Thursday, March 10, 2005 | The clock on San Diego State’s disappointing basketball season is ticking down toward a merciful ending this weekend in Denver. The 10-17 Aztecs open the Mountain West Conference Tournament on Thursday against Air Force. Only an unlikely run of solid play with a string of upsets could advance SDSU into the postseason.

Before it ends, though, any San Diegan who loves basketball should take a moment to thank senior Chris Walton, the youngest son of San Diego’s First Family of Basketball. Bill Walton, the patriarch and proud papa of four basketball-playing sons, remains one of the greatest names in the game.

Thanks, Chris, for picking San Diego State. Thanks for taking a chance on your hometown’s state university. We know you could have taken the easier path, accepting an offer from UCLA or another established college power.

“Chris was part of our first recruiting class, and the Walton name gave us immediate legitimacy when he said he was coming,” SDSU coach Steve Fisher said when asked to look back on Chris’ career. “For him to want to come to San Diego State, it spoke volumes. It also said a lot about his love for the city.”

Chris, we’ll never know how your career would have finished if injuries hadn’t derailed your senior year. You missed 10 of 27 games because of hip flexor and groin injuries. Compounding the missed games was lost practice time. You were deprived of the timing that is so valuable to a player with your selfless ball skills. Your 6-foot-8, 234-pound body let you down, but you didn’t let down San Diego.

“Chris came into this season in phenomenal shape,” Fisher says. “It’s unfortunate he was injured, but to his credit he fought through it. He never stopped trying.”

In the 35 years since the Walton patriarch came out of Helix in 1970 and headed off to UCLA to establish his legacy, San Diego State has never given a Walton a reason to stay home. When Bill graduated, the Aztecs were an NCAA Division II program, a year a way from moving up to Division I, and basketball god John Wooden was offering him a scholarship.

In the years that Bill’s four sons graduated from San Diego high schools, the Aztecs’ Division I records were far from postseason promise. Adam (LSU/Pomona College) came out of Torrey Pines in 1994, when SDSU was 12-16 overall and 6-12 in conference play; Nate (Princeton) graduated from USDHS in 1996, when SDSU was 15-14 and 8-10; Luke (Arizona, now with the Los Angeles Lakers) matriculated from USDHS in 1998, when SDSU was 13-15 and 5-9.

When Chris graduated in 2000, SDSU was 5-23 and 0-14. But Chris took a chance on SDSU because of the newly hired Fisher. In Chris’s sophomore year in 2002, the Aztecs qualified for the NCAA Tournament by winning the MWC title. The Aztecs again qualified for the postseason in 2003 and won a first-round game in the N.I.T. But for a variety of reasons the program has taken a step backward in Chris’ junior and senior years.

“Life is full of challenges, and Chris’s challenge was a big one to come here and try and help build a program,” says Jim Tomey, SDSU’s women’s coach who came to SDSU as an assistant under Fisher after coaching Chris, Luke and Nate at USDHS. “Chris accepted that challenge, and he threw everything he had into it to raise the level of San Diego State basketball.”

Some basketball fans might say Chris didn’t live up to the All-American numbers Bill posted at UCLA and Luke at Arizona. They might not consider Chris pro material, capable of following Bill and Luke into the NBA. But they would be overlooking Chris’ basketball IQ and selfless play.

“In his mind he still has a shot at the NBA,” Tomey said. “I know one thing, he’s not ready to give up on his dream. He wants to continue playing basketball. With a little bit of luck, maybe he’ll get with a team that appreciates his skills. Or maybe he’ll play professionally overseas.”

We should also thank Chris for accepting the pressure of playing in his famous father’s hometown. In the Walton boys’ high school years, they dealt with ignoring the simpletons who they thought were clever when they yelled, “Hey, Walton, you’re not as good as your dad!” Not many players in the game’s history have been as good as Bill.

Fisher also thanks Bill and Chris’ mother, Susie, for letting Chris be Chris. In this age of parents orchestrating the high school sports career of their sons or daughters, theirs was a textbook study on how to parent a high school and college athlete.

“I wish every family could have watched how Chris’ parents handled his career,” Fisher says. “They always supported Chris and supported the coaches. This was something for all parents to see; this is the way it’s done.”

Thanks, Chris, for letting those of us who appreciate the challenge you took on to watch it happen in San Diego.

Tom Shanahan has been writing about San Diego athletes at the professional, collegiate and high school levels for 27 years.

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