Bill Walton on the Curse O' Les Boulez
The Wizards were firing back at the media after shootaround this morning. Don't count them out, they said. Don't write them off just yet. Don't be so pessimistic. More on that later.
But Bill Walton was in the building for pre-production meetings. I asked for a moment of his time. He wanted to sit down, so we went out to the arena floor and sat on the Wizards' bench. I told him what the Wizards had said, about not counting them out.
"So prove it to us," he said. "This is a game of players. This is not about strategy, it's not about plays, it's not about gimmicks. It's about who can play. Washington lost two of the absolute best players in the NBA. They both made the all-star team, they were gonna both make one of the three all-NBA teams this year. And now the challenge for these guys is that the sun has gone dark. Show us that you can fight in the shade."
Walton was wearing black shoes, black jeans, and a black Bob Dylan hooded sweatshirt. The arena was dark. Just a few employees wandering around an empty basketball court. He spoke softly. I asked about the Wizards' playoff chances.
"It's going to have to be a completely different Wizards team," he said. "It used to be wide open, offense, fun, celebrate. Now it's gonna have to change. It's gonna have to change to control, it's gonna have to change to discipline, it's gonna have to change to much more of a mental game for them, with limited firepower, and big guys who are gonna have to be tougher, more productive, more efficient, and more determined than they've been in the past. And to change your identity over night....It's much easier on television than it is on the basketball court."
I had asked some of the players about the Curse of Les Boulez. Antonio Daniels and Antawn Jamison rejected it. Donell Taylor had never heard of it. I asked Bill Walton if he was familiar with the phrase.
"I read about it today," he said, referring to Wilbon's column. "I don't speak French. English is my fifth language, after stuttering, stammering, stumbling and spitting. But French is significantly further down the list."
But is there anything to this theory, I still wanted to know. Can a franchise be cursed? Shall all Wizards fans who enter this arena abandon all hope?
"I'm a big believer in curses," Walton said. "I've got many of them on my own soul. January 19, 1974 loss to Notre Dame; March 23, 1974 loss to North Carolina State; April 18, 1978, when I took the painkilling injection in my foot and the bone split in half, the curse of my failure to get it done with the Clippers, and the curse of a life of failure, starting with ruining John Wooden's life. And how you get rid of these curses, it's the greatest question known to man."
But how, I wondered. What's the next step?
"Well, one time somebody sent me a letter," he explained, "and it said that the curses were there, Bill, because a witch doctor in the Philippines had placed a curse on you. And they sent me a map of where to go in the Philippines to break the curse. And while I've been to the Philippines, I couldn't pinpoint the position that I had to go to. There was a special rock that I had to find, according to this letter and the map. I couldn't find it."
I asked whether this was all true, and he assured me that it was; "Believe me, truth strangles fiction," he said. Which made me wonder, should we send Agent Zero and Tuff Juice to the Pacific in search of magic cursed rocks? Or, better yet, Rod Strickland and Hot Plate Williams? Is that the answer?
"Well, everybody's curse is different," Walton continued, master instructing pupil. "And it's not always possible to break the curse. But that's life. I spent 20 years of my life in the hospital with the unsolvable foot problems. And there are people who have medical issues, where your life is spinning helplessly out of control and there are no answers. That's really how you define who you are.
"Life is easy when you're high," he went on. "Life is easy when all your jumpers are going down. Life is easy when Gilbert Arenas is getting 54 points in Mike D'Antoni's face. Life is easy when Caron Butler is tearing up the NBA. But your ultimate legacy in life is determined by what you do when the ball bounces the other way. And it has, right now, for these Wizards. And their challenge is to learn how to fight in the shade."
We chatted a bit more: about curses, about hardwork, about overcoming adversity. Then Eddie Jordan suddenly emerged from the tunnel with his son, Jackson. Jackson was wearing a Michael Jordan Wizards jersey, with Gil Zeros on his feet, and Nike socks peaking out above. Eddie put his hand on Jackson's head as they approached us.
"Can he say hi to you please?" Eddie asked Walton. "Shake his hand," he instructed Jackson.
Tiny Jackson Jordan and massive Bill Walton shook hands. Walton leaned forward. Sitting down, he was still about as tall as Jackson Jordan.
"My name is Bill, and I used to play against your dad," Walton said. "And your dad was not only one of the greatest players I ever had the privilege of playing against, but he's one of the greatest human beings. You are so lucky.
"And I know how tough it is for you, because I've got four children myself, and dad can't always be there. And that's the hardest thing for a young boy, to sit there and say, 'Oh man, everybody else, their dad can always come to their parent-teacher conferences, and they can come to the school plays, and their dad's always there to kiss 'em goodnight and tell 'em they love 'em.' Don't ever think for a minute that your dad doesn't think that. He has ultimate love for you, he'll do anything he can for you. But he has his job to do. And I know you're trying to be a ballplayer here, but what I want to say is sports is just a small part of your life. Education, that's the number one thing."
"He's a real good student," Eddie said proudly, patting Jackson's head again. "A real good student."
"And your dad was a great NBA player, he's a first-rate NBA coach, has a huge future ahead of him," Walton continued. "But he's where he is not because he can shoot a jumper, not because he can run fast and jump high, he's where he is today because of what's right here [pointing to his head]. And he has learned, he has trained his mind, he knows how to think, knows how to deal with adversity. So education is your number one key to success. Train your mind, learn how to think. Know how to read. Know how to write. Know how to use that computer. Make mathematical calculations. Play sports for fun, play sports for health, play sports to learn life's greatest lessons."
He paused. We all reflected, in that empty, echoing arena: the cursed legend, the cynical blogger, the scrappy coach, the young son.
"But when you do play, do just what your dad did," Walton said. "Shoot every time you touch the ball. Knock 'em dead, champ."
"Every story has to have a great ending," Eddie said. "That was a great ending."
Ok, this is to be continued, because it goes on.
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