Greatest Hits: Bill Walton And The Draft

With the NBA Draft on the schedule for tonight, it reminded me of when the Blazers had the No. 1 pick in 2007. I tracked down Bill Walton, a former No. 1 pick, to talk about how the draft had changed over three decades:

Originally published in The Columbian on June 27, 2007:

Thirty-three years after being anointed the first savior of the Trail Blazers, on the eve of the arrival of the next franchise player, Bill Walton feels the need to apologize.

“I have a special place in my heart for my time in Portland,” the basketball Hall of Famer said. “I just wish it could have been longer, more successful, more efficient.

“They have the greatest fans in the world. I just hope they can find it in their hearts to forgive me, after I treated them with a lack of human decency.”

Um, er, no worries about that.

Even though Walton sat out the 1978-79 season in protest of the Blazers’ medical practices, even though he sued the franchise, even though he left the club as a free agent under a cloud of discord and disharmony, Walton is hailed as the singular icon of Portland’s pinnacle.

He was, after all, the catalyst of the 1977 championship team.

So as the Blazers enter a new era today with the selection of the first pick in the NBA draft, it’s instructive to look back to when Walton was the No. 1 selection in the 1974 draft.

“It’s a totally different world,” Walton said in a phone interview. “There were no physicals in those days. There were no tryouts. They just watched you play in college.”

My, how times have changed. These days, we have private workouts and statistical evaluations and a battalion of scouts to help teams determine which player to draft. These days, a process once rife with rustic charm is big, big business.

“I had a representative to negotiate my contract,” Walton said. “The only thing I wanted is to make sure it was written in my contract that nobody can tell me when to cut my hair, and nobody can tell me when to shave. I wanted that in there.”

That, perhaps, could be the anecdote that best defines the young iconoclast that was Bill Walton. Well, if it weren’t for this one:

“There was no publicity about the draft in those days,” Walton recalled. “I was backpacking in Tahquitz Canyon (just outside Palm Springs, Calif.), one of the sacred spots on earth. I came out of the mountains to get some supplies, and the guy there says, ‘Hey, Bill, you were just drafted by Portland.’ ”

That’s a far cry from the dog-and-pony show that will be today’s NBA draft. The Blazers are throwing a party for fans at the Rose Garden. The top picks will be in New York. The selections will be scrutinized and dissected by media all over the country.

And while Walton avoids declaring which player the Blazers should take, insisting that, “There are people who get paid a lot of money to make that decision,” he does offer this about likely No. 1 pick Greg Oden: “He’s a winner. He’s won everywhere he’s gone.”

So perhaps Walton can see a little bit of himself in the center from Ohio State. Perhaps he can envision the second coming of a Blazers championship. Perhaps he can live vicariously through an era that could be longer, more successful and more efficient than the one he enjoyed in Portland.

“Go, Blazers, go,” Walton said. “Historic. Monumental. Epic. That is an understatement to the Nth degree.
“I’m the proudest Blazer.”

And after a declaration such as that, there’s probably no reason to apologize.

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