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There’s no question Bill Walton played a significant role in helping the 1985-86 Boston Celtics win a championship. In his first year with the team, Walton came off the bench to spell both Kevin McHale and Robert Parish. The oft-injured Walton, who missed three full NBA seasons because of injury, played 80 games that season and was named the NBA’s Sixth Man of the Year.

It took some time for Walton to adjust to life in Boston. Former teammate Larry Bird said Walton’s big breakthrough with the Celtics came in January 1986 during a regular-season game against the rival Los Angeles Lakers.

Larry Bird helped bring Bill Walton to the Boston Celtics in 1986

A year after beating the Lakers in the 1984 NBA Finals, the Boston Celtics had an opportunity for a repeat.
They met the Lakers for the championship in 1985, but LA was hungry and motivated after feeling like they let the ’84 championship slip away.

Lakers center Kareem Abdul-Jabbar was a problem for the Celtics, who brought in Walton to give Boston another big body to help contain him. Walton, who was limited to 14 games in a four-year span because of a foot injury, needed a change of scenery. The Los Angeles Clippers weren’t going anywhere, and Walton knew his career was winding down. He decided to give the Celtics a call.

“In the summer of 1985, it finally dawned on me,” Walton said in April 2020. “It wasn’t happening for me any longer, and I had to move on from my current circumstances with the Clippers and get on a much better team.”

“I was told later on by Red and Larry that they were having a meeting when I got on the phone with Red. 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.’”

The Celtics had the primary pieces in place. They had four future Hall of Famers in the starting lineup with Bird, McHale, Parish, and Dennis Johnson. Walton provided a fifth off the bench. He played his role to perfection, averaging 7.6 points and 6.8 rebounds in 19.3 minutes. The 80 games he played were far more than any he’d ever played in a season.

Bird said Walton’s big breakthrough came against the Lakers in the regular season


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At first, Walton was reluctant with the Celtics. He made it clear to Parish that he wasn’t there to try and take his job. His goal was to win a championship, and he embraced his role as a reserve. Walton had a rough game in the season opener, a rare loss for Boston, who went 67-15 that season. He finished the game with four points, seven turnovers, and five fouls in an overtime loss to the New Jersey Nets.

He did get a taste of the Celtics/Lakers rivalry early on as the league scheduled preseason games between the teams, but Bird said Walton’s big breakout with the Celtics came against the Lakers on Jan. 22, 1986.

“The big breakthrough game was against Los Angeles,” Bird said in his book Drive: The Story of My Life.  “Bill came into the game in the first period and completely dominated the game.

“He blocked a Kareem shot. He threw down a tremendous dunk. He finished with seven blocked shots in 16 minutes of play. He was hitting me. He was hitting Scotty (Wedman). He was just very active. Bill was getting into it because he knew what kind of a team the Celtics were capable of being that year.”

Walton also finished with eight rebounds.

The Celtics never faced the Lakers in the championship round that season. The Houston Rockets shocked LA in the Western Conference Finals to secure a matchup with the Celtics in the 1986 NBA Finals. Boston ousted the Rockets in six games.

Bird finished the season by winning his third straight MVP. Walton’s Sixth Man of the Year honor was special. The 1985-86 Celtics went on to become one of the best NBA teams of all time.