The NBA Jewel That Got Away


For some, it’s Seattle. For others, Vancouver. With all due respect, as far as anyone here at Hang Time HQ knows, no one yet has offered up Rochester or Fort Wayne as The Best NBA City Ever to Get Away.

But a compelling case can be made for San Diego, that gorgeous ocean-side locale in southern California with the nation’s greatest weather. For six seasons from 1978-79 to 1983-84, the Los Angeles Clippers made their home 90 miles south. Long before they shared a building with the more pedigreed Lakers, the Clippers played at the San Diego Sports Arena.

Played and mostly lost – 186-306 (.378) with no playoff appearances – while ranking at or near the bottom in NBA attendance. The franchise that had relocated from Buffalo had some respected coaches – three in six seasons in San Diego, actually (Gene Shue, Paul Silas, Jim Lynam) – and notable players such as Sidney Wicks, World B. Free, Swen Nater, Tom Chambers, Terry Cummings, James Donaldson and Norm Nixon while headquartered there.

But three fifth-place finishes in the Pacific Division were followed by three in last place, after which owner Donald Sterling moved the entire operation up to L.A. It was the NBA’s second abandonment of San Diego – the Houston Rockets had begun life there, playing their first four seasons from 1967 to 1971. And it something for which the franchise’s most notable player then or since still blames himself.

That’s right, Bill Walton – the Naismith Hall of Famer and San Diego native – feels personally responsible for his hometown losing the NBA more than 30 years ago. He left no doubt of that when speaking to ESPN.com’s Arash Markazi for a piece posted Friday:

“When you fail in your hometown, that’s as bad as it gets, and I love my hometown,” said Walton, who grew up in La Mesa, nine miles east of downtown San Diego. “I wish we had NBA basketball here, and we don’t because of me.”

When Walton signed with the San Diego Clippers in 1979, he had missed the previous season with a foot injury. But the center was arguably the NBA’s best player after leading the Portland Trail Blazers to the 1976-77 championship and winning the league’s MVP award for 1977-78. The Buffalo Braves had relocated to San Diego and been rechristened in 1978, and his homecoming was supposed to jump-start the franchise in its second season on the West Coast. But it wasn’t meant to be.

“It’s my greatest failure as a professional in my entire life,” Walton said. “I could not get the job done in my hometown. It is a stain and stigma on my soul that is indelible. I’ll never be able to wash that off, and I carry it with me forever.”

Walton, whose penchant for absolutes and exaggeration is well-known to those who familiar with his work as a broadcast analyst, seems a little hard on himself given the severity of his equally well-known foot injuries. He played only 14 games with the Clippers in 1979-80, then missed the next two seasons while enduring additional surgeries and rehabs. He appeared in a total of 88 games in 1982-83 and 1983-84 (and were 35-53 with Walton compared to 20-56 without him).

It wasn’t enough to avert Sterling’s move up the coast. All due to Walton’s inability to stay healthy, if you believe him.

“I wouldn’t say it if I didn’t believe it,” he said. “I was injured literally the whole time. If I could have played we would still have NBA basketball in San Diego. If I was any kind of a man I would have just quit on the spot when the team moved to Los Angeles and said, ‘I’m staying here.’ But I wasn’t in a good place. I wasn’t healthy. I was not strong enough to stand up for what was right. I should have stayed in San Diego and done something else. I was very sad.”

Fortunately for Walton’s legacy, a bunch of lifelong friends among Celtics teammates and NBA fans, the big redhead didn’t choose San Diego over all else. He played one more season with the Clippers, then re-invented himself as a sub in Boston, helping that team to the 1986 title while earning the league’s Sixth Man Award.

The NBA never returned to San Diego beyond the occasional preseason game. But Walton, 63, has made his permanent home there, savoring its climate, its lifestyle and its pace. As he told ESPN.com:

“San Diego is the greatest place in the history of the world, and there’s nothing that could happen in my life that would lead me to leave San Diego,” he said. “I wish the NBA were still here, but that’s just something I’m going to have to live with.”

It’s a destination NBA traveling parties have had to live without.

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