Unusual Suspect: Bill Walton's 1986—Best Performance By an Old Athlete

Brian D. O'LearyCorrespondent IApril 2, 2009

INGLEWOOD, CA - OCTOBER 1985: Bill Walton #5 of the Boston Celtics readies for the pass against the Los Angeles Lakers during a game in October, 1985 at the Great Western Forum in Inglewood, California. (Photo by Rick Stewart/Getty Images)

What makes age?  Is it the years on Earth or the deviation from the standard definition of "able to walk?"  If it is the latter, Bill Walton had perhaps the best season of any team-sport athlete in history, if one allows that the worst body having the best year fits the criteria of "Best Performances By Old Athletes."

During the 1985-86 NBA season, 33-year-old Walton—as an aging team-sport athlete— had perhaps the most impact on any team during any given season, playing under Head Coach K.C. Jones for the Boston Celtics

Apologies, as always, to Steve Balboni of the 1985 Kansas City Royals (.243-36-88), an ancient 28-year-old who squeezed into the powder blue and white double-knits in 160 games for the World Champs.

You may say, "33!  Are you kidding me?  That ain’t old!"  You then may go on to tell me about three or four rosters full of guys playing effectively into their late thirties and early forties.

"What about Kareem?!?"  Probably a common refrain.  “George Blanda in football, Julio Franco (and Steve Balboni, of course) in baseball, and you pick Walton?  He wasn’t even that good.”

I say, "No, I am not kidding, though I respect your objection to my thesis.  Kareem was great, Blanda fantastic as well.

“Franco defied nature, though he did finish his career in the age of the Cream and the Clear.  Wink-wink.  Nod-nod.  Balboni is forever a legend in my book.

“Walton, though, was not only good, he was great.  I’ll even get Tony the Tiger to belt it out for you if you want.

“And by June of 1986, he had just completed the best season by an aging ballplayer in NBA history."  (You may then shed a few tears and come back to read this article in a few days.)

Legitimately, Bill Walton was an old basketball player by the time the 1986 Finals rolled around, eight years past the prime of his career when he won the NBA Most Valuable Player Award for the 1977-78 Portland Trail Blazers (the year after he led the Blazers to the World Championship).

Injuries—many—and squabbles with management—damaging—severely limited Walton's time on the hardwood.

Labeling Walton "oft-injured" is an understatement.  Brittle feet and ankles (and perhaps the weight of the 1970s culture in his early career) aged the dynamic center more in a geometric manner than by the arithmetic path of most athletes (and people). 

Consider:  the total amount of games he played in his NBA career adds up to the equivalent of fewer than six full seasons, though he was rostered for 15.

Walton missed over nine seasons of professional basketball!  He finally retired in 1988—after spending the entire final season injured yet again.

Other than the 1986-87 Playoffs—and a handful of games during that regular season—the 1985-86 season was really Walton's farewell.  Though it is hard to compare theoretical geometric aging to actual arithmetic aging, there is little doubt that Walton's body at 33 was "older" than, say, Abdul-Jabaar's when he retired in 1989 at age 42.

You say, "Flash-in-the-pan!"  I say, "Not so fast!"

A flash-in-the-pan athlete has one or two good seasons very early in his career and then disappears—poof—like Keyser Söze.  Unlike Söze, however, the “flash” never comes back for revenge.

Walton's first five seasons in the NBA were remarkable—six if one recognizes that he sat out what would have been his fifth season with the Blazers (1978-79) in a contract dispute combined with debilitating foot problems.

He signed with San Diego before the 1979-80 season under the NBA's first experiment with free agency.  For the most part thereafter, his health was even more of a mess until he came to the Celtics, but he managed to have a few decent seasons—really, collections of occasional games—sprinkled in with the Clippers.

In the 1985-86 campaign—again, just 33, but by now arguably the oldest 33 in NBA history—Walton played the most games in any one season of his career (80).  Prior to that year, he had never played more than 67 regular season games.

The Big Redhead ultimately received the NBA's Sixth Man Award in 1986 because he was such a vital cog in the C's march to a World Championship.  Verbal Kint had his doppelgänger just once—Bill Walton, 1986.

With one of the most solid starting fives in NBA history—Dennis Johnson, Danny Ainge, Robert Parish, Kevin McHale, and Larry Bird—Walton’s genius off the bench was to play wise-yet-tenacious defense and the fundamental game he carried with him from the years under John Wooden at UCLA and Jack Ramsay in Portland.

Never a big presence on the traditional stat sheet (points), Walton's team play, rebounding, ability to block shots, and a sixth-sense as a defender dramatically improved his teams and, as such, his teammates. 

Red Auerbach, president of the Celtics, took a flier on the old big man before the season, and sent former Finals MVP—and latter-day Celtics legend—Cedric Maxwell to the Los Angeles Clippers in exchange.  The move paid off in spades.

According to Basketball-Reference.com, Walton's "Defensive Rating" made him the number one over-all NBA defender for the 1985-86 season, just as the statistic tells us he was during his 1977-78 MVP campaign.

David Robinson is the only other player in history (the statistic available since the 1973-74 NBA/ABA seasons) who has the same eight-year stretch between first and last honors.

Bill Walton currently ranks eighth all-time on the list of defensive stalwarts in the NBA, based on Defensive Rating.  Statistically, he is also considered the number one defensive rebounder of the basketball in NBA history based on the same website’s "Defensive Rebounding Percentage."

He brought his prowess on the glass to the Celtics, averaging nearly seven boards a game.  Not earth-shattering numbers, by any means, but if taken on a "per 36 minute" average (a common statistical denominator), he finished the season less than a rebound shy—defensively and total—of his career averages.

The typical statistics do not jump off the page.  Walton’s 1985-86 averages were just 19.3 minutes and 7.6 points per game (career-lows if one disregards his final injury-plagued regular season in 1986-87), but he is roundly considered the key to the Celtics run. 

To put this in perspective, he averaged just 13.3 points in 28.3 minutes per game for his entire career...and, all the while, the 1986 Celtics relied heavily on Larry Bird and Kevin McHale for minutes and to score points.

Walton's veteran leadership, disregard for his mercurial-status as a superstar, and blue-collar consistency not only helped the Celtics win their 16th Championship, but solidified his own spot in the Hall of Fame.

How much older than 33 was Walton's body that year?  He is 56 now and admittedly has much more trouble walking than the average man his age.  The standard deviation, though, was—quite arguably—much higher as a 33-year old.

A body of a 60-something with a skill-set of a Springfield-bound 30-something would put Walton's "basketball age" around 50-something in 1986, if I made an educated guess as a pretend theoretical mathematician.

Thus, and so, no better NBA season has been had by a man in his fifties than the one William Theodore Walton III blessed us with during the magical run of the 1985-86 Boston Celtics.