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The following is presented as part of The Columbian’s Opinion content, which offers a point of view in order to provoke thought and debate of civic issues. Opinions represent the viewpoint of the author. Unsigned editorials represent the consensus opinion of The Columbian’s editorial board, which operates independently of the news department.

Jayne: Fond farewell to ‘the proudest Blazer’

By Greg Jayne
Published: June 1, 2024, 6:02am

He apologized.

Admittedly, it’s not as interesting as talking about Bill Walton’s basketball exploits: Hall of Famer, three-time college player of the year, two-time NCAA champion, NBA MVP, two-time NBA champion, extraordinary passer, transcendent player when healthy.

And it’s not as interesting as the avalanche of stories about Walton’s humanity, which paint colorful portraits of a multihued personality who perpetually found joy in life and joy in those around him.

As fellow basketball legend Kareem Abdul-Jabbar wrote following Walton’s death Monday from cancer at the age of 71: “On the court, Bill was a fierce player. But off the court he wasn’t happy unless he did everything he could to make everyone around him happy. He was the best of us.”

To basketball fans of my generation, Walton is remembered as one of the greatest players of all time when healthy. And yet there was a physical frailty, imbuing his story with a humanity that so often is absent from our exalted athletes.

To basketball fans of later generations, Walton is remembered as a colorful broadcaster, a quirky commentator who infused games with impromptu soliloquies about topics ranging from the age of romanticism to volcanoes.

And to Portland Trail Blazer fans, Walton remains the conduit for the only championship in the franchise’s 54-year history. Catching the lightning in a bottle that was a healthy Walton, the Blazers won the NBA title in 1977 and birthed the phenomenon known as Blazermania.

As esteemed author David Halberstam wrote in “The Breaks of the Game”: “He understood very early that shooting and scoring points did not separate him from the crowd or make him a world-class player, but taking his speed and intelligence and using it to heighten the skills of his teammates did.”

The Blazers turned basketball into an art form for one magical playoff run and most of the following season. And then Walton got hurt.

Which brings up the apology. In 2007, the Blazers owned the No. 1 pick in the NBA draft. Because Walton had been the No. 1 selection some 33 years earlier and because I was The Columbian’s sports editor, I left a message on Walton’s business phone. A day or two later, he called back and graciously reminisced about his days in Portland.

“It’s a totally different world,” Walton observed. “There were no physicals in those days. There were no tryouts. They just watched you play in college. I had a representative to negotiate my contract. 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 calls to mind perhaps the most famous Bill Walton story. In college, where Walton’s counterculture persona often clashed with the button-down Midwestern sensibilities of coach John Wooden, Walton once argued that he had a right as an individual to wear his hair how he liked. “That’s right, Bill,” Wooden retorted. “But I have a right to decide who plays, and we’re going to miss you.” Walton hopped on his bike, raced to the barber and made it back in time for practice.)

“There was no publicity about the draft in those days,” Walton recalled. “I was backpacking in Tahquitz Canyon, 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.’”

Three years later, the Blazers climbed the basketball mountain. But Walton’s subsequent injury led him to sit out a season, sue the franchise over its medical practices and acrimoniously sever ties with the team. Years later, he sought to make amends.

“I have a special place in my heart for my time in Portland,” he told me. “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.

“I’m the proudest Blazer.”