Remembering Bill Walton: the Clippers' biggest missed opportunity

San Diego Clippers v Washington Bullets
San Diego Clippers v Washington Bullets / Focus On Sport/GettyImages

On Monday morning, the Clippers and the rest of the basketball world mourned the loss of a true once-in-a-lifetime icon. 

Hall of Fame player and personality Bill Walton passed away at 71 after a battle with cancer. The big man won a pair of NCAA and NBA titles and reached immortal fame as an analyst with ESPN and the Pac-12 over the last few decades. 

It was apparent that Walton was special when he seamlessly took the crown as UCLA's premier post-threat from Lew Alcindar. His sheer personal and team dominance with the Bruins was enough for the Portland Trail Blazers to draft the big man with the first pick in the 1974 NBA Draft. Walton's first two seasons in the league were largely uneventful—he put up modest numbers as his squad hovered around the wrong side of .500. Chronic foot injuries limited his availability and proved to be a foreshadowing of disaster.

In 1977, he was finally able to craft his eternal masterpiece. Paired with new head coach Jack Ramsey and the talented Maurice Lucas, Walton went nuclear. With his curly hair and lumberjack beard, he gobbled up 14.4 rebounds and 18.6 points per game and powered the Blazers to their first and only championship in franchise history. 

Walton's clever passing and stifling defense went beyond the box score, and he rode his giant wave of momentum to the 1978 MVP. He broke his foot and ankle that season, missing the bulk of the postseason, and forever tarnished his relationship with the club. Walton took umbrage at the treatments he received for his injuries and requested a trade that never came to fruition. After sitting out the 1979 season in protest, Walton inked a lucrative contract to become the face of the San Diego Clippers. 

The Clippers were never able to harness Bill Walton's incredible talents

As expected, when an organization presumably signs the best player in the world, there is a mad dash for tickets. It was a foregone conclusion that the Larry O'Brien Trophy would immediately follow Walton's path. As public relations man Hal Chyles put it, "The best promotion is a winning basketball team, and Bill Walton is the winner. He wins."

Unfortunately, the success never came. During Walton's first three years with the Clippers, he played just 14 games. His chronic foot pain hampered his chances of getting on the court, and he was never the same. Walton tried to rectify his failures but was largely limited and ineffective in 1983 and 1984. His prolonged absences and owner Donald Sterling's desires eventually provoked the team to move to Los Angeles the following year.

After shipping off to Boston in 1985, Walton turned in a more stellar campaign. He won the 6 Man of the Year award and became a crucial cog in the '86 Celtics, widely regarded as among the best groups in the history of the NBA. Even more stunning, he played a whopping 80 games, the most of his career. After earning his second ring, Walton only played ten more games in his career once his injuries resurfaced. The run proved he was more than a flash in the pan.

It's hard to blame Sterling and the rest of management for Walton's failed tenure, but they definitely didn't help. It was a different time then, but little was seemingly done to address his persistent health problems. Having his most durable stretch immediately after ditching the Clippers corroborates that theory. 

Even with the apparent risks, Walton seemed like a slam dunk. It's a shame he wasn't privy to modern medicine or competent leadership. At full strength, he was simply unstoppable. Walton, a character more colorful than the Grateful Dead shirts he dawned, simply deserved better.