Doyel: Want to know what made Bill Walton so special? Listen to Rick Carlisle

INDIANAPOLIS – Pacers coach Rick Carlisle sits down with reporters two hours before Game 4 of the Eastern Conference Finals on Monday night, and right away he has news to announce: All-Star point guard Tyrese Haliburton will not be available. That hamstring injury will keep him out for a second consecutive game. This is huge news. Carlisle has another 10 minutes in his regularly scheduled pregame news conference, but nobody asks a single question about Haliburton, or about trailing the Celtics 3-0.

Because Bill Walton died earlier Monday. And Rick Carlisle played with Walton on the NBA champion 1986 Boston Celtics.

And at this moment, and for these next 10 minutes, nothing else matters.

Before he’s done sharing memories of Bill Walton, taking us on the magic carpet ride of a lifetime – picture a tie-dyed carpet – Carlisle will tell us how he inspired his team before Game 4 by reading them text messages this postseason from Walton.

“Bill really liked our team, liked the way we played,” Carlisle says, and he’s about to get more personal.

“He certainly extended my career,” Carlisle says, and he’s about to get more personal.

“I have him to thank probably,” Carlisle says of Bill Walton, “for me being married to my wife, Donna."

Their first date was a 1987 Grateful Dead concert in Washington D.C. They attended the concert with a pair of all-access passes made out to Walton and his then-wife, Susie.

Before that night was over, Rick and the future Donna Carlisle had spent most of a mid-concert intermission in a room back stage, hanging out with Jerry Garcia.

'He was just absolutely spectacular'

Rick Carlisle grew up in Lisbon, New York, a town of 4,000 located about 5 miles from the St. Lawrence River on the U.S.-Canadian border. Folks in Lisbon had three TV channels, two from Canada and one from America, and the American channel there – a CBS affiliate – didn’t carry the NBA. Not until the 1973-74 season, when CBS obtained the rights to the NBA. Until then, Carlisle followed the NBA by reading basketball magazines. It was a different time.

Carlisle remembers watching the 1977 NBA Finals, Portland against Philadelphia, and Carlisle was like you and me and most folks alive back then: His favorite player was 76ers star Julius Erving. But he watched those Trail Blazers beat the 76ers in six games.

“Bill Walton was certainly the greatest player on the planet at that moment at the end of that series,” Carlisle says. “He was just absolutely spectacular.”

Carlisle goes to college, two years at Maine and then two at Virginia, and is chosen by Boston in the third round of the 1984 NBA Draft. By 1985 Walton is a shell of his former self, one of the most dominant players in NCAA history at UCLA from 1971-74 and the 1978 NBA MVP reduced to part-time status by dozens of foot/ankle surgeries. He’s playing for the Clippers in 1985, having averaged 10.1 points per game, when he receives permission from the franchise to find a way to play for a winner. Walton reaches out to Boston, which is how Carlisle came to be spending his second NBA season alongside Walton in 1985-86.

They were on the “green” team, the backups competing with the starters on the “white” team – Bird, Parish, McHale, you remember – and from what Carlisle remembers, the green team did just fine.

“It changed everything,” Carlisle said. “Things got extremely competitive. There was a tote board in the locker room – who won the scrimmage each day. It was very close, very close. Guys on the green team would tell you we had more wins than them. Guys on the white team would say you’re full of (expletive). But it was super-charged, every single day.”

Those 1986 Celtics won the NBA title with Walton playing 80 of 82 games, averaging 7.6 points, 6.8 rebounds and 2.1 assists in 19.3 minutes per game, earning NBA Sixth Man of the Year. That was a career year for Carlisle, who posted career highs for games played (77) and minutes averaged (9.9), averaging 2.6 points and 1.4 assists and shooting 48.7% from the floor.

“He completely elevated the environment of an already great team with a bunch of Hall of Famers,” Carlisle says. “It was an experience unlike anything you can imagine. But the joy in his face when the final buzzer went off in Game 6 of the ‘86 NBA Finals, he was absolutely exuberant. He wouldn’t have cared if he made a dime. The competition, the level of competition, the great players he was playing against – for him that’s what it was always about. How special could those moments be?”

Another question:

Who knows the impact that season – that NBA ring – has had on Carlisle’s career. Without that ultimate achievement on his resume, does he survive four more years before retiring in 1990, at age 30? Does he make the immediate transition into coaching, a rising star who’s a head coach by 2001 with the Detroit Pistons, then with the Pacers (2003-07) and Mavericks before returning to the Pacers before the 2021-22 season? We’ll never know.

Another thing Carlisle doesn’t know: Without Walton in his life, does he impress Dr. Donna Nobile, a pediatric infectious disease specialist, enough on their first date to get a second, then a third, then 30-plus years?

Carlisle has an idea.

'We were actually on-stage during the show'

Carlisle liked this young woman a lot and wanted to take her to a Grateful Dead concert in the Washington D.C. area. Carlisle asked Walton for help.

“I called Bill,” Carlisle says, “and I said: ‘Look’ – this is 1987 – ‘I got a date with a girl that I think is pretty cool. I’d love to go to the Dead show in the Capital Centre. I don’t have any Dead tickets. Can you help?’ He says: ‘Just go to the back door, ask for Dennis McNally, tell him you’re Rick Carlisle from the Boston Celtics, and everything will be just fine.’

“I said, 'Really?' He said: 'Oh yeah.'

“I drove up to the loading dock with Donna. We hadn’t known each other that long. I said, ‘Just give me a second.’ She said, ‘Do you have tickets?’ I said, ‘Can you just give me a couple minutes here?’ So I walk down, I knock on the door, and the whole thing ended up working out. I walked back up the loading dock ramp with two all-access laminates. One said Bill Walton and one said Susie Walton.

“We were actually on-stage during the show, and during the break we kind of wandered into the back and opened up a door and ended up sitting down with Jerry Garcia, Bob Weir and Mickey Hart for about 15 minutes just shooting the (breeze). It was an unbelievable night, and obviously it’s a good first date. Anyway, I’m thankful to him.”

The memories have been flowing all day for Carlisle, who says a group text chat with the 1986 Celtics have rekindled stories that "are just beyond priceless.” Pretty soon he’ll tell us about the first time he met Walton, whom everyone thought was a vegetarian. He was Bill Walton, you know? Of course he was a vegetarian. Only…

“We all assumed he was a vegetarian when he came to Boston because that was kind of what everybody said,” Carlisle said. “The first time I saw him he had a huge roast beef sandwich and he devoured it. That’s a vivid image.”

He talks about the text messages from Walton in recent months, messages of appreciation for Carlisle’s Pacers, message that kept coming even as Bill Walton was dying of cancer.

“He was texting me a lot throughout our playoffs,” Carlisle said. “I read some of our text messages to our players during our prep session (earlier today) before we went out on the court, just so they could realize the impact they are having on people all around basketball.”

Carlisle has been talking for most of 10 minutes during this pregame news conference, and Game 4 is getting closer, and Haliburton isn’t playing, but the reporters in the room can’t get enough of Carlisle’s memories of Walton. And Carlisle is happy to share them. Epitaphs and eulogies will be shared in the coming days, but good luck to anyone trying to sum up Bill Walton better than Carlisle did here.

“To me he was a living, breathing event in history,” Carlisle said. “He was involved in so many events – in pop culture, in sports. He played drums for the Grateful Dead in the pyramids in Egypt. He’s a guy who did anything.

“He defiantly competed for every moment in life to be the greatest it could possibly be.”

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This article originally appeared on Indianapolis Star: Bill Walton was special in so many ways; Rick Carlisle knows them all