Veteran Bill Walton Had to ‘Earn His Stripes’ When He Joined the Boston Celtics for the 1985-86 Season
The only thing Bill Walton had to prove when he came to the Boston Celtics ahead of the 1985-86 season was that he could stay on the court. The oft-injured center had already won an NBA championship and an MVP after a stellar college career at UCLA. He also missed three full seasons with a foot injury.
Celtics players, star Larry Bird included, looked up to Walton. Despite his legendary status, Walton had to earn his stripes with his new team.
Bill Walton played a significant role for the Boston Celtics during their 1986 championship
The Boston Celtics sought a championship repeat in the 1985 NBA Finals. They outlasted the Los Angeles Lakers in seven games to win the 1984 title. The teams met again the following season.
The Celtics fell to a hungry Lakers team that became the first visiting squad to celebrate a championship on Boston’s home court. LA won in six games, with veteran Kareem Abdul-Jabbar earning Finals MVP. With the Celtics needing a little more inside help and Bill Walton needing a new setting, Walton made a phone call to Red Auerbach before the 1985-86 season.
“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 April 2020. “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 made a trade with the Los Angeles Clippers to acquire Walton, and the move paid off. Walton appeared in 80 games and was a force off the bench, averaging 19-plus minutes per game. For the first time in his career, he didn’t have to carry the load. He spelled Robert Parish and Kevin McHale, giving Boston another talented veteran presence in the middle.
The Celtics won 67 games that season, 10 more than any other Eastern Conference team. They cruised through the playoffs and knocked off the Houston Rockets in the 1986 NBA Finals. Walton was named Sixth Man of the Year.
Walton wasn’t given a free pass with the Celtics
Celtics players were thrilled when Walton came on board before the 1985-86 season. They knew the type of player they were getting. They just didn’t know how much he was going to give them.
The Celtics were a close-knit team. There was plenty of trash talk among the players. They constantly joked with each other. Walton took his share of verbal abuse when he made his way into Boston.
“For me, it was fantastic,” said former Boston Celtics guard Danny Ainge. “In 1986, he comes to our team. I’m like Larry’s and Kevin’s little brother. I’m the one that gets picked on a lot and am the whipping boy for the coach.
“Bill was legend. Larry, Kevin, and I, we loved Bill. He was a legend to us, but he took pretty much the brunt of the abuse that the little brother used to take. I was loving Bill’s presence there. He was teased by Kevin and Larry, and he had to kind of earn his stripes. He was a great teammate.”
It even got to the point where little brother jumped in on making fun of Walton.
“I teased him one day that he had played 13 years in the NBA, and I had played five, and I had played more games than him,” Ainge said. “He didn’t like that.”