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Thirty-three years ago this offseason, the Cleveland Cavaliers tried to trade for Bill Walton.
But the Los Angeles Clippers wanted too much in return and Walton didn’t exactly want to play for the Cavs.
The Clippers had just completed their first season in LA after moving from San Diego. The year was 1985 and at that point, Walton had more screws in his feet than he had teeth. Not really, but it had to be close.
Today, Walton’s feet could be rebuilt, and modern surgeons would likely help extend his career by another five or six years.
But back then, you were sort of patched together like Frankenstein.
Still, 6-foot-11 creature or not, Walton continued to show the skills, smarts and a shooting stroke that put him in the upper echelon of the centers of that era. He was still viewed as a big man who could take you places.
In 1977, Walton took the Portland Trail Blazers to the championship, upsetting Julius Erving, World B. Free and the flashier Philadelphia 76ers along the way.
But about 10,000 surgeries later, Walton was shipped to the Clippers. He couldn’t stay healthy there, either. But the fact he might someday clearly intrigued opponents.
One such opponent was the Cavaliers — coached by George Karl, and now featuring the shot-taking, joke-making and all-around beloved Free.
Karl and Free weren’t always best of pals, a drama-like trend Karl would carry with him for the majority of his lengthy coaching career. But Karl and Free found common ground, and the team was starting to create some buzz when pro basketball was about seventh in importance in the minds of most sports fans.
Karl also had a relationship with Walton, as explained by Terry Pluto, now of Cleveland.com and then the Cavs beat reporter for the Akron Beacon Journal.
“Walton has made a comeback of sorts with the Clippers the last two seasons,” Pluto wrote. “He averaged 11 points and nine rebounds while playing about 20 minutes a game. He appeared in 67 of the Clippers’ 82 games last year. Walton and Cavs coach George Karl are friends. They were teammates on the USA summer team that played a Russian squad in 1972.”
Anyway, the Cavaliers’ general manager at the time was Harry Weltman. When a well-known player such as Walton became available, Weltman would take an immediate interest. The Cavs were coming off the horrific Ted Stepien era, and Weltman and owners George and Gordon Gund were determined to rebuild the franchise’s image. A star like Walton would put the Cavs back in the news — in a good way. They undoubtedly needed that.
So Weltman placed the call to the Clippers. We know this because this was an era where the majority of GMs and agents didn’t hide behind the “league sources” label we so often see today. They actually talked on the record.
Same goes for the players. In 1985, they were brutally honest.
And Walton had heard the Cavs rumors. There were also rumors the Larry Bird-powered Boston Celtics were expressing a strong interest.
Walton made his preference clear.
“I really don’t want to come to Cleveland,” Walton told a West Coast reporter. “I want to go to a championship contender. The Clippers should trade me to Boston.”
Walton’s comments clearly made the Cavs back off. Plus, the Clippers were reportedly seeking an experienced player, such as Cavs small forward Phil Hubbard or power forward Roy Hinson, along with a first-round pick.
Walton was 32 years old with a history of major injuries. The Cavs weren’t about to mortgage the farm.
Neither were the Celtics, and that turned out to be A-OK by the Clippers. Shortly after the talks with the Cavs, the Clippers did indeed trade Walton to the Celtics — for a talented-but-breaking down forward by the name of Cedric “Cornbread” Maxwell.
It worked out well … for Walton and the Celtics. In 1985-86, he played 80 regular-season games and turned into the league’s best sixth man, backing up Kevin McHale and Robert Parish as the Celtics went 40-1 at home and won the championship.
Meanwhile, the Cavs finished 29-53, good enough for dead last in the Central Division. Weltman and Karl were fired at the end of the year, Hinson was traded to the Sixers for the No. 1 overall pick (that turned out to be center Brad Daugherty), and the Cavs were starting over again.
So, there you have it. The Cavs almost had a Hall-of-Fame center. It would have got the fan base buzzing.
But in hindsight, the Cavs probably made the right call. Instead of trading away their first-round pick, they used it to take Daugherty. And in 1992, they eliminated the Celtics in the Eastern Conference semifinals, a series that brought an end to Bird’s career.
Walton had been long retired, limping through just 10 games in 1986-87 before calling it quits.
Bottom line? It was the deal that never was for the Cavs, and in the end, probably a good deal not to make.