Enjoy the games that are live over the next four days, but if you’re paying attention you can also catch the greatest NCAA tournament performance in history on TV this week.
It’s in color. Not even close to HDTV, but it still exists somehow, even when VCRs were still somewhat futuristic stuff. ESPN Classic carried the 1973 NCAA championship game Wednesday afternoon, with the late Curt Gowdy calling the play-by-play on NBC. It was the first time the NCAA championship was played on a Monday night (you can watch a little of it below).
The game between UCLA and Memphis cemented Bill Walton as a three-time college player of the year. He took 22 shots that night in St. Louis. Made 21. Scored 44 points and basically looked like what God had in mind when he made centers. He could score, yes. And rebound. But Walton was a phenomenal passer with a keen sense of space.
He hadn’t suffered the pounding that would limit his minutes by the 1980s when he was an NBA veteran, so by watching vintage Walton the world can see again just what a great player he was for John Wooden. Walton twisted an ankle with about 3 1/2 minutes left so it’s conceivable that if he’d played until the final seconds as many of the starters did that night, he would have hit 50 points. Not that it mattered. Walton was on his way to NBA millions.
His first NBA season was 1973-74 but the first Bill Walton rookie card didn’t hit store shelves until the following year. The 1974-75 Topps #39 is one of the keys in what’s been an under-appreciated set. There are 21 Hall of Famers among the 264 cards, but despite having the most high profile rookie card in the set, Walton’s isn’t the most valuable. George Gervin’s rookie sells for a little more. So does the third year card of Julius Erving. A graded NM-MT Walton can be had for around $40-50. A mint 9 just sold for $187…not bad for a card from a set that’s notoriously off-center and difficult to find without touches of wear on the back corners.
He took Portland to an NBA title in 1977, and won the NBA’s Sixth Man of the Year in the mid-1980s, when he helped the Bird/McHale/Parrish Celtics to an NBA title. He’s still in the spotlight as an NBA television commentator, and the father of Lakers’ forward Luke Walton.
If you’re building an NBA Hall of Fame rookie card set, you’ll struggle with some of the much older cards, but one of the greatest centers ever to don a college or pro uniform is surprisingly still very affordable.