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Tuesday, October 18, 2005 | On winter nights a little more than 20 years ago, the NBA and San Diego seemed like such a good fit. The city featured the Clippers and a native son for a marquee player, Bill Walton.

Yeah, Walton’s fragile feet and ankles were betraying him by then, preventing him from carrying the franchise the way the Basketball Hall-of-Famer had done so in Portland and hoped to repeat in San Diego. It’s a regret he still lives with, accepting too much blame for Donald Sterling hijacking our team and moving it to Los Angeles for the 1984-85 season.

But Luke Walton, the Los Angeles Lakers’ forward and third of Bill’s four basketball-playing sons, told a story the other day about Bill and the Clippers. It reminded those of us who fondly recall the Clippers’ brief time here just how much Bill enjoyed playing in the NBA in the Helix High alum’s hometown.

Remember Craig Hodges, the scrappy, over-achieving guard who played here with the Clippers? Now he works with Luke and the Lakers as a shooting coach.

“One day Craig told me, ‘I remember you boys when I played with Bill and the Clippers,’” Luke said. “I came out of the game once and your dad had all four boys on the bench and there were no seats. I said, ‘Bill, your boys have all the seats.’ He told me, ‘Those seats are taken. Go sit on the floor.’ “

Luke still has a seat at the San Diego Sports Arena, now named the ipayOne Center at the Sports Arena, but it is just once a year when the Lakers come to town for their annual exhibition game. This year the date is Oct. 23 when the Lakers face the Charlotte Bobcats.

“Being a San Diego kid, it’s a dream come true to play in Southern California and be able to come down here and be a part of San Diego sports,” Luke said. “I’m a diehard Padres and Chargers fan, and I have bets with all my teammates on Chargers games.”

Walton, who led University of San Diego High School to the CIF state Division III title as a senior in 1998, is beginning his third season with the Lakers. The second-round draft choice, an All-American pick at Arizona, may be on the verge of a more prominent role and his best season as a pro.

Not only does he have another year of experience in the NBA, Phil Jackson is returning to the Lakers as their head coach, and Jackson’s triangle offense prizes players who look to pass first, shoot second. There aren’t many of such players in the NBA, but it’s part of the Walton genetic makeup.

“When I’ve talked to Phil, he’s told me to work on everything – ball handling and shooting,” Walton said. “He told me to be ready to play all over the court.”

Walton, a 6-foot-8, 232-pounder, has been a regular in the offseason at the team’s training facility in El Segundo for pickup games. He expects Jackson’s return to the bench to also mean a return to the playoffs.

“He’s a great coach who gives you confidence,” Walton said. “A lot of NBA games come down to the end of the fourth quarter, and we lost a lot of games that way last year. I think with Phil giving us confidence and making the calls, we’re going to win more of those games this year.”

Walton’s playing time has been limited the last two years to averaging 10.1 minutes a game as a rookie and 12.6 as a second-year player. But he has had his moments, such as a 19-point game against Seattle last year. At the end of his rookie season, as well as in the playoffs that year, former Lakers center Shaquille O’Neal singled out Walton for his ability to pass him the ball.

Of course, those O’Neal comments were a-not-so-subtle jab at Kobe Bryant, the Lakers’ enigmatic guard who O’Neal clashed with until they parted ways last season. But this year Walton said Bryant, a perennial NBA All-Star, has asserted himself with his teammates more than ever.

“Kobe is definitely the team leader, and the man is intent on winning this year,” Walton said. “When we play five-on-five, he’s playing like it’s the seventh game of the NBA finals. If you’re late for the workouts, he’s on you. If you make a great play, he congratulates you.”

We’ll never know what we missed about the NBA in San Diego if Bill Walton had remained healthy and Irv Levin had sold them to someone other than Sterling.

But all these years later there is still a Walton in the NBA, and there is still a seat for at least one Walton at the old Sports Arena.

Tom Shanahan has been writing about San Diego athletes at the professional, collegiate and high school levels for 27 years. He is the media coordinator for the San Diego Hall of Champions (www.sdhoc.com). You can e-mail him at

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