WHEN the capstone is placed on the men's college basketball season next Monday night in Charlotte, N.C., the name of Bill Walton is not likely to come up. That is, unless somebody plays a stupendous game.
Comparisons will inevitably follow to the big redhead, who was a center for the University of California, Los Angeles, in 1973. In that season's Final Four title game against Memphis State, he made 21 of 22 shots and scored 44 points (a championship game record) as the Bruins wrapped up their seventh straight National Collegiate Athletic Association championship.
Walton almost cavalierly dismisses that performance today. ``My teammates and I played at least a half dozen better games,'' he volunteers in ``Nothing But Net, Just give me the ball and get out of the way'' a book teeming with his frank opinions and observations on a sport he remains passionate about. The title is a gem, given its double meaning - as a familiar description for a shot that swishes through the basket and also because the work, as advertised, sticks to basketball.
``It wasn't until I was 28 that I really learned how to speak,'' he writes about overcoming stuttering difficulties. He credits veteran New York broadcaster Marty Glickman with helping him become a garrulous analyst for NBC. Glickman offered three suggestions that Walton still heeds: Chew gum to warm up your mouth, try not to let your thoughts race ahead, and practice by reading out loud.
Now Walton says that Glickman did a dangerous thing, since Walton's tongue now runs like the Energizer bunny. Last spring he spoke for 14 minutes at the Basketball Hall of Fame inductions. One observer joked that Walton's acceptance speech was longer than his injury-disrupted pro career, which saw him miss three entire seasons.
Nonetheless, he led the Portland Trail Blazers to the 1977 National Basketball Association championship and finished out his career as the top reserve with the Boston Celtics, where he played alongside Larry Bird on the 1986 NBA champions.
But getting back to that 44-point college masterpiece. Walton ticks off a litany of mistakes: He missed three of five free throws, committed six turnovers, was called for four dunking violations (dunks were illegal in college then), and accidentally tipped in a basket for Memphis State. His shooting accuracy, he says, was a function of his getting the ball ``where it was almost impossible to miss.''
Walton's greatest disappointment - in a college career that had few - was losing to North Carolina State in the NCAA semifinals 20 years ago, when he learned how missable even short-range shots can be. To this day, he says, he thinks about the many easy shots that kept rolling off the rim. ``If I could have one week back in my life, the week we played North Carolina State would be it,'' he says of the double overtime loss, featured in a recent Sports Illustrated.
An honors student in college, Walton sometimes tested the tolerance level of legendary coach John Wooden. Though both opposed the Vietnam war, Walton was far more public in his opposition, once commandeering a UCLA golf cart for a protest.
The two talked and Wooden suggested that writing letters to elected officials might be an effective option. Walton took some UCLA basketball stationery and wrote a letter to Richard Nixon calling for his resignation. His teammates signed it, but when Walton asked for Wooden's signature, he became angry.
``Bill,'' he said, ``you've just got so much to learn.'' The letter was sent anyhow.