Why Bill Walton Wanted Out

Involved in the growing controversy surrounding the Blazers are two classes of pain-modifying or pain-killing drugs.

This story was published on the front page of the Aug. 22, 1978, edition of WW under the headline “Why Walton Wants Out.”

The time you won your town the race

We chaired you through the market-place ;

Man and boy stood cheering by,

And home we brought you shoulder high

—from “To an Athlete Dying Young,” by A.E. Housman

Fourteen months ago as he stood at the end of a parade pouring beer on Mayor Neil Goldschmidt, Bill Walton was one of the most contented people I’ve known. His team’s success and his city’s extraordinary response to it were powerful vindication for an athlete whose radical politics and nagging injuries had made most of his years playing for Portland difficult.

Now, after a season that fell apart with injuries and a lot of soul searching in Arizona, Walton has burst the bubble of Blazermania and has had to put the rest of his career on the line to do so. What happened?

“I can understand the situation,” says one of the top management staff members of one of the teams that courted Walton recently. “I was a player myself for years and I’ve been on both sides of the fence. When a player’s trust relationship with his team is gone, then it’s all over.’’

In a nutshell, that’s what’s happened to Walton. He doesn’t trust the Trail Blazers’ medical staff any more. He doesn’t trust coach Jack Ramsay any more. He doesn’t trust the team’s owners any more. And he feels this city’s newspapers are ignoring the real issue involved in his decision to demand to be traded.

Some professional athletes can lose respect and trust in their organization and continue to play—maybe for the money, maybe because they don’t want to move, maybe because they’re afraid for their careers. Walton, as most people know, is not the kind of person to go through these sorts of motions.

Walton gradually lost his trust, and when this became clear to him, he knew he had to leave the team.

A combination of elements was responsible:

  • The medical practices of the Portland Trail Blazers
  • The overall attitude of management toward the players, represented most strikingly in the team’s condoning the misuse of pain killing drugs
  • Management’s pressure on Walton to repudiate his friends, Jack Scott and John Bassett, and to adopt the party line regarding team medical treatment.
  • A pivotal telephone conversation with Trail Blazer Coach Jack Ramsay in July which proved to be the proverbial straw that broke the camel’s back.

While he was with his wife and children in Arizona earlier this summer, Walton realized his trusting relationship with the Blazers had broken down. When he returned to Portland later in the summer with his mind made up to leave the team, his decision was as surprising to his present agents, Scott and Bassett, as it was afterwards to Blazer management and the rest of the NBA.

Was there any chance of Walton’s staying in Portland when he got back from Arizona? At least two moves were made by local business persons to buy the team in the past few weeks. If that had happened quickly, and if it had involved major personnel and policy changes on the part of Blazer management, things might have gone differently.

Instead, Walton is leaving for San Francisco right away.

And the Blazers have gone along with his demands. One person close to the negotiations says the threat of a medical malpractice lawsuit has been Walton’s strongest negotiating tool. Walton also threatened to file a grievance with the NBA, which could have made him a “free agent,” leaving the Blazers without compensation if Walton signed with another team.

Last week several NBA players were enjoying a weekend at Sunriver at an annual promotional event for those pro basketball players who wear Nike shoes. A lively volleyball game was in progress, and George Gervin of San Antonio had just smacked a shot into Elvin Hayes’ face with such velocity that it blackened Hayes’ eye and gave him a nosebleed.

While Hayes was nursing his wounds, several of the other players present joked that if he didn’t get back in the game, they would send him here to Portland so the Blazers’ team doctor could take a look at him. Hayes leapt back onto the court.

That’s the reputation the Blazers have gained around the league because of the way the team has used drugs.

The issue of drugs is a touchy one, involving three basic considerations: a philosophy of healing, the caution with which drugs are administered and monitored, and the political position the player finds himself in over the decision to use drugs.

Involved in the growing controversy surrounding the Blazers are two classes of pain modifying or pain-killing drugs—Xylocaine and Marcaine—and two anti-inflammatory drugs—Butazolidin and Decradon. Both by team and NBA policy, all these drugs are administered only under the strict supervision of the team doctor, in this case Robert Cook, and use is carefully recorded. In spite of these professional safeguards, drug medication is now widespread in professional sports; athletes and management line up on different sides of the issue, based in large part on personal philosophy.

Harry Glickman describes his position this way. “…Jack Scott is passionately and vehemently opposed to the use of pain-killing drugs which permit an athlete to play at the risk of permanent injury. So am I.

“We have one rule on the Trail Blazers. Players are never to use any drugs or pills other than an aspirin tablet without the specific authorization of the team doctor.”

The shot heard...

Xylocaine Hydrochloride is a commonly used injectable local anesthetic. In the shot heard around the NBA, Bob Gross was injected with the drug Marcaine, a stronger anesthetic of longer-lasting duration than Xylocaine, in Milwaukie in late March. In previous games the pain had been growing steadily worse. The game before, against Seattle, Gross had needed three shots of Xylocaine to deaden the pain.

In Milwaukie, according to John Papanek’s article in the current issue of Sports Illustrated, Dr. John Hazel “had to shoot three times before he found the right spot to deaden the pain. Then, his foot numbed, Gross played. “I didn’t feel anything when the bone fractured,” Gross said last week. “I only heard the noise.”

Butazolidin and Decradon, both in tablet form, are used primarily for their anti-inflammatory effects. Decradon (Dexamethasone), the more potent of the two, is a cortisone-like drug that, according to the Physician’s Desk Reference and The Essential Giude To Prescription Drugs by James W. Long, MD, has a danger, with prolonged use or excessive dosage, of impairing the body’s ability to resist infection.

Butazolidin (Phenylbutazone) is a mild analgesic whose therapeutic value is “prompt relief of pain, lysis (reduction) of fever and diminution of swelling, tenderness and local heat,” according to the Desk Reference. The danger lies in the potentially debilitating side-effects of these powerful compounds.

Both drugs carry the warning that they do not correct the underlying disease process. Long’s book suggests it is advisable for any patients taking Decradon for longer than a week to carry a card of personal identification. Among the possible side effects of extended use of both these drugs is a diminution, in Decradon’s case, of “texture and strength of the bones, resulting in spontaneous fractures.” A serious side-effect of Butazolidin is what is referred to as “bone-marrow depression,” or a reducing of the bone marrow’s ability to produce blood cells. This, in turn, can produce a reduction in the body’s red blood cell count and in the body’s ability to resist infection.

The “Statement of Policy” to Portland Trail Blazers players and personnel issued by Glickman, dated Sept. 21, 1976 (and binding through the last season), states under Section 2: “You will be required to sign for drugs prescribed or administered for you.”

“No big deal”

There appears to be no evidence that any Blazer member currently on the team has signed for any drugs. On the contrary, it seems this otherwise meritorious policy on drugs not only has not been followed but has been flagrantly violated. Players I talked to, as well as writers and people close to the team, say they have never heard of anyone signing for a drug. The powerful side-effects of these two drugs and the physical deterioration of the Blazers in late February, after they had compiled an amazing 50-10 record, indicates a serious misuse by Blazer management of these drugs.

Several Trail Blazers told Sports Illustrated’s Papenek that “getting Decradon or Butazolidin is no big deal.”

“You just go to the trainer and tell him you’ve got a sore shoulder or elbow,” said one, “and he says, I’ll get you some ‘Bute.’” Then a little while later it’s in your locker.”

Apparently Ron Culp would dispense the drugs only to players Cook knew about. The drugs, however, were kept in a cabinet in the dressing room, to which players had free access, whether or not Culp or Cook knew it. Many outsiders and visitors have seen players taking the tablets freely.

“‘Everybody knows where it is,’” Papenek quotes another player, “‘You don’t have to sneak it. They want you to take it. Why do you think it’s there?’”

It’s an open question whether the unregulated—and even encouraged—free access to Decradon and “Bute,” with their strong adverse side-effects, might have had an effect on the incapacitation at various times last season of Walton, Gross, Twardzik, Neal, Lucai, Hollins and Steele. Lucas, in particular, suffered during the season from a “mysterious illness” which kept his performance below par, a malady that earned him some local criticism as a malingerer.

(Ramsay, Cook and Glickman all approached at least one other player on the team, stating that Lucas was on drugs and asking that player to help straighten him out. Many of the symptoms Lucas was suffering from are remarkably similar to those listed as symptoms of excessive use of Butazolidin.)

“The Blazers,” Walton says, “continually refer to players who take shots to play as ‘tough’ and those who don’t as ‘malingerers’ who are in it just tor the money.” Another player says, “Only the Bill Waltons and players of stature and salary can afford to openly criticize the medical practices, and even he had to capitulate because of the pressures he felt. If I refused them I’m probably be finished.”

These, then, are some of the things that were on Walton’s mind last spring and early summer as he began to confront the growing feelings of uneasiness he was experiencing regarding his relationship with the Trail Blazers.

Soaking in the healing waters of an Arizona resort for some four weeks early this summer, Walton had many things to think about. There were, of course, the more obvious instances of Gross’ broken ankle after its stress signals of pain had been smothered with massive injections of anesthetic, as well as his own broken foot under similar circumstances.

This was the second time around for Walton. Two years previously he had broken his leg under similar circumstances after receiving injections “in the heat of the moment” during a game, preceded by no X rays.

(His and Gross’ injuries give the lie to Cook’s claim in an Oregon Journal interview of Aug. 17 that such decisions as injecting painkillers ' ‘take place in an unemotional, unhurried atmosphere. In the middle of a game, you don’t embark on a treatment plan.”

(Walton’s first leg break came after he was injected at half-time; his second break came after he was injected just before the game after being unable to walk for several days; and Gross’ break came after being injected before the game, at half-time and in the third quarter. No X rays preceded any of the Walton and Gross injections. “Almost without exception we get an X ray before medication is given,” Cook said in the recent Sports Illustrated article.)

Insensitivity

There was more on Walton’s mind in Eden, Ariz., than injuries and the decimated wreckage of one of the greatest potential dynasties in the history of professional basketball. Behind the pattern of medical looseness there appeared to be an attitude of insensitivity to the players’ general physical and mental well-being that seemed to permeate the entire Blazer organization.

Sports columnist John Bassett had been making this point to seemingly deaf ears in his columns throughout the spring and early summer. While the basketball writers of the major presses in Portland played a local version of “see no evil, speak no evil, hear no evil,” Bassett discussed not only the Blazer injuries that were cropping up like an epidemic, but, for the first time, brought the taboo subject of questionable medical and personnel practices on the part of the Blazer organization under public scrutiny.

Specifically, Bassett observed that Blazer coach Ramsay, while unquestionably talented and knowledgeable as a coach, seemed to have a penchant for winning at any cost—including the health of his players. Bassett cited chapter and verse of clearly documented examples to back up his contention, including the using of Lloyd Neal for an average of 34.7 minutes per game for four consecutive games in late February, when the Blazers themselves knew Neal shouldn’t be playing more than 15 minutes a game and had said so publicly before the season.

A few people were listening. One was Walton. Another was Scott, who has long criticized professional sports for pressuring athletes to play while they were hurt.

Until recently, Scott has been a supporter of Blazer practices. But throughout the spring, Scott became increasingly vocal about the Blazer misuse of players. And increasingly, the Blazers were becoming worried about Scott and Basset—not without some grounds. Both Gross and Walton represented possible astronomical legal suits. The Blazers wanted to tone things down before those two began getting ideas.

The most logical way to undercut Bassett and Scott would have been for the Blazers to get Walton and Gross to issue strong statements supporting the team’s medical practices. Gross, and many other players, went along with management and issued statements supporting Cook’s actions as team doctor.

By mid-May, with the season over and the Blazers out of the playoffs, the Blazers began a strategy with Walton, whose effect was probably the beginning of the end of Walton’s relationship with the organization.

Papenek describes how, in late May, “Walton met with Glickman. who was concerned that ‘those two friends of yours,’ meaning Scott and Bassett, were suggesting that Cook had made some serious mistakes in his treatment of some Trail Blazer players. The general manager suggested to Walton that he make a public statement in support of Cook. Walton said he would think about it.”

Walton was first puzzled, then angry, over this response from the team personnel he had respected and trusted. Rather than admitting on their part that they had made some mistakes, management not only seemed adamant in defense of policies that Walton looked on as unhealthy, even dangerous, but made the tactical blunder of attempting to get Walton to repudiate the only two people who were saying publicly what he knew to be the truth.

Soaking in the Arizona hot springs a foot that six weeks later would have to be recast, because the top pan of the tarsal navicular bone had still not healed, Walton realized he couldn’t live any longer in violation of his own principles. He decided to do something about it.

Back in the City of Roses. Scott set off more controversy in a speech at the City Club when he blasted the Blazers for what had been their party line in recent weeks (probably related, as Bassett suggested, to the fact that season tickets were then going on sale) that “everything is fine” with Bill’s health. (Scott immediately was attacked for being negative and a professional naysayer.)

If Walton’s mind wasn’t totally made up when he returned to Portland in mid-July, what he encountered from management finished the job. More pressure came from the Blazers to issue a statement supporting Cook, this time from Culp.

This brought Walton one step closer to a total break with the Blazers.

Another step was taken as Walton considered the attitudes within the Blazer organization and in the local press. In both he found nothing but a steady refusal to deal with the issues he felt so strongly about—a policy that continues to this day.

Cook, in a recent Journal interview with Ken Wheeler, defended the team medical practices by stating: “If the things we are doing now are subject to criticism, the same things could have been subject to criticism in the championship year” (we’ve always done it in the past, particularly when we won), and, “I don’t think there is a wide divergence of practice in the entire league If there is, I’d be very surprised” (everybody else is doing it; why shouldn’t we?).

Nearly all Walton’s ties, cemented with trust, friendship and the principles that were so important to him, had now been severed. One thin strand was left dangling, and that was with Ramsay.

In the third week in July Ramsay called Walton In the Sports Illustrated article, Ramsay said. “The conversation was pleasant. It was a friendly talk. He said nothing to me to suggest he was unhappy with me, or anything else.”

Walton will have to speak tor himself about how he viewed that conversation. But afterward, one thing was certain: he could no longer continue with the Blazers.

He called Bassett and Scott together because, “They were the only two people who saw things as I did,” and asked them to help him carry out the only principled option he saw left to him after months of agonizing and deliberation—to get out.