As the summer wears on, with training camps and preseason play still off in (what feels like) the distant future, we turn our attention to the past. Join us as we while away a few late-summer moments recalling some of the most scintillating slams of yesteryear, the most thunderous throwdowns ever to sear themselves into our memories. This is Dunk History.
Today, we're driving all the way back to 1977 to watch a healthy Bill Walton dunk on Kareem Abdul-Jabbar in both their primes.
In one of the great art crimes in the game of basketball’s long and lovely history, we don’t tend to think of highlight reel moves when it comes time to recall the playing career of Hall of Famer Bill Walton. Touch passes, in-between hooks, killer defense and, sadly, that litany of career-confining injuries would be amongst the first images to pop up in our internalized scrapbook. From there we get the Grateful Dead, facial hair, the Symbionese Liberation Army and his mercurial broadcasting career to work off of.
It’s true that Bill’s game, even when he was healthy, was never about flash. He left that to David Thompson, whose N.C. State Wolfpack downed Walton in the 1974 NCAA championship, or Julius Erving, Walton’s ABA counterpart and eventual adversary in Walton’s 1977 peak triumph as a pro. In an NCAA era that wouldn’t even let Walton legally stuff the ball even as he went on to make 21 out of 22 shots in the 1973 title game win, some of his best and healthiest years were spent using touch and toughness to ease things in.
By the time Walton got to the NBA, though, the man didn’t want to be eased in. And by the time Walton hit his too-early peak during the 1976-77 playoffs, the sight of the front of the rim and longtime combatant Kareem Abdul-Jabbar was too compelling to pass up.
Forget your extra pass. Watch:
Walton and Kareem did and do not have as chilly a relationship as Abdul-Jabbar had and has with … well, just about every damn center of the last 60 years. With that in place, the two UCLA Bruin titans still had a job to do, and a Western Conference finals to take down. Abdul-Jabbar was brilliant during that regular season, outpacing Walton in points (26.2 to 18.6) tying him in blocks per game, while nearly matching him in rebounds (14.4 to 13.3) and even assists (3.8 to 3.2). All while, in the pre-Magic Johnson era in Lakerdom, working with a Los Angeles roster that couldn’t hold a candle to Walton’s deep and vibrant Portland Trail Blazer squad.
Kareem also outscored Walton in the series by 30.2 to 19.2 margin (marks for rebounds, blocks and assists aren’t reliably available), but even though the Lakers owned the home court advantage, the Blazers swept Los Angeles. It’s a team game, and Bill had the better team.
You likely know how the story moves along from here. All the stereotype Walton-isms come back into play. The Trail Blazers won the NBA championship with Bill calling for the equal-opportunity motion offense all along, keeping Portland weird by saying endearingly daffy things about his missing bike during the city’s championship rally. Jack Ramsay’s team would go on to win 50 of its next 60 games in 1977-78 before Walton injured both his legs, returning far too early for the playoffs in the days before we knew what the hell a “stress fracture” was.
From there, sadness, the breakdown of his relationship with an unknowing Blazer team, the San Diego Clippers, three-piece suits, more injuries, Boston, another ring, more injuries, ankle fusion, sadness, Ralph Lawler, NBC, ABC/ESPN, Boris Diaw, and the formation of the Bill Walton legend.
All certainly worth it, but Kareem Abdul-Jabbar is the guy that got to stay healthy throughout his 30s and win five more championships. What Bill Walton wouldn’t give.
It hardly matters. For one spring and early summer, the whole of the basketball world was Bill Walton’s to dance around.
More from BDL's Dunk History series:
• Shaq literally takes down the Nets
• Gerald Green turns off the lights
• John Starks, the Chicago Bulls and 'The Dunk'
• Tom Chambers rising like a Phoenix and taking orbit as a Sun
• Taj Gibson starts the break, then breaks Dwyane Wade
• Joakim Noah makes Paul Pierce a memory
• Baron Davis unloads on Andrei Kirilenko, moves beyond belief
• Michael Jordan embarrasses, like, all of the Knicks
• Spud Webb shocks the basketball world
• LeBron James tries to take down all of Boston
• A young Kobe Bryant goes way over a young Ben Wallace
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