Walton still irrepressible after all these years

SAN DIEGO — You never know who you’re going to run into at the ball game and on Tuesday night at Petco Park it was Bill Walton, the former center who was one of my closest friends back in the day when having a great big man meant everything in the pre-Magic, pre-Michael, even pre-Dr. J. NBA.

Walton threw out the first pitch prior to his hometown Padres tilt against the Reds and needed three shots at it to get the ball from the rubber over the plate without a bounce. But give him his space. He’s nearing 60, survived spinal fusion and three years on his back. In his day, he was the best big man at moving the ball around the court I’ve ever seen.

“I come from the era of three to make two,” Walton explained. “That was from 15 feet. This is 60-feet, 6-inches. That’s a long way. That’s two-thirds of the court.”

Walton was so counter culture back then. There was the relationship with Jack Scott. He never told me whether he harbored the kidnapped turned fugitive Patty Hearst. But he was a Dead Head and great to talk to. And when he was signed by the San Diego Clippers, I jumped at a chance to cover him even though a foot injury kept Walton from playing any more than one game a week. I learned more about the tarsal navicular bone back then than I could have ever imagined. But that was life covering Bill. He was eclectic and loved basketball. Still is. Still does.

Here’s a little piece of his philosophy: “Basketball has nothing to do with size and strength. Skill. Timing. Position. It’s a thinking man’s game. You win when you’re the smartest and you make the emotional commitment to be the champion.”

Walton was referring to the Lakers bringing star point guard Steve Nash into the fold to play alongside Kobe Bryant in the same backcourt.

“I’m just as excited as I can be,” he said.

Walton was wearing a Padres jersey with his trademark No. 32 on the back. On the front were mustard stains, signs of a night well spent at the ballpark.

Walton is a San Diego native through and through. Played his high school ball at Helix High. Played his college ball up the road at UCLA. Won his NBA championships leading the Portland Trailblazers and playing understudy to Robert Parish with the Boston Celtics. His characteristic red hair is all white now. He has outlived two of his heroes: Coach John Wooden and Jerry Garcia, the lyrical soul of the Grateful Dead. And he considers himself “the luckiest guy in the world.”

“San Diego is home for me. I’m the proudest and most loyal San Diegan there is,” he said. “This is the most fantastic place in the world to live.”


Any word on when the sale of the Padres will be final?

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