Why Bill Walton sued the Blazers medical staff
DRAMA

Why Bill Walton sued the Blazers medical staff

When all is said and done, most Portland reporters agree that Damian Lillard will go down as the greatest Blazer in history, even if he doesn’t win a title there. That’s how much Dame has meant to the team and the community. Who’s in second place? Some may say Clyde Drexler, but I believe the only correct answer is Bill Walton.

One of the best playmaking bigs in history, Walton led the Blazers to their only title in franchise history. But more than win games, Walton did what Dame is doing right now – he connected with Portland. A great love affair between a player and a city ended up in a bitter legal battle.

14 months after celebrating their first NBA title will all of Portland, Bill Walton demanded a trade from the Blazers. The fans were stunned. When they asked questions, there were no answers. At Walton’s request, there would be no explanation. As time went on, Walton’s reasons for departure became clearer.

After winning the title in ’77, the Blazers looked even better the next season. At the All-Star break, the Blazers won 44 consecutive home games and were 40-8. Twelve games later, they were 50-10 and beating the 76ers when Bill Walton went down. Everyone in Portland held their breath as their star player left the court with an apparent left ankle injury. 

A week later, Dr. Bob Cook operated on Bill Walton’s right foot, and the Blazers announced he would be out “one to three weeks.” Walton was actually playing with an injured right foot, and while the left ankle injury only required rest, it was seen as an opportunity to take care of the right foot. Walton going down seemed to have started an avalanche – Lucas, Steele, Twardzik, Gross all went down. Their dream season was falling apart with the Playoffs around the corner. 

While his right foot healed as planned, Walton still couldn’t walk, let alone run, because of his left foot. With immense pressure for players to get healthy, Bill Walton did something he said he’d never do – take painkillers to play through an injury. After numerous tests, the Blazers medical team cleared him to play.

“On April 18th, 1978, when I had an undiagnosed stress fracture in my foot, they injected me, in my foot and ankle, with a massive amount of painkilling medication. I went out and played in this game. Hadn’t been able to play in months. Went out and played, and the undiagnosed stress fracture – the bone in my foot split in half.”

Bill Walton

As it turned out, the Blazers medical staff was very liberal with the use of all sorts of pain medication. Apart from all the obvious problems with that, it increases the risk of serious injury. Pain is the body’s way of letting you know you should slow down, a warning mechanism. Without it, you act as if everything is OK when it’s not. 

Walton’s teammate Bob Gross also had a stress fracture in his left ankle. He played through it on a combination of strong painkillers. When the pills stopped working, they switched to injections. Gross had to be injected before the game, at halftime, and after the game. Gross was so numb that when the bone couldn’t take it anymore, he didn’t feel a thing. 

“I didn’t feel anything when the bone fractured. I only heard the noise.”

Bob Gross, Sports Illustrated

Fans started to get the picture, and it all became clear when Walton filed a lawsuit against Dr. Bob Cook. At that point, he had been traded to the San Diego Clippers, a new franchise owned by a young businessman named Donald Sterling. Walton had accused Dr. Robert Cook and the Oregon City Orthopedic Clinic of negligence in diagnosing and treating a foot injury suffered by Walton late in the 1977-78 season.

The case was settled, so we never found out all the details, but this is still one of the most dramatic relationships between a franchise legend and the team.