Personally, I’ll die saying Manu Ginobili is the greatest 6th man in basketball history. But, I have to hear out anyone who wants to argue for Bill Walton on the Celtics. Any time you get a former MVP that was the no-brainer leader of a championship team to be your 6th man, it’s a high upside play. In 1986, the stars aligned for the Celtics, and magic happened. All thanks to Red Auerbach’s medical expertise.
How do you get a former MVP to be your 6th man? Something wrong has to happen in his career. With Walton, it was one of the worst injury-luck careers in NBA history. After winning the title with the Blazers in 1977, Walton spent more time in street clothes than on the court. In ’78 and ’79, Walton broke the navicular bone below his left ankle twice. He rested for two years after the second strike. In the end, he left the Blazers and sued the team’s medical staff for malpractice.
Walton was traded to the San Diego Clippers, where he played 169 games from ’79 to ’85. Frustrated with constantly recovering from injuries, Walton made the decision. He would either play for a contender or retire. In the mid-80s, there were only two contenders, so he reached out to both teams – the Lakers and the Celtics. The Boston locker room reacted well to the idea of bringing Walton in, so Red Auerbach made the move. He traded Cedric Maxwell and the Celtics ’86 first-round pick for Walton. But before the deal could be confirmed, the doctors had to pass Walton. The medical records were clear; there was no way Walton could pass his physical. But, all the doctors were scared – how are they going to tell Red that he can’t trade for Walton? Here’s Walton reliving that crucial moment with Woj.
“And then Red, he bursts in through the double doors at Mass. General hospital there at the east end of Storrow Drive. And he’s smoking his cigar in the hospital, and he walks in and says, ‘Who are you guys, and what are you doing with my player?’ And they’re saying, ‘Red, come here. Look at this. Look at his feet. Look at his face. We can’t pass this guy.’ And Red says, ‘Shut up. I’m in charge here.’ And Red pushes his way through all the doctors, comes over. I’m lying on the table there in the doctors examining room. Red looks down at me. He says, ‘Walton, can you play?’ And I looked up at him with the sad, soft eyes of a young man who just wanted one more chance. One more chance to be part of something special, to be part of the team, to be with the guys one more time. And I looked up at him, and I said, ‘Red, I think I can. I think I can, Red.’Bill Walton, The Vertical Podcast
And Red took a step back, folded his arms, and took a drag on that cigar. Oh my gosh. And he held that smoke in as long as he possibly could, and you could just see all the machinations going on, all the calculations, all the deliberations as to how this is all going to play out. Finally, he just exhaled, and I swear that smoke came out green, Adrian. And it was shamrocks and leprechauns up against the white LED lights on the wall. And Red, through the smoke, with a big, cherubic grin on his face, looked at the doctors, looked at me, and he said, ‘He’s fine. He passes. Let’s go. We’ve got a game.’ And we were able to go out and win a championship. I’m the luckiest guy in the world, Adrian. Thank you, Red Auerbach. Thank you, Larry Bird. Thank you, Boston Celtics. Thank you, people of New England. Thank you, Celtic nation. Wow. What a dream come true.”
The 86/87 Celtics were exhausted and broken. Bill Walton rejuvenated them on and off the court. He was the breath of fresh air they needed. They are one of the greatest teams that ever played the game, and their secret ingredient was one of the best 6th man ever to play the game. It all happened because Red Auerbach trusted Bill Walton when he said he could play. Boy, was he right.