[More Bill Walton. This is a long profile of Walton detailing the period immediately after he signed with the San Diego Clippers and said goodbye to Portland. This story, which appeared in Newsday on October 7, 1979, was written by a young journalist named Dan Lauck. He would become a muckraking television reporter in Houston. He won numerous awards until his bout with Parkinson’s disease got the best of him. He died in 2020. Here’s to Lauck’s life well lived, his memorable career in journalism, and this really nice profile of America’s most-celebrated Deadhead.]
When they left Oregon last fall, all Bill Walton took with him was what he could get in a suitcase. Same with Susan and the kids. The Grateful Dead had this tour of Egypt coming up where the Dead were planning on vibrating their sounds off the Sphinx, and Bill, being America’s quintessential Deadhead, was going with them. So, he needed to go down to San Francisco and get things lined up, and, while he was there, he was going to see Franklin Mieuli about a job. Mieuli owns the Golden State Warriors. The whole thing would take two or three days. So he and Susan decided just to make a trip of it, the four of them. They packed a few clothes and some things Susan would need for Nathan, the youngest, who was just six months old, and they took off.
When they got to Frisco, plans changed. Bill discovered the Dead had thrown in a concert in Denver before Egypt, and he could hardly pass that up. He would no sooner walk in the door from Denver before he would have to pack and walk back out again for Egypt. And as soon as he returned from Egypt, he had to go to see Dr. Robert Kerlan in LA about his foot. So, Susan and the kids decided to go to Hawaii, where her mother lived, rather than back home for the two weeks.
When they all got back together again, he was at the Waltons’ home in San Diego. Before long, it had been a month since they had left, and they found themselves not at all interested in going back. “I think Bill needed some good old family support,” Susan says. Bill picked up playing chess with his father, which he hadn’t done since he was 14 or 15, when he fell into the rebellious Mister No stage, as his father calls it. It was now October, and neither he nor Susan felt a longing for the chill in the Oregon air; they had never really wanted to live anywhere but Southern California.
So, they just stayed. “I went back to Oregon to get a couple of things,” Bill says. “Bicycles, and some of Adam’s stuff, toys.”
Everything else, he left. The plaid lumberjack flannel shirts, the chainsaws, the winter coats, the umbrellas, the FBI-is-the-enemy public statements, and Jack and Micki Scott. At the time, hardly anyone understood exactly what all Bill Walton left behind in Portland, maybe not even Bill himself. It wasn’t until January or February of last winter, when he began appearing in three-piece suits to speak at the Rotary Club in Orange County, that anyone realized something major had occurred. Orange County is where they still think Richard Nixon was the best-damn president this country ever had and don’t you forget it. And here, speaking before these businessmen who voted for Richard Nixon—not once, but twice—was Bill Walton, who used to have Richard Nixon’s face taped on the wall in his apartment, so he’d have something to throw darts at. And to think he was choking himself with a tie to do it. It was intriguing, in the least. Bewildering, astounding probably were closer.
And now, well, he had been on Good Morning America, and stopped by to see Dinah [Shore] one afternoon, and, a couple of weeks ago, he even appeared on Hollywood Squares. Imagine, Bill Walton sitting in the Secret Square:
Bill Walton to block, please.
Bill, true or false, the SLA is the name of the subway system in Oakland, Calif.?
Most people are properly bewildered by all this. This is not the Bill Walton they had fixed in their minds. Bill Walton was the big redhead with the ponytail and headband, the lumberjack shirt, jeans and sandals, asking for the people of the world to stand and unite with him in rejection of the United States government. Bill Walton fit into the slot under Radical Tie-Dyed Freaks. It was thought not possible that he could grow up to be a three-piece suit. He just couldn’t. He already had been classified.
So ever since he signed with the San Diego Clippers last spring—on Mother’s Day—in a three-piece suit, of course—he has been the object of squinting scrutiny. While he concedes he could not have done the Rotary/Optimist/Jaycee circuit five years ago, which implies change, those closest to him—Susan, his parents, his brother, his old friends—say they don’t think he has changed much at all. Which makes him confusing, and far from the one-dimensional stereotype they had him figured to be.
Now, he is something of a mystery. About which he offers a scarcity of clues. He talks to most of those who come with notebooks in hand now, which he did not always do, but while he talks, he does not say much. Most of his answers begin with, As you pass through life . . . you are required to sift through it on your own.
So, to start at the beginning.
He is a product of Southern California, where the bikini lines never fade, where you can live all your life and never go three days without seeing the sun, where kids grow up believing that the best of all possible worlds is to be a beach volleyball player with the money to be able to smile and watch everyone else go off to work on Monday.
All the cliches about the lifestyle of Southern California are not just cliches; it’s more carefree, luxuriant, simple. Beach volleyball is a professional sport there now, if that tells you anything. And the epitome of Southern California, some say, is San Diego. Where Bill Walton grew up. He was not a beach boy, exactly, because he was too tall and gangly at that age for the role. But he grew up believing the sun always shined and the temperature should never fall out of the 70s.
He was the second of the Waltons’ four children. His father, Ted, Cal-Berkeley grad, is a district chief in the San Diego department of welfare, making it obvious where Bill derives his basic liberal leanings. Ted Walton, though, shuns the liberal stereotype: “I like to think of myself as a conservative liberal. Or, as old man Kennedy described himself, a Taft Democrat.” Ted Walton quotes people a lot. He reads, something else his kids picked up.
It’s funny, but Ted Walton wanted his children to be musicians; they all have a music background. Bruce, the oldest, the devotee of John Wayne, went to UCLA to play football, then to the Dallas Cowboys, and came back as sales manager at a San Diego radio station. Bill went to UCLA, and still plays basketball. Cathy went to Berkeley to lead the revolution, and is now a Moonie. It wasn’t until Andy, the youngest, returned to the University of San Diego as a graduate student in music that the Waltons’ grand plans were assured.
“I think the person Bill is today,” said his father, “has threads going back to when he was 14 or 15, living here.” When the two of them played chess, like they do now, before Bill’s Mister No stage, before John Wooden came to dinner.
Bill Walton was the best player on the best team in the country the first time he was introduced. He became an instant celebrity. He was 18, 19 years old, and still a quiet, even shy kid. He was sheltered from much of the media crush by Wooden, who made his locker room off limits to all reporters. And whatever Wooden didn’t look after, Sam Gilbert would. Gilbert thought of himself as a father figure. Walton has told friends about alums in those days shaking hands and leaving $50 and $100 bills in the players’ palms. Same thing happens in the Texas locker room on a Saturday in September. Star athletes at Top Ten schools are taken care of, with a 50 in the palm, a pass in the class.
This kid, though, was more than just a star athlete on another campus. He could leave home without an American Express card. Not only was he the best of the best, but controversial besides. This was the early 70s, the days of the Vietnam War, and Walton, possessing a genuine sympathy for the world’s abused and battered, was in line, protesting. He was arrested once, during a protest in his junior year, which made all the papers, and when he did consent to speak at length, some of his statements hit the seismographs:
“Your generation has screwed up the world. My generation is trying to straighten it out . . . You can’t be President until you’re 35. I don’t think a person past 35 should be permitted to be President.”
“If they pay me what they’re talking about, it’s obvious I’m going to become a millionaire. Hell, I couldn’t spend that much money in a lifetime.”
“Money doesn’t mean anything to me. It can’t buy happiness and I just want to be happy.”
By the time he was a senior, his anti-Establishment feelings were spilling over into John Wooden’s domain. Wooden was unlike any of Walton’s other coaches: he was stiff, professional, somewhat distant. His senior year, Walton began to defy Wooden’s regimented way of doing things, showing up for road trips in jeans. Wooden was a definite influence on Walton—particularly concerning the play of the game—but Wooden turns his head at this point. He did not profess to understand Walton, and feeling that Walton was influenced more by others than himself, described his prize as a follower, rather than a leader.
Wooden’s became the majority opinion. Greg Lee, Walton’s best friend and UCLA’s point guard, whom Walton followed into vegetarianism, was suspected of putting words in Walton’s mouth. It was easy to see why. In the locker room after UCLA lost to North Carolina State in the semifinals during his senior year, Walton took a quick shower and sat in front of his locker, surrounded by writers, eating a banana. He sounded like a cardboard character, giving the usual maybes, while across the locker room there was Lee, with his 3.9 grade point average, filling notebooks with Kurt Vonnegut passages which ended with “And so it goes.”
Then there were Rachael and Abraham Entin, Walton’s political science teachers, and Sam Gilbert, and Susan Guth, his girlfriend. Susan’s influence, for whatever it was worth, was bent toward having a good time.
Bill Walton’s friends have always been compartmentalized: there was Greg Lee for the intellect, who entertained him, with mind games; the brothers for playing and talking basketball; the political activists, for serious talk; and then there were just friends.
Don Salera was just friends, dating back to Walton’s first year at UCLA. Late in the summer of ’74, when Walton moved to Oregon for his rookie year with the Portland Trail Blazers, he asked Salera to go with him. It would be just the three of them: Bill, Susan, and Salera. Salera and Susan expected Oregon to be hiking, camping, good times, things nice and easy. Walton, though, may have felt part of his life was empty. Not long after moving in, he invited Jack Scott, the sports activist and an acquaintance from college, to bring his wife, Micki, and come live in the house with them. Neither Salera nor Susan, apparently, knew that the Scotts’ last living arrangement included Patty Hearst. Salera does not think even Bill knew that at the time.
Before long, everything was turned upside down. Life was no longer sunrise to sunset at the beach. For one thing, there was no beach in Portland. For another, it wasn’t a sunrise or sunset, because there was no sun. Then he had to sit out the early part of the season because of bone spurs in his foot, which dragged on and on, until the suggestion was made by Portland management that Walton was malingering. He was refusing injections, quarreling with management, and he wanted to be traded. Plus, it seemed to Walton that for a man who is making 400 grand a year (with bonuses and arrangements), he had no money. Half of it was deferred, the rest invested in this house, it seemed.
For the first time in Bill Walton’s life, things were not coming easily. He had been shielded from the press, looked after, catered to, and promised the world on every street corner. “He needed someone he could trust, someone who could get him through all this new jazz,” Salera said. “Susan and I didn’t know anything about things like this. Jack did. So, he leaned on Jack and Micki.”
The FBI, all this time, was outside with the drinking glass to the wall. The FBI would become the enemy, and even after the Trail Blazers won the NBA championship in 1977, which earned Walton the recognition as the best player in the world and confirmed that his vegetarian/lumberjack lifestyle had nothing to do with winning championships, he remained a marked man, marked by the days of Patty Hearst and the FBI.
Most weekends the stream of cars down the hill off the Pacific Coast Highway backed up across the little drawbridge onto Balboa Island, which sits out in the Pacific Ocean, below LA. Main Street on Balboa is Fire Island West, a tourist draw, jammed with cars on a sunny Saturday or Sunday. Four blocks over, on the East Bay, where Bill and Susan and the kids came to live last fall, the sailboats rock softly along the water’s edge and all was quiet, even on weekends. It was perfect.
They couldn’t have stayed in San Diego forever and lived out of Bill’s parents’ house, and Bill was working out at the Rams’ training facility in south LA, anyway, rehabilitating his foot after surgery. Balboa Island with something like halfway in between. And they loved it. Susan would go running in the mornings, without Bill, since his foot could not yet take the pounding. He was taking off the entire season, because of his foot, and Walton says he spent much of his time just sitting and thinking, though on occasion he would play touch football in the street with the neighborhood kids.
“Balboa Island was the life of ease, very relaxing, the boats and all that. I think he felt at home there,” says Ted Walton. “I think it had a significant effect because of that.”
Balboa Island is in the southern edge of Orange County, three-piece suit country, rich and affluent, but Mainstream America. Walton began fitting in. In February, he and Susan were married. And it was around then and there that Walton began making speeches regularly. Before long he was traveling up and down the coast for appearances. It was at the Stanford Law School that Don Salera went to see him in April. They had renewed their friendship just a few months before, after three years. It had been three years since Salera left Portland on the day the FBI questioned him on the street.
Salera was fascinated by Walton’s speech at Stanford. Walton talked about basketball and his injuries, about his trips to Egypt and the Philippines. “Some kid asked him a question about President Marcos, like wasn’t he a bad guy,” Salera says. “Bill said, yes, Marcos had done some things that were not so good, but he said you had to take into account the conditions in the Philippines, the poverty and unemployment and overcrowding. And he said you had to remember things in the rest of the world weren’t like they are here. He said we have a lot of problems in this country, but there was more potential here for great achievements than anywhere else in the world. I was . . . well, it was so different than the kinds of things he was saying the last time I’d been around him, in Oregon. I was really surprised.”
He was not the first. This was April, and Walton’s speech by then was practiced. No longer were his words inflammatory, like those from his days at UCLA, or like the day he stood before the television lights and cameras inside Glide Memorial Church in San Francisco in support of Jack and Micki Scott. That was the day the Scotts resurfaced. It was the day Walton gave his FBI-is-the-enemy speech.
“The misunderstanding of Bill sometimes was his own fault,” Susan says. “He didn’t always put things well. I mean, some of it was fine that he felt that way, but when you’re dealing with newspeople, you have to realize how things are going to come out in print, and he didn’t.”
He also came to realize that if you only speak a few words, each word takes on greater significance, maybe more than it’s worth. That, says Greg Lee, is one reason he’s talking these days. To those he does not know or trust, he utters only a few platitudes, most likely ones which begin with As you pass through life. Ask him if he has changed, and he will say we all change. Ask him how much he has changed, and he will say he doesn’t know. “I don’t know how you would put a scale on change. I couldn’t anyway.” Ask if he thinks he was used by people, and he will shrug and say, “Everyone’s life revolves around relationships, and some relationships are not as good as others.” Ask if he regrets any of his relationships, and he will say he regrets nothing. Ask about Jack Scott, and he will say, “No comment.”
Even those like Susan and his father, not practiced with the uses of the no-comment end all, invoke it at the mention of Scott. His father, for instance:
Do you think Bill has been used by those he trusted? Like Sam Gilbert?
“I don’t think Sam used him.”
How about Jack Scott?
“I’d rather not comment on Jack.”
What caused the break between Bill and Jack Scott?
“I don’t. . . . uh, I don’t want to comment about any of that. Jack was Bill’s friend, not mine.”
A year ago, when Walton’s talents were first being offered around the National Basketball Association, Jack Scott was the barterer. Apparently, according to friends of Walton, Scott began taking liberties with Walton’s name, saying Walton would do this or that, or not consider this or that, things he had never discussed with Walton. That coincides with Scott’s style. He would sit up through the night to think through some dilemma, and the next morning would announce to everyone what they were going to do.
Back in the days of Patty Hearst and the FBI, some of those in the Walton/Scott family thought Scott’s all-night ruminations were romantic. Now, Walton was seeing Scott, somewhat differently, maybe in the morning light, and the all-nighters lost their romance. According to several friends, Walton concluded that Scott’s statements were not in his best interest. Those statements became the breaking point between him and Walton. It’s ironic, but Walton and Sam Gilbert had split after much the same thing four years before.
At that point of their parting, Walton’s best interest would be represented by a new contract with a lot of numbers on it. “For that reason,” says Lee, “I think it was essential that he change. I don’t think he could have gotten as good a contract if he still had the rebel, bad-boy image.” Walton, according to one source, went so far as to discuss hiring a public relations firm for $25,000 to change his image. Implicit in Lee’s statement, and in hiring a PR firm, is a sense of deception.
Walton’s father, for one, doesn’t believe it. Secondly, even after he had signed with San Diego and assured himself of the money, Walton has continued making speeches, continued moving toward the mainstream. And, for that matter, it’s doubtful that Walton would have had to bend at all to get the same contract. Already by the first of the year—still the early days of the Rotary/Optimist/Jaycee circuit—he had an offer of $600,000 a year, all cash, from Golden State, and one from San Diego wherein he would make $1 million a year if he played every game, with something like a $10,000-per-game penalty for each one he missed. What he ended up with, according to one NBA executive, was $1 million if he plays at least two-thirds of San Diego’s games, and $700,000 if he plays less. Right now, with the opening game Friday night, his foot is sore and he’s not playing. He took himself out of the fourth exhibition game and has had it on ice ever since. He and the Clippers are being cautious.
If it heals, if he plays at a million bucks, Walton will be the highest paid player in the league, and anything less than that would not have satisfied him. Everyone agrees that he has become money conscious, which is interesting because he reportedly has little to show for his first five years in the league. For a while, he was a soft touch. Not anymore. Maybe it’s the result of marrying, of having two children and another on the way. Or maybe it is the influence of Balboa Island and the life of ease, and he came to realize the only way to ensure that lifestyle forever was to stockpile his money now and put a calculator on the accumulating interest figures. Or maybe it is simply the inevitable result of paying mountains of money in taxes. For whatever reason, he has money on his mind now. A born-again capitalist, he called himself. What was it one of the Roosevelts said? We’re all capitalists when we have capital.
“I’m not familiar with Hollywood Squares,” said Ted Walton. “But whatever it is, I’m sure Bill was paid for it.”
There was a theory about Bill Walton’s apparent turnaround, which goes like this: He has always been in the mainstream. He grew up the product of a middle-income family, on his way to becoming a three-piece suit. He went to UCLA at a time when demonstrations and campus rebellions were common, even mainstream there. Now, what appears to be a switch back to the three-piece suit and the mainstream are no switches at all. He was always there. That theory requires, though, that or Oregon be erased from his history. The explanation is that wasn’t Bill Walton saying and doing all those things, but Jack Scott.
That, of course, suggest that Bill Walton was a puppet on a string. It’s easier to believe that, because it reduces him to the one-dimensional cutout, a portrait easy to paint. If that were the case, those closest to Walton—Susan, his parents, his old and close friends—would be trying to tell everyone that Oregon was an aberration. They would shy away from the public statements he made then, as if they were uttered under the influence. They do not.
His father again: “I think Bill was ahead of the mainstream on the FBI. I don’t think it’s that way now—I really don’t—but in light of the Jean Seberg stories, I think he was right. How he picked that up ahead of us, I don’t know.”
The fact is, Bill Walton is not that simple. He is not a paint-by-numbers picture. No doubt, he became tired of the fight, like so many others of his generation who were considered freaks where they worked, where they lived, no matter where they went. And so exhausted, they gave up telling society to go to hell and put on a three-piece suit and blended into Mainstream America. Their beliefs didn’t change, as Walton’s haven’t. Under his three-piece suit, he is wearing T-shirts which read: Solar Energy is Harmful to Oil Companies and Other Living Conglomerates.
Besides, where does it say a person can’t change his mind? The Grateful Dead did it. They changed from acid rock back to their roots., back to country and bluegrass. If the Grateful Dead can do it, certainly America’s quintessential Deadhead can put on a suit and sit in the Secret Square:
Bill Walton to block.
Bill: What famous college athlete once said, “Money doesn’t mean anything to me. It can’t buy happiness and I just want to be happy.”