Hot Hand Luke
But today it is Walton senior who is enjoying a cosmic chuckle. "I am the proudest dad," says Bill. This season Luke, who turns 22 on March 28, has blossomed into one of the nation's premier college basketball players. The brawny 6'8" junior forward's smart, unselfish play has sparked his University of Arizona Wildcats squad (unranked before the season) to as high as No. 4 in an AP poll and an almost certain bid to the NCAA tournament, which starts March 12. "Luke's the best-passing big man in the country," says ESPN college-hoops analyst Dick Vitale. "I love his instincts, his basketball IQ."
Whether you credit nature or nurture, Walton had plenty of both as third son of the 6'11" Hall of Fame center, now 49, and his ex-wife Susie, 51, a San Diego family counselor. (After their divorce, they shared custody of the boys.) Though Bill took pains not to push basketball on his sons, it was something they seem to have soaked up as naturally as his passion for the Grateful Dead. "I wanted to be their dad," says Bill, "not their coach." Among Luke's fondest early memories: hanging around childhood idol Larry Bird and the Boston Celtics, the team with which his father ended his career in 1987. "They saw us as little pests 'cause we'd be all over the place—on the team bus, messing around on the sidelines," says Luke with a grin. "I loved 'em."
Following Bill's retirement, the family moved to his hometown of San Diego. The boys' focus quickly became fierce two-on-two games on the backyard court, with Luke exhibiting a single-minded will to win. "My brothers played a huge role in my game," says Luke. "They'd pretty much accept me—as long as I gave the ball to 'em all the time." (All would play in college: Adam, now 26 and a San Diego warehouse worker, competed for LSU; Nathan, 24, who just left a Manhattan hedge fund, played at Princeton; and Chris, 20, is a forward at San Diego State.)
When Luke was 10, his parents divorced, an event he describes as "real hard when it first happened." Luke also struggled for years with an auditory language disability that interfered with his learning to read. "Luke is a man of few words," observes his mother, Susie, "but when he says something, it makes a lot of sense and everybody listens."
That certainly seems to be the case at Arizona, which Walton chose over his father's college team, the UCLA Bruins. (Chris also spurned the Bruins, a fact Bill shrugs off: "I've always told the kids, 'It's your life.'") This season, with four of Arizona's starters having left for the NBA, Walton has emerged as "a great team player, a leader," says Jason Gardner, 21, the Wildcats' standout guard. "Luke's so relaxed but so competitive," says center Channing Frye. "I really envy how he balances being so cool off the court and so aggressive on it."
Luke also appears to be striking a balance between basketball and just being a typical college kid. That is, as average as is possible when fans still ask about your famous dad. ("It gets annoying at times," says Luke, "but I just accept it.") He and Gardner "go to nearly every new movie that comes out," Luke says, and he enjoys hiking with his girlfriend of two years, Arizona senior Olivia Barth, 22.
Down the road Luke, a family studies major, hopes to "work with kids." (It is, he acknowledges, a reflection of the considerable influence of his mother, a "flower child...who taught us to be compassionate, sensitive.") Before that, however, Walton would appear to have promising prospects elsewhere. After a tournament last year that Bill Walton called, and in which Arizona played, retired UCLA coach Wooden beckoned aside his protégé. "'Tell your son Luke that he's a good player and fun to watch,'" Bill Walton recounts. "I was walking a little extra tall after that."
Mike Tharp in Tucson