A Stubborn Larry Bird Passed on the Opportunity To Play Alongside Bill Walton Well Before They Teamed Up in 1986
Bill Walton played a significant role in helping the Boston Celtics win a championship in 1986. Acquired by the Celtics before the 1985-86 season, Walton teamed with Larry Bird, Kevin McHale, Robert Parish, and a stacked Celtics team to put together a 67-win season and win Boston’s third championship of the decade.
Long before Bird and Walton teamed up in Boston, Bird had the opportunity to play with him as a rookie. He politely declined.
Larry Bird gave the Boston Celtics his blessing to go and trade for Bill Walton
The Boston Celtics needed depth. They had four future Hall of Famers in the starting lineup but were thin in the reserves. Those starters played more than their fair share of minutes, and they needed some frontcourt help off the bench.
Walton, an oft-injured center, knew he needed a change of scenery. He began his career with the Portland Trail Blazers, winning an MVP and a championship. Injuries forced him to miss three full seasons. In 1985, he was with the Los Angeles Clippers, and he made a phone call to Red Auerbach of the Celtics.
“I was told later on by Red and Larry that they were having a meeting when I got on the phone with Red,” Walton said in a video put out by the Boston Celtics commemorating that 1986 championship team. “When I asked Red if I could please come and be on the Celtics, Red asked me to hold on a moment. While he put his hand over the phone and looked across the desk, Red asked Larry, ‘Hey, it’s Walton on the phone. He wants to come and be a part of the Celtics. What do you think?’
“Larry said, ‘Go get him, Red.’”
Walton played his new role to perfection. No longer needed to carry a team, Walton averaged 19 minutes off the bench. He played in 80 games during the regular season and was named the NBA’s Sixth Man of the Year.
The Celtics lost one game at home all season and knocked off the Houston Rockets in six games in the NBA Finals.
Bird passed on an earlier opportunity to play with Walton
The Celtics took a chance and drafted Larry Bird after his junior year at Indiana State. Bird insisted he wanted to return to college for his senior year, but Auerbach took the gamble by using the sixth pick in the 1978 NBA Draft to select him.
The Indiana Pacers initially held the first pick in the 1978 NBA Draft. After being assured Bird was staying in school, they traded the pick to the Portland Trail Blazers, who did what they could to get Bird to change his mind.
“I swear Portland had everyone working it,” Bird said, according to Jackie MacMullan’s book When the Game Was Ours. “Total strangers would come up to me and say, ‘I can’t believe you’re not going to the pros. You have a chance to take care of your family for life. Why do you need to go to school?’
“I kept telling them, ‘No, I’m going back. I’m going back. I wasn’t changing my mind.’
Portland executive Stu Inman tried a different approach.
“Larry,” Inman said, per MacMullan, “you are missing out on an opportunity to play with Bill Walton. He is one of the greatest centers ever to play the game.”
While that may be true, Bird had a typical Bird comeback.
“He’s hurt all the time,” Bird said.
While Bird stuck to his mother’s wishes to finish school, Bird and Walton finally did hook up years later and added another banner to Boston’s collection.