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November 4th, 2009 HENRY STERN | Special Section Stories
 

My PDX: Bill Walton

The Blazer icon pines for Portland.

     
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WALTON ’09: Cut his hair, got a job.
IMAGE: Mike Perrault

In a November 1974 interview, early in his rookie year here in Portland, Bill Walton told WW he had a life beyond basketball and didn’t “deal too much with my image.”

His first year as a Trail Blazer wound up proving both statements true.

Walton left his image so untended that, as Sports Illustrated put it in a 1976 profile, some saw the ponytailed Blazers center as a “doped-up, whacked-out, weirdo, Commie-loving, acid freak hippie with lice in his hair and Patty Hearst’s phone number in his datebook.”

Yet as he approaches his 57th birthday, Walton’s recollections of his first year in Portland as a 22-year-old rookie are unshakably rosy—and as crisp as his outlet passes.

“So many of my fondest memories are there,” Walton says. “I just wish it could have lasted forever.”

He lived at first in a Sellwood rental home before ultimately settling in Northwest Portland.

Walton played pick-up at Northwest’s Wallace Park and lifted weights at Loprinzi’s gym in Southeast, where he first met Jesse “The Body” Ventura—a prominent pro wrestler who lived in Portland then and went on to become governor of Minnesota.

A vegetarian, Walton shopped at the original Nature’s on Southwest Corbett Avenue and ate at the Center for Truth restaurant downtown.

The diehard Grateful Dead fan recalls a thriving local music scene at the Paramount Theater on Southwest Broadway and a vibrant mix of visiting musical talent—from Country Joe McDonald and Neil Young to the Steve Miller Band, Bob Dylan and the Eagles.

Walton got around by bike or Jeep. He avidly hiked Forest Park’s trails and found time in the off season to explore the state, trying to visit every one of Oregon’s hot springs.

Walton also continued on the activist path he’d embarked on as a student at UCLA, where he’d been arrested in a rally protesting the Vietnam War.

“I wasn’t just going to stay at home and not be involved in the community,” he adds. “It was a time of supreme optimism in my life and in the world. Nixon had just gone down, and [Tom] McCall was governor.”

And though some older, squarer fans couldn’t understand this new kind of athlete, as interested in protesting Vietnam as in perfecting his jump hook, there was a younger generation in Portland that gravitated toward Walton’s iconoclasm. Among them was then-34-year-old Mayor Neil Goldschmidt, still a rising progressive star and decades away from revelations that he was sexually abusing a 14-year-old girl.

“Neil was a huge basketball fan,” Walton says. “He was everywhere. He was the leader, and he was a guy who did everything. It was a very heady time.”

Not all was sunny—literally—for Walton, a Southern California native. He laughs at how Portland’s incessant rain forced him to stop wearing sandals. But any foul-weather blues were trumped by Walton’s love for his new surroundings and his first NBA team, which he led in 1977 to the franchise’s only championship.

“It was as important a time as I ever had in my life. I only wish I could have and would have made more of that chance.”

 
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