Bill Walton didn’t have quite the career as an NBA player many envisioned. Chronic injuries to his feet and ankles took care of that. While essentially healthy for only two of his 10 NBA seasons, Walton was the NBA MVP in the first of those and the Sixth Man of the Year in the other, nine years apart. Given his pure dominance as a collegian at UCLA, it’s no surprise franchises were clamoring to get Walton’s signature on the bottom line.
In the early 1970s, he was the most sought-after prospect coming out of college since Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. The Portland Trail Blazers topped the Philadelphia 76ers in the coin flip for the first pick in the 1974 NBA Draft. But if a rival league had gotten its wish, Walton wouldn’t have been available in that draft. They made a through-the-roof offer to entice the young star to leave school early.
Bill Walton was a singular sensation as a Bruin
Because of the NCAA rules, Bill Walton could not play with the UCLA varsity as a freshman in 1970–71. As a sophomore, he made up for lost time. Walton averaged 21.1 points and 15.5 rebounds per game and led the 30–0 Bruins to their sixth consecutive national championship.
UCLA was again 30–0 during his junior year and steamrolled to another NCAA title as an encore. During Walton’s senior year, the Bruins lost twice. That included an 80–77 loss in double-overtime to North Carolina State in the national semifinals. The defeat ended their quest for an eighth consecutive NCAA championship.
Still, going 88–2 while being named consensus National Player of the Year three times is a terrific career. Despite an offer the American Basketball Association didn’t believe he could refuse, Walton never entertained any notion of leaving UCLA before his career was through.
The ABA offered Walton his own team, literally
In his 2016 memoir Back from the Dead: Searching for the Sound, Shining the Light, and Throwing it Down, Bill Walton shared a story of meeting with officials from the ABA. It was just after he led UCLA to a blowout victory over Memphis State in the national championship game.
According to Walton’s book, legendary coach John Wooden told him that he needed to meet with ABA representatives. They came to St. Louis to see him after the title game, and their offer was something else:
“They’re carrying packages, briefcases, and suitcases, apparently on the move. After some brief introductions, they laid out their pitch, explaining that they wanted me to skip my senior year at UCLA and come join the ABA. They said they were prepared to do whatever it took to get the deal done.
“And that included giving me ownership of my own franchise, which would be located in LA; they would get Jerry West to be the coach or general manager, or both; and I could personally select any other players from the ABA to fill out our roster — with the exception of (Julius Erving), who they said they needed to keep in New York to maintain competitive balance and keep the whole thing interesting.”
Walton said the men started opening the suitcases, all filled with cash, to seal the deal. But the young star turned them down flat. Instead, Walton went back to UCLA for his final season before launching his star-crossed NBA career.
Bill Walton in the ABA is an intriguing ‘what if’
The ABA made an unsuccessful run at Abdul-Jabbar in 1969. Some in the league undoubtedly believed landing Bill Walton would erase some of that. By the mid-1970s, the ABA was on its last financial legs, and everyone knew it. It was fighting for a merger, hoping to get the NBA to absorb all its teams. That’s how the National Football League took in the entire American Football League.
Walton couldn’t stand the pounding of the NBA’s 82-game schedule. So it’s hard to think he’d have fared any better with the 84-game slate of the ABA. Then consider ABA travel on commercial flights to cities far off the beaten path of the airline hubs.
Still, Walton was a maverick, and the ABA was the ultimate maverick league. The match would have been a sight to behold. A big man with a red ponytail flipping around a red-white-and-blue ball? That’s the stuff from which legends spring. Bill Walton did well for himself on that front, though, despite missing four full seasons because of his flawed feet.