair length and clothes, but he was always firmly in charge, and there was never a moment when the issues that we were arguing about were more important than being on the team. He was as great a teacher as I’ve ever come across, and he had an incredibly powerful weapon: he was in charge of everything, including playing time. And we had a very deep team; my backup was Swen Nater, who went on to have a very good pro career.
SLAM: You were part of the record-setting 88 straight victories, but you were also there for the loss that broke the streak. That must have been hard to deal with.
BW: It was just so disappointing, because we were playing poorly. You can play a good game and not win and feel okay, but coach Wooden told us every day, “Don’t beat yourself. You’ll never get over that kind of defeat.” We thought he was nuts about that and everything else. What could this little old guy from Martinsville, Indiana tell us 18-year-olds from Southern California who had the Rolling Stones and Bob Dylan and the Grateful Dead and knew all about the war in Vietnam and all the social upheaval? But we learned eventually.
SLAM: So did you ever get over the losses?
BW: Nope. The streak ended January 19, 1974 when we lost to Notre Dame by a point. Then there was the North Carolina State game in New Orleans on March 23, 1974, when we lost in the semifinals in double overtime to David Thompson’s team. Things fell apart for us our senior year. ["Falling apart" constituted a 26-4 record.] I broke my back, and it was just never the same. Team chemistry, health and durability are all so very, very fragile, and you don’t realize it until it’s too late. Actually, that’s what so remarkable about Michael Jordan; he is not only the best but the most durable, and that is a very rare combination.
SLAM: After winning the championship your junior year, the 76ers showed up at your hotel to woo you. Were you tempted?
BW: No. I had lots of offers, but I loved college basketball and UCLA was just absolutely perfect for me, so it never crossed my mind to leave early. I’ve never played basketball for money. I made money playing basketball, but I always payed for love. I loved the winning, the preparation, the team, the lifetime it took to become a good basketball player.
SLAM: It was rewarded when you were selected to the 50 Greatest team, which surprised a lot of people, considering how few games you ultimately played in the NBA.
BW: Well, I’m not gonna turn it down. That was just unbelievably thrilling, because my NBA career was really one marked by frustration and disappointment. I can’t jump anymore, but when I heard the news, I almost got some air. My dad wears the [honorary] jacket every day.
SLAM: Athletes are not supposed to make social or political waves, which you did, especially early in your career. Did you ever feel pressure to conform?
BW: No. I like pressure, and I’ve always been mainstream.
SLAM: You’ve always been mainstream?
SLAM: So what contributed to this great misperception of you?
BW: I couldn’t express myself until I was 28, because I was plagued by a horrible speech impediment. I stuttered so badly that I really could not speak at all.
SLAM: If you were mainstream, you sure were misquoted a lot. Didn’t you say things like…
BW: Oh, you don’t have to look too far. Look, I’m not one of the lucky ones who never said or did anything as a teenager that is embarrassing now.
I think one of the hardest things for me is I grew up in a perfect little world. We were not rich by any means, but I had a wonderful, loving family who taught me all the right values in life, a rich appreciation for nature and a love of books and art and music. Right through UCLA, I just thought the world was perfect; it was sunny every day in beautiful Southern California, we won all our games, coach Wooden was phenomenal. I thought the whole world was like this, so leaving that comfy environment was probably the biggest shock in my life. I became the highest-paid player in the history of team sports, but my quality of life went down. For the first time, I had to deal with jealousy, disorganization, selfishness, greediness-all the things that I didn’t like and really didn’t know existed out there. It’s very depressing to suddenly find yourself working with people whose only concern is how much money they’re making. Luckily, Jerry Garcia was singing loud and proud.
SLAM: Who do you think is more important to his team, Scottie Pippen or [Grateful Dead rhythm guitarist] Bob Weir?
BW: It’s the same deal! It doesn’t work when a team starts thinking that they only need the top guy. The top guy finishes for you, but everyone else is carrying their load all the way through. Guys like Scottie and Bob Weir and Kevin McHale, who’s in the same boat, deserve a lot of credit for setting the table so Michael or Larry can hit the game winning shot, or Jerry can play that sweet solo that puts the song over the top.
SLAM: When you joined the Celtics, was it hard to make the transition from being the top guy to being a complementary role player?
BW: Not at all. I was Larry Bird’s valet. My only dream in life has always been to be on that special team, and whatever my role there turns out to be is fine. But the beautiful thing about basketball is [that] no matter whose number is called, it’s a live ball on the boards, so if you want it, go get it.
I’ve been touched by greatness in my life, getting to play for six coaches who are now in the Hall of Fame-John Wooden, Lenny Wilkens, Jack Ramsay, [former UCLA assistant] Denny Crum, KC Jones and Red Auerbach. And every one of them felt that they had the responsibility of teaching and leading, helping young men build their lives into something of quality, depth, substance and character.
SLAM: You’ve ruffled some feathers as a television commentator. For instance, a lot of people thought your criticism of the Fab Five was out of line. What was your beef with them?
BW: They just didn’t ever do anything. Look, I have nothing against the Fab Five, as a team or individually, but…maybe it’s just the culture we live in today, where everybody’s always trying to anoint talent with championship-level greatness, and to me there is a big difference between the two. I grew up in an era where you won the championship, then you were lauded as being great and your place was assessed. Here was a team that, had they played under the rules of my time, would never have even made the NCAA tournament, because they never won their own conference. Probably the things I like least in my life are hype and self-promotion.