After a stellar career at UCLA, Bill Walton was on his way to becoming one of the all-time greats in the NBA. In just his third year in the NBA, Walton guided the Portland Trail Blazers to a championship when he led the league in rebounding (14.4) and added 18.8 points. The following season, he was named MVP of the league.
Injuries then took their toll on the 6-foot-11 center. He played just 14 games over the next four years as he dealt with foot problems. He wasn’t rejuvenated until he signed with the Boston Celtics prior to the 1985-86 season. There, he played a key role in winning Boston’s third championship of the decade.
Bill Walton is a classic story of what could have been
Walton’s significant injuries began in college at UCLA when he broke his back as a college senior after being undercut at the hoop.
“I broke my spine when I was 21,” he said on the Al Franken Podcast earlier this year. “I was at UCLA, and I was high above the basket — I love being high above the basket. Love just traveling around up there. Here I was, I was undercut, and it was just an awful situation. I flipped over and landed flat on my back. I broke my back and spent 11 days in the hospital. Things were really never the same for me again.”
After those 11 days, he was back on the court.
“I played 11 days later,” Walton recalled. “Broke my back on January 7th, 1974, not that I remember the date. The next time I played was January 19th, 1974, and we lost our 88-game win streak that night, not that I remember the date, the details, or the facts. It’s hard to play basketball with a broken back.”
When it wasn’t the back, it was the feet. From 1978 to 1982, Walton played 14 games in the NBA. When he returned to play for the San Diego Clippers in the 1982-83 season, he appeared in 33 games. He got new life when the Celtics traded Cedric Maxwell and a first-round pick to the Clippers for him prior to the 1985-86 season.
With Larry Bird, Kevin McHale, and Robert Parish manning the frontcourt, Walton no longer needed to carry a team. In ’86, he played more games (80) than he did in any one season of his NBA career. He played his role off the bench to perfection, earning Sixth Man of the Year as the Celtics won the championship.
Through it all, Walton is a member of the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame. He is on the NBA’s 75th Anniversary Team. Walton likely would have gone down as a top-5 or top-10 player of all time had injuries not gotten in the way.
Despite the injuries, Walton remains grateful
Walton is an optimist. Despite the turmoil in his career, he reflects on the best moments. He’s one of the best college players of all time, spearheading UCLA’s 88-game win streak and two national titles.
He battled through pain and depression and never gave in. If he was a cat, he’d be on that ninth life. Despite it all, he still smiles when talking about his glory days on the court.
“My story is one of a meteoric rise to the top, and then immediately followed by catastrophic orthopedic health problems,” Walton told Michael D McClellan of Celtic Nation. “I’m the most injured player ever. I missed more than nine full seasons of my 14-year NBA career. I could never sustain. I’m on Bill Walton 17 right now.
“I wanted to be the best, but my body would not carry me where I needed to go or where I wanted to go. I spent half of my adult life in the hospital, endured 37 operations, and never achieved the ultimate dream of being the best.
“I’ve learned to appreciate the things that I’ve accomplished, like being a part of two of the greatest basketball teams in the world, the Bruins and the Celtics. It doesn’t get much better than that.”