Bill Walton is a new man, or at least 30 to 50 pounds of him is. The 6'11" ex-UCLA star and celebrated sometime center of the Portland Trail Blazers played most of last season weighing 220, but by the final weeks had wasted away to an Ichabod Crane-ish 205, or even less by some estimates. Putting him in the key against a typically well-muscled National Basketball Association center was like having a sick stork butt heads with a buffalo. But last week, as the team worked at its training camp at Portland Community College, Walton weighed 250, meaning the Trail Blazers are getting up to 20% more bulk for their approximately $400,000 a year.
Weight was not Walton's only problem in 1974-75. He was easily the most promising rookie in the NBA (as well as being the second-richest radical in the U.S., after Jane Fonda), but it was his former teammate at UCLA, Jamaal (formerly Keith) Wilkes, who made Rookie of the Year and helped his team, the Golden State Warriors, win the championship. Walton missed 47 of Portland's 82 games because of flu, a dislocated finger and a controversial bone spur in his left ankle, which some critics thought was really an advanced case of malignant malingering. There were well-founded stories that he wanted to get out of his contract and escape from rainy Oregon to a sunnier climate. He criticized the national anthem, among a multitude of other more or less cherished things, and started getting hate mail.
Whatever was going on in Walton's mind, by season's end his body looked anemic. His final statistics, on the other hand, were not all that discouraging. In the 35 games he played, he averaged 12.8 points—not league-shaking but, in Portland's style of play, respectable—and 12.6 rebounds, a pace that would have earned him seventh place in the NBA if he had maintained it over a full season. He also blocked an average of 2.68 shots per game, which would have been third-best in the league. The problem was that parts of seasons aren't what pro basketball judges you by.
Determined to put on muscle and prove he is a basketball player of durability as well as merit, Walton trained hard all summer. He did not give up his vegetarian diet—he goes at it with such fervent belief that he will not even drink milk or eat cottage cheese or yogurt—but he ate large amounts of nuts, fruits and vegetables. This will, of course, cause problems for sportswriters around the league who are fond of animal images. If it is true that "you are what you eat," then a rampaging Walton will have to be termed a turnip in a china shop, strong as an onion, brave as a rutabaga.
He also went through a rigorous program set up for him at the Portland Jewish Community Center and a local gym, hefting weights six hours a week, riding his bicycle, playing volleyball and a little basketball. Politically, he kept a low profile, surfacing only once. This was on the fringes of the Patty Hearst case; he claimed his telephone had been monitored because of his friendship with Jack Scott, the sports figure who, it has been alleged, aided Miss Hearst.
"I just did what I felt like doing, what felt good," Walton said of his summer. "It feels good to work out. It's nice when you are physically able to do as much as you want to."
Was there maybe a bit of suet in that 30 to 50 extra pounds?
"It's larger muscles," he says. "Do I look fat to you? It's not a larger stomach. When your muscles are strong, you can do the things required of you to play."
That sounded like an echo of what Portland Coach Lenny Wilkens and others had been telling Walton all along.
"At the end of the season, I told him I wanted him to come in at a minimum weight," said Wilkens. "He's way over that minimum. I like what I see. His definition is good. He'll probably play at 240 once he's through with two-a-day workouts. I wanted the extra weight on him not so he can shove people around, but because you have to have strength and stamina to play 82 games, and you have to have some weight. Big guys like him can lose eight to 10 pounds in a game."
Walton's serious summer basketball was limited to three charity games in which he played against Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. In fact, he volunteered his services specifically so that he could go against the Los Angeles Lakers' new center. "He played extremely well," says Willie Naulls, a friend of Walton's. Naulls, a former New York Knick and Boston Celtic who lives in the Los Angeles area, is president of the Soulville Foundation for underprivileged children, for which the games were played. "Most of the guys were not in great shape and neither was Bill, but he played very aggressively. He almost hit his head on the rim a couple of times. In the first game, he had 29 rebounds against Kareem and in the third game, out in Honolulu, he was actually outplaying him." Toward the end of the first half of that one, Abdul-Jabbar became so fed up with Walton's aggressiveness (no one is thrown out of a charity game on fouls) that he put a hard elbow in Walton's face. Walton went to a hospital to have his cheek checked out, but no damage was found.
In early September, Walton broke a toe on his right foot when he stubbed it on a lawn sprinkler at a friend's home in Los Angeles. ("He didn't tell me about it right away," says Wilkens. "He felt sheepish.") The break was a clean one, requiring only a splint on the toe, which Walton was then able to squeeze into a sneaker. He had to sit out the early practices and he missed the Trail Blazers' first two exhibition games last weekend, but he rejoined workouts late last week.
Walton's now-you-see-him, now-you-don't rookie season had his teammates and coach confused and sometimes miffed, but at training camp last week Walton seemed comfortable and happy, accepted by his teammates with no visible strain. They have never been afraid of kidding him. Last season he was fond of blaming all their colds and other ailments on the fact that they ate "dead animals." When he was struck down by influenza himself, they verbally climbed all over him. Nor is his well-publicized lifestyle exempt. The other day, when Walton asked Guard Dan Anderson whom he lived with, Anderson said, "With my wife, not in a commune." Walton just grinned and said, "Awww, c'mon."
Portland is going to need a healthy, committed Walton if it is to survive in the NBA's Pacific Division. Abdul-Jab-bar is happier playing in Los Angeles than in Milwaukee. Golden State, with young Wilkes and Rick Barry, is the defending champion, and Wilkens claims Seattle and Phoenix both will be improved as well—quite a change from the start of last season, when the Pacific looked as though it might be the NBA's feeblest division.
Walton has sold his elaborate A-frame house on the Willamette River (for close to $100,000) and moved to an old section of northwest Portland, where his roommate is Greg Lee, another ex-teammate from the "Walton Gang" days at UCLA. Lee, who is trying out for the team at guard, is also a vegetarian but is willing to drink milk. He even admits he is sorely tempted by turkey. Not Walton, though. Anyone who eats meat in his presence is treated like a cannibal.
"He goes at everything with such fervor," says Lee. This year, that may well include professional basketball.
SAME BEARD, BUT A NEW ATTITUDE