BOSTON — I expect Patty Hearst. I expect Grateful Dead lyrics. I expect pamphlets on Save The Whales and news of the latest rally being organized on campus. “Tonight,” Bill Walton will whisper, “behind the Student Union . . .”
I am standing in the Boston Celtics’ locker room, in front of locker No. 5.
A Jefferson Airplane medley. The latest on Che Guevara. Did we say Boston? Yes. College Town. What a perfect place for big Bill Walton — the one-time cozy-with-the- radicals vegetarian and ray of counter-culture in the otherwise mainstream NBA.
He says OK, he’s ready to talk. I take out my notepad. I expect philosophy. Bob Dylan. Maybe a petition to boycott California lettuce.
And I get . . . jock talk.
“What form does your political activism take these days?” someone asks.
“I want an NBA championship,” he says.
“What about all the political causes, the alternative life- styles?”
“My efforts are all focused on winning an NBA championship,” he says.
“What about the past?”
“I live in the present,” he answers.
“What does that imply?”
He pulls on his very big socks, and curls his mouth into a toothy smile.
“We’re here,” he says, “and I want to win an NBA championship.” He’s common, even in Boston Now, OK. Every man is entitled to his desires. But personally, I had looked forward to this NBA championship series as a chance to observe Walton-In-Boston, which — considering he used to burn incense in airports and listen to Grateful Dead music before a game — sounded like Hemingway in Key West, or Pee Wee Herman in Romper Room. You know. A good fit.
And I was not alone. All year long, writers came from across America to see how Walton, now 33 — whom the Celtics acquired from the Clippers before the season — was keeping alive the flame of the counter-culture. They asked about politics, the FBI, about why he is eating meat again. And their stories all came out the same: “Bill Walton says, ‘I am happy to be a Celtic. Thank you. I gotta shower.’ The End.”
“Do you think about the old days?” he is asked.
“I don’t forget them,” he says. “But I just want to help the team win here.”
This is not the same guy who, as a collegian at UCLA, was a regular with the campus radicals. Is it? Not the guy who, as a young center with the NBA’s Portland Trail Blazers, basked in communal living and the odd Steinbeck or Vonnegut novel. Didn’t he go to law school during all those years of injury? Didn’t he once say: “The FBI is the enemy”? Didn’t he have a ponytail? Didn’t he?
“Why do you seem different?” someone asks.
“My life is different,” he says. “I am different. The world is different.”
“But all these simple answers. Are you deliberately trying to play down your past?”
He pauses. His words are not mean, not rude. But they sound measured, as if he’s keeping a secret. “We’re here today, trying to win the NBA championship,” he says. “That’s all I’m concerned with right now.” He’s driving into the ’80s Maybe I could understand this better if Walton had become a hermit here. Disappeared in the Massachusetts woods, found his own Walden Pond, and spent his free time watching bugs jump.
But uh-uh. He has done oodles of endorsements, including one for Scotch and Sirloin restaurants and another for a local stereo chain. He has a brief, jock-like radio show on a country and western station. Twice a day. You can win a fishing trip with Walton by entering a contest in the Boston newspapers. Hermit? No. Sorry.
Something has changed. His values? His materialism? He’s no Yuppie, but there’s not much Yippie there either. Maybe Walton is deliberately keeping a low profile with the media, perhaps because he is a backup center — albeit an integral one — and doesn’t want to call undue attention.
Who knows? Maybe he goes home, listens to a Dylan album, pops a handful of seeds, and teaches his kids the words to “We Shall Overcome.”
And maybe not. When he leaves practice I trail along behind him to see whether he goes home on a bicycle. Or maybe a unicycle. That would be good. Or a skateboard. He uses none of these. He drives a black Buick LeSabre, which is not in good shape.
“Well,” I say to a colleague, “that’s not too bad. An old beat-up car.”
“Yes,” my colleague says, “but only because his Mercedes is in California.”
CUTLINE Bill Walton