Remembering the Ride from Hell with Bill Walton

Bill Walton was courtside, preparing to broadcast a Pacific-12 Conference basketball tournament game at the MGM Grand Garden, when he turned back and appeared to be scanning the media section.

Suddenly, he seemed to be focused on me, seated 10 to 15 feet away. The nearly 7-foot basketball legend was giving me a long quizzical look that screamed, “Where have I seen this guy before?”

My heart stopped. It all came back in a flash and I’m cringing and praying that he doesn’t make the connection.

This was three years ago. It had been 35 years since our nightmarish introduction and I still wanted to crawl under the media table.

Yes, it was that bad.

It was 1979 and the UCLA great had just signed with his hometown San Diego Clippers. A semihealthy Walton had led the Portland Trail Blazers to a Cinderella title in 1976-77.

I was working for The Associated Press in San Diego at the time. AP sports in New York City wanted a feature on Walton and his knee issues.

An interview was set up and when I approached him after a team practice at the San Diego Sports Arena, he asked if I could give him a ride home and conduct the interview at a vegetarian restaurant on the way.

Perfect.

Or so I thought.

But the slam-dunk interview I envisioned quickly turned into the Ride from Hell heaped with personal humiliation.

The first hint of trouble came in the parking lot when Walton, who’s back in Las Vegas for this week’s Pac-12 tournament at the Grand Garden, tried squeezing into my red British MG Midget convertible. His knees were higher than the dash and his head was pushing against the canvas roof.

It got worse, fast.

As we were driving in heavy traffic along Interstate 8 in torrential rain, I realized I was in the middle lane and needed to get into the turn lane immediately or I was going to miss the turnoff to Hillcrest.

I looked up at the rearview mirror and realized I couldn’t see through the plastic back window because of the heavy rain. I had to get over quick.

Going too fast and in a panic, I yelled, “Bill, would you wave off the car next to us so I can turn off here?”

His knees scrunched under his chin, he shot me an are-you-kidding-me look, then leaned his head out of the window and started waving at a car to let us in.

I was too busy to check for the look on the driver’s face but I can only imagine the reaction when he/she saw the familiar face of Bill Walton, desperately flailing an arm outside the window.

We got through it OK, much to my relief after nearly causing a wreck with Bill Walton in my car.

After the restaurant interview, I grabbed the check and we headed for the cashier.

That’s when things got very uncomfortable. Again. I had no money and no credit card.

Horrified, I fessed up.

Ever had to ask a multimillionaire to float you a $10 loan for the lunch you were supposed to be buying?

Another hard stare.

“I’ll pay you back tomorrow,” I said, weakly. And I did, riddled with double shame.

So when Walton looked my direction three years ago, I was massively relieved when he didn’t ask if we had met.

Every time I hear “It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue,” as performed by the Grateful Dead, Walton’s favorite band, I think of that day.

On this day

March 11, 2000: A little more than six weeks after she wins a $34.9 million slot machine jackpot at the Desert Inn, former waitress Cynthia Jay-Brennan is hit by a drunken driver while stopped at a Las Vegas intersection. Cynthia’s sister is killed and Cynthia is paralyzed for life. The driver is sentenced to a long prison term.

Sighting

Las Vegan Kurt Busch, with his Stewart-Haas racing crew at the Spring Mountain Motor Resort & Country Club in Pahrump on Wednesday. They took turns racing new Chevrolet Corvettes.

The punch line

“It came out in the news that Donald Trump was once a producer of a Broadway show. It was a revival of ‘Les Miserables’ called ‘The French Are Losers.’” — Conan O’Brien

Norm Clarke’s column appears Sunday, Monday, Wednesday and Friday. He can be reached at 702-383-0244 or norm@reviewjournal.com. Find more online at www.normclarke.com. On Twitter: @Norm_Clarke

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