Did the 76ers Blow the Walton Deal? 1973

[While working on my last basketball book, I spent way too many hours scrolling through newspaper microfilm and reconnecting with the old days and ways That included a run through the early 1970s sports sections of several Philadelphia newspapers. Among my favorite Philadelphia scribes was Jim Barniak of Philadelphia Evening Bulletin. He always seemed to have the inside story and told it in a factual, often funny, and always fair way.

In this article, from a late 1973 edition of Philadelphia Sports, Barniak describes the Philadelphia 76ers’ ill-fated attempt at enticing Bill Walton to go pro after his junior year. Today, an early college exit doesn’t sound provocative. But it was then, especially since Walton would have probably had to declare “hardship status,” then an undergraduate’s only way around the NBA’s traditional four-year rule. This controversial rule, grudgingly implemented in 1972 after Spencer Haywood’s early leap to the Seattle SuperSonics, required that a player provide proof that gnawing poverty and/or a family crisis made him worthy to enter the NBA early. 

Had the solidly middle-class Walton applied for hardship status, America’s sports sections would have blown up over a big-hearted rule that had almost immediately turned into a cynical, small-minded grab for young talent. Lucky for the NBA, Walton wasn’t buying Philadelphia’s million-dollar pitch. As Walton remembers telling his pro suitors while basking in the moment of winning another NCAA championship, “This is what UCLA has done for me. How could you possibly beat this?”]

Philadelphia owner Irv Kosloff (right) with the great Hal Greer.

What you do is take an ordinary-looking, Huckleberry Finn type of kid, stretch him out so that he is about seven feet in length, then give him the defensive awareness of a Bill Russell, the offensive devastation of a Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, and the enthusiasm and determination of 10-cornered honey badgers. This would give you Bill Walton, possibly the greatest player who ever played the game.

Okay, that’s a mouthful of hyperbole to spew on a kid who has yet to even vote, a mere college kid who has yet to exert himself against all the famed trial horses in the vast proving ground of the professional game. 

But look what he has already done to the college game. He has lorded over it, like a Picasso among elementary school finger painters. Can you ever recall a more impressive or totally dominating performance than that of Walton’s 44-point effort in UCLA’s national championship win over Memphis State last March in St. Louis? And that, don’t forget, was with one more year of eligibility remaining as a collegian.

It was in that national championship setting that the rest of the country became privy to even more incredible things about Bill Walton. An entourage Philadelphia 76ers’ front office personnel, headed by owner Irv Kosloff, had descended upon Walton ever so delicately to entice the kid into postponing his final year of college in order to get started on a lucrative career in the pros. Walton practically was given the opportunity to name his own price. 

The 76ers were coming off the most painful of years. The club’s rapid decline seemingly touched bottom in 1972-73 as the team went only nine games through the entire season. But one good thing happened. The 76ers won a coin flip with the Portland Trail Blazers for the first pick in the NBA’s collegiate draft. 

Kosloff, the then-general manager Don DeJardin, and the then-coach Kevin Loughery flew to St. Louis for a breath of fresh air. The sight of Walton was enough in the way of fresh air to circle the globe in a balloon. 

“Watching him,” gushed Loughery, now the coach of the ABA’s New York Nets, “sure can make you forget what happened during the season. Let me see him play one more game, I will have forgotten our record completely.”

Were the 76ers fooling themselves by hoping to lure the kid out of UCLA? Portland tried to do the same after his sophomore year, but with no success at all. The talk around St. Louis was that he surely would stay in college, no matter how high the price. But he was a 19-year-old kid. Certainly quite capable of changing his mind. And through his counselor Sam Gilbert, a Los Angeles building contractor and sugar daddy to many UCLA athletes, Walton agreed to listen to what the 76ers had to say. There was hope. 

One envisioned the 76ers brass pulling up in front of the St. Louis Arena in a Brinks truck. They would remain concealed until the final buzzer of UCLA’s championship game with Memphis State, then emerge, each of them with suitcases bulging with moolah, and descend upon Walton just as he was untying his sneakers. 

When the game was over, a horde of sportswriters chased Walton to the locker room, hoping to catch some kind of confrontation with the 76er people. There was nothing of the sort. The kid quickly disappeared behind locked doors. The doors remained locked a very long time. Some suspense was building. Sam Gilbert suddenly appeared and stood off in the shadows. A bystander thought of a scene from The French Connection.

The area emptied quickly except for parents, girlfriends, and sportswriters. But under one of the baskets, there was the entire 76ers entourage. 

“Waiting for the traffic to die down?” one Philadelphia writer asked. 

They returned smiles. 

DeJardin was beaming like somebody who had just won Linda Lovelace on The Dating Game. Kosloff and his son Teddy were talking in whispers. “That,” said Loughery, “was the most-impressive display of college basketball by one player I’ve ever seen.”

A guy said to Loughery, “Everyone’s smiling like something’s up.”

“I don’t know nothing. Talk to Kos.”

Sam Gilbert

Before anybody could get to Kosloff, Gilbert appeared and motioned to the 76ers owner that he’d like to talk. About 30 people seemed to take the gesture as an invitation. The two men went off alone in the bleachers and talked in whispers. Kosloff came back and informed the group that there was going to be a meeting with Walton. About 30 people again took this as an invitation.

“Dad,” said Teddy Kosloff, “why don’t you just tell the reporters they can’t come along.”

The reporters took the hint. 

“I heard,” said one guy, “they’ve put together a package that’ll bring the kid $100,000 over each of the next 20 years.” Later, the figure was called “relatively accurate” by Sam Gilbert. 

The meeting took place in suburban Clayton at the hotel of Gilbert. It was a very informal, getting-to-know-you kind of thing with Walton giving no indication whether he would or wouldn’t consider coming to Philadelphia. 

On the plane ride back, Kosloff read an in-depth magazine piece on Walton that appeared in the Los Angeles Times’ Sunday section. “You know,” he said, “he is exactly as this article portrays him. A young man so full of life. I found him as impressive to talk to as he is on the basketball court. I only wish I knew what it would take to get him to come with us.”

Money certainly was not the answer. A short time later, Charley Finley, who owns the Memphis Tams of the ABA, offered Walton a package worth $5 million to come with him. The response was by then predictable—a low-key, getting-to-know-you meeting, followed by a polite “no thank you.”

Getting inside Bill Walton’s head is a difficult task. People became suspicious of his aloofness and decision to remain in school, harboring thoughts that Gilbert and Walton were perhaps plotting something sinister—like the kid not only naming his price, but his team as well.

“There’s nothing sinister about it at all,” Gilbert claimed one morning during the NCAA tournament. “The answer is so simple. Bill Walton is 19 years old. He’s a young man who thoroughly enjoys being a young man. To change that, to take all the money and become a professional, to him that is not worth all the money you can give him. Frankly, I envy the kid. I’ve got plenty of money. Make me 19 again, and you can have it.”

Though Walton plays basketball bubbling like a kid rising on Christmas morning and dashing toward the glittering tree, there are certain aspects of the sport that obviously turn him off. His commitment, he feels, is from the first jump ball until the final horn. Anything more, like interviews with the press, personal appearances or invasions of his world, he disdains. 

As a collegiate player, he can find some sanctuary. But, as a pro, he would become both player and salesman. Those people in the $6-dollar seats are paying the freight. There is an obligation to them. That, as much as anything else, is why Bill Walton said “no.”

Following that meeting with Kosloff, Walton headed back to St. Louis to party with his UCLA friends. He looked like any other gleaming college kid digging a night on the town. You would never be able to convince a stranger that this kid had just scoffed at a couple of million bucks.

“I dig change for the better,” he said that night, “but I’m not going to change now. My six months of basketball are over. Now, I get six months to be human. I want to get away and bring some reality into my life.”

There have been prevailing indications that he may never alter his thinking. In the interview in the LA Times, one of the few he has ever consented to, he talked about the possibilities of pro basketball. 

“I figure I still have to put on weight and get stronger and get better as a player. When the time comes to play pro ball, if I want to play pro, I’ll be able to get the money, but money and material things simply don’t mean that much to me.

“I’m not sure that I want to devote my life to pro basketball. I know I wouldn’t enjoy the publicity and the prominence and the long schedule. When the college season ends, I feel that I’ve had enough for a while. And if my knees bother me over a 30-game schedule, how would they hold up over an 80-game season?

“People think I’m caught up in basketball, but it’s just something I do. I don’t want to do it all the time. I don’t want to talk about it all the time. There are things I want to talk about, feelings I want to express, but I don’t want my position in sports to push off my feelings on people. I don’t think being an athlete has determined my personality. I know, however, that if I go on with basketball that I’ll have to give up something. But I won’t have to give up everything, will I?”

Watching Walton go up and down the court, flashing more quickness and coordination than seems humanly possible for a man his size, one surmises that an owner of a pro basketball franchise would be more than willing to make whatever compromises with the guy that are necessary. 

Certainly the lust that the owners have for him was rekindled in October when the UCLA players began preseason drills. Picasso was back looking ready to perform more awesome deeds, if one can imagine such things. “No way this kid can’t turn pro,” you found yourself saying to yourself. “A kid this good can’t just vanish.”

The answer is locked deep within Bill Walton’s head. Despite the misgivings he has, it seems incredible that he would want to stop at the college plateau. Rare is the athlete of such talents who does not seek all the challenges that exist. There are plenty ahead in the professional game. 

By midseason, the 76ers can seriously renew their quest for what is any lowly franchise’s savior. They would, of course, have to finish in last place in the NBA’s Eastern Conference, plus get lucky again and win the coin flip against the worst finisher in the Western Conference. Then, they would have to convince Walton to play and that the NBA is a more-attractive place to play than the ABA.

Such speculations, or perhaps we should call them dreams, are about all we have to look forward to on the pro basketball front in Philadelphia this winter. But, as was said last spring, just the thought of someday having Bill Walton, it is enough to soothe whatever ails you now.

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