[Tom Meschery was recognized as one of the toughest of the NBA tough guys during his 10-year career (1961-1971). He also was acclaimed as the NBA’s poet laureate for his perceptive free verse, a collection of which he published in 1970 under the title Over the Rim.
In 1971, Meschery signed on as the head coach of the ABA’s Carolina Cougars. Meschery chronicled his ill-fated season as a head coach in a diary later published as Caught in the Pivot. The book is honest. But Meschery spent the season unaware that Carolina’s shadowy owner Tedd Munchak was hellbent on ripping up his five-year mega-contract with Joe Caldwell, the team’s veteran star. Munchak kept pulling dirty tricks to force the issue, Caldwell copped an attitude over his toxic situation, and Meschery blindly determined Caldwell was a headcase and a flawed basketball player. Today, people still wrongly impugn Caldwell’s character based on a quick read of Caught in the Pivot.
In this article, Meschery has a much better handle on his subject: Bill Walton. Unlike his antipathy for Caldwell, Meschery empathizes with Walton around their shared passion for the game. The result is a perceptive profile that Walton fans and critics alike will enjoy. It appeared in The Complete Handbook of Pro Basketball, 1978.]
Sunny days in Oregon are brilliant. Trees, sidewalks, brick shine; it’s the rain, like a clear finish over everything. Three years away from the Northwest, and I had forgotten what it was like. Going into buildings and out of buildings on days like these I had trouble seeing. Sunglasses did not help.
It was on such a bright sunny day in Portland that Lenny Wilkens, then the Trail Blazers’ head coach, and I drove to the Portland State gym to watch our team working out in preparation for the upcoming training camp. I was Lenny’s assistant coach. We were excited. The possibilities were good to mold a new team from the remnants of a last-place finisher the season before. There were two talented players, guard Geoff Petrie and forward Sidney Wicks, as well as solid performers in Larry Steele and Lloyd Neal. Moreover, in that year’s college draft, the Trail Blazers had signed Bill Walton, the best college center to have played since Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. Some scouts thought Walton was even better than Jabbar all around. Lenny had seen Bill play at UCLA and felt the scouts were right. I had never seen Bill Walton before.
Inside the gym, out of the dazzling noonday sunlight, bodies blurred, became clear and then receded into a hazy otherworld. A game of three-on-three halfcourt was going on. It could have been five-on-five, the condition I was in. Lenny pointed to Bill Walton. “That’s him,” he said, as if no further description was necessary. It wasn’t, except that height was the only dimension my eyes were all allowing back to my brain.
Looking back on the NBA’s 1974-75 season, it might have been better for me if I had remained in semi-darkness. Minutes after I had adjusted to the fluorescent light of the gymnasium, I saw Bill Walton as I would see him for the next nine months. Going up for a rebound was a man Washington Irving could have used as a model for ichabod Crane.
I had seen skinny basketball players before in my 12 years in pro sports. There was Wayne Hightower, whose cheeks were so sunken that he always appeared to be sucking on a straw. And there was Bill Russell, whose skin was like children’s shirts worn thin at the elbows.
I had been blocked off the boards by Walter Dukes and carried the bruises of his fleshless rear end for days afterwards. But here, I thought, was a skeleton impersonating a man. To tell the truth, it was depressing. I had figured this job to be a piece of cake. With Walton, my playoff check was secured. I would work with him, show him a few subtle tricks of the trade. He would be grateful. He would mention my name in papers. Big Ten schools would fire their coaches just to entice me to apply. I’d ask them to apply.
I was ready to cut and run back to Iowa, where I had lived the last two years, back to anywhere, when all of a sudden, the skeleton took a high pass and slam dunked. My eyes are still bad, I thought. A second slam dunk, and I was no longer blinking. One 30-point game, two “facials,” spinning jump shots, a few blocked shots, and some snappy passes, and all worries about Bill’s anatomy temporarily ended. I remember elbowing Lenny as if I were trying to keep him out of the pivot. “Did you see that?” I said. “Or that?” My elbows didn’t seem to matter to Lenny. He was smiling.
From the very beginning, the rest of the players on the Portland Trail Blazers knew Bill Walton was special. A quick pass to the open cutter, a blocked shot that doesn’t sail out of bounds but falls into the hands of a teammate, a controlled tip after a miss. All of these skills do not go unnoticed. It may be difficult for veterans to accept great rookies at first, but they cannot deny talent when they see it. Even in preseason pickup games, Bill Walton’s presence on the court was instantly felt. In hindsight, it was this fine talent that led to many of the players’ distrust of him in the season. Mistakes, injuries, personal problems are for lesser ballplayers, not superstars. Wes Unseld playing with a weak knee, Dave Cowens diving recklessly for loose balls, Abdul-Jabbar’s stoic resistance to pain. These were tough traditions for Bill Walton to follow. These were the men he would be compared to by players, management, and press.
For the time being, however, in the early going of the 1974-75 season, there was only anticipation for the coming games.
The sign on the door of Bill Walton’s house read, “No Smoking.” I clutched at my breast pocket, where a package of Benson & Hedges, bulged like a concealed weapon. I knocked. A young blond-haired man greeted me and showed me into the kitchen. “Wild blueberry pie” he said. His hands were like the little old winemaker’s feet. “No sugar, and we use natural flour,” he explained, lifting dough out of a wooden bowl. I nodded and smiled.
In a corner, a garbage can the size of an oil drum was full of dozens of leftover meals. He noticed I was looking.
“Compost,” he said.
“Tom Meschery,” I answered.
“He told me his name was Don, and he was living with Bill until December, when he was going to a school for transcendental meditators. Walton shared the house with three others, Jack and Mickey Scott and Susan, Bill’s roommate.
Just as I was beginning to feel a little bit threatened, Bill Walton entered. He showed me into the living room, where the walls were covered with posters: sun signs, American Indians, and the radiant faces of Vietnamese. I was reminded of dorm rooms in college. There was the odor of incense. Bob Dylan’s voice came muted from a dark foyer.
The only way to describe how a man seven feet tall comes into a room is to say he entered. All of a sudden ceilings become lower and door jambs grow smaller. I had had the feeling before when I used to play on the same team with Wilt Chamberlain. It’s like walking into Madison Square Garden for the first time. You have to adjust before you realize it’s just another basketball court. I did my adjusting seated on the floor on an antique rug, nibbling on dried fruit. The vegetarian Bill Walton, I discovered, ate all the time; every meal and snack seemed critical to him. I decided Walton eats food the way players of my generation drank beer.
From the beginning, I always had the feeling one of my jobs as assistant coach of the Trail Blazers was to be a link between management and their alien superstar. I suppose because I wrote poetry, I was the closest person to an interpreter they had. This may or may not have been true. Of course, I was extremely interested to know all I could about a long-haired basketball player who went on protest marches and proclaimed himself a socialist.
But this was not all of it. I was simply interested in Bill as an athlete. I discovered early on during my brief and unsuccessful stint as head coach of the Carolina Cougars of the ABA that there was a large chasm between me and the new generation of athlete. It had nothing to do with money, long-term contracts, loyalty or disloyalty. There is something else to do with enthusiasm and determination, or the lack of it. So many players seemed to me to be playing as if they were tired, as if there was no difference between playing or being on the bench. Was Walton any different? I wanted to find out. It was one of my reasons for accepting his invitation to come to his home.
As we ate, we talked about the upcoming season and his days at UCLA. Our conversation ranged back to grade school and forward to political ideas. Bill spoke with animation, with his hands as well as his face, like a European. Always when we talked about basketball, Bill’s voice became passionate as if he had just recently discovered the sport. When Bill didn’t like something about the game, he would say it was “fucked,” drawing the vowels as if suddenly the victim of a Southern accent.
But there was no rancor in his words, only mild displeasure. For John Wooden and the UCLA coaching staff, nothing but Southern fried. For teammates, only the highest praise. Bill talked with intensity and intelligence. He was no ordinary ballplayer. He studied the game. If the average pro basketball player could be compared to someone who holds a master’s degree, Bill Walton has a PhD.
Through training camp in the beginning of the 1974-75 season, the Trail Blazers were moderately effective. Bill Walton played satisfactorily, technically. But he lacked the strength to be a major factor. And then came his injuries, followed by depression, his on-again, off-again desire to be traded, and the Patty Hearst story. I can’t remember, in the history of sports, any athlete who was beset by so many problems. How could it not have affected him?
In one year, I watched an enthusiastic and happy young man go sullen. More and more, he withdrew from the inner workings of the basketball team. He would answer questions politely, at times allow himself to be drawn into arguments or small talk. But he had no heart for it. It is somehow more pathetic to see a man Bill Walton’s size slowly losing enthusiasm.
The weight was deep inside him. Each time I saw Bill, during those days, he looked smaller. Soon, he would be able to pass for a forward. All of Walton’s open complaints, I suspect, did not affect him as badly as being away from the sport he loved and the men who are a part of it. How could someone who takes basketball so seriously be cut off from one of its most enjoyable and rewarding aspects? The first time Bill and I talked, and many times after that, Bill spoke with warmth about teammates, even the players he didn’t feel close to at UCLA, like Swen Nater, or the Trail Blazers’ Geoff Petrie.
Bill was no newcomer to the give and take of locker room repartee. He wanted to be part of it on the Blazers. But as the injuries lingered, he became increasingly sensitive to any cuts about his health. Since high school days, Bill Walton had always been respected. For the first time, colleagues began to question his guts. The final blow came at the end of his first season when Sidney Wicks, a fellow UCLA player, joined with the rest of the team to criticize Bill.
Alienation from teammates was not the most devastating thing that plagued Bill Walton during his first and second years. Toward the end of the first season, I’m sure, the thought had occurred to him that he might never play basketball again. I brought up the subject once with a group of friends, “Well,” they said, “he’s still a young man. Is at the end of his life?” They continued, “He’s young and intelligent.”
If Baryshnikov lost the use of his legs or Van Cliburn his fingers, would they be consoled by the fact that they were still young and intelligent? I could sympathize with Bill. Twice in my career, I made plans to leave basketball. Always there was depression. Even after I retired as a player, it was difficult to stay away.
During Bill’s hard times, I tried to warn him. Mostly, I wanted to encourage. He would be a great pro, I told him. Sometimes, before games, we talked—Bill sprawled out in the recliner in the corner of the Blazers’ locker room and me kneeling by his side. We whispered. Across the room, the other players were getting dressed for the game. They must have often wondered what Bill and I were talking about.
But, I’m sure, I was no great solace to Bill Walton. Even I had doubts about him, and Bill must have sensed them. Also, I was management. My loyalties were first and foremost to Lenny Wilkens. If Bill could not help the team, if there was no hope, I would have traded him in a second. During that year, at least six plans to trade Walton were hatched and just as quickly scratched. In two years, not one person in Blazer management from top to bottom did not suspect Walton of everything from malingering to out-and-out intercourse with the devil.
Only Bill’s closest friends stood by him completely, fervently and, at least, publicly unquestioningly. In particular, Jack Scott was an important friend to Bill when he needed one the most. And, during the summer of 1975, it was probably Scott’s encouragement that helped rekindle Bill Walton’s desire to become a great pro.
Still, talk about Bill Walton’s miraculous comeback is entirely too dramatic. Sure, Bill had to work hard. All summer between his first and second seasons in the pros, he pumped iron, jogged, practiced and prepared himself mentally to return to basketball. But you don’t forget a lifetime of instruction or lose habits embedded since grade school. It was no hell Bill Walton returned from, only a short visit to purgatory.
For me, nothing is more exciting in sports than watching an excellent fastbreaking professional basketball team playing in top form. Last year’s [1976-77] Trail Blazers were such a team. They had speed, rebounding, shooting, and passing skills and intelligence. The only thing they still lack is age. If I were management, I would sign the entire team to lifetime contracts and then, in the offseason, place each player in a tank of embryonic fluid to keep them safe until the next year.
I watched the LA and Philly series against the Trail Blazers from my home in Truckee, California. I watched the Blazers win the NBA championship with great pride. Gross, Hollins, Steele, Neal, and Walton; these men I had coached the year before. Twardzik, Davis, Walker, and Lucas, how they all played together.
It is a credit to Jack Ramsay. The Blazers play with enthusiasm and, at times, with a reckless abandon that looks like a barely-controlled steeplechase. The makings of a dynasty? I don’t think there is such a thing anymore. Champions again? You can bet on it. From now on, barring injuries, the Portland Trail Blazers will never be out of playoff contention. And with this kind of solid future to look forward to, the happiest man on the Blazer team will be Bill Walton.
For the first time in three years as a pro and before that, two years at UCLA, Walton can relax. He said yes to basketball. A very large yes indeed, like an embrace for someone loved who has been lost a long time and suddenly returned.
Just before the final Philly series, Bill Walton and I talked on the telephone. Bill is so soft-spoken that he usually sounds as if he is whispering. So, I was surprised when I could hear him loud and clear. “I’m pumped,” he said, “pumped.” There was never any doubt.