Commentary

Walton: A tribute to Bobby Gross, a teammate and friend

Bobby Gross was everything to the Portland Trail Blazers of the 1970s and had his jersey retired Thursday.

Updated: December 19, 2008, 3:37 PM ET
By Bill Walton | ESPN

Bobby GrossSam Forencich/NBAE/Getty ImagesFormer Portland great Bobby Gross had his jersey raised to the rafters at the Rose Garden on Thursday.
Editor's note: This story was written prior to the retirement of Bobby Gross' jersey by the Portland Trail Blazers on Thursday.

Bobby Gross was the next evolutionary step in basketball history after Bill Bradley.

Bobby was so important Bob Dylan wrote a song about him, "You Angel You," with the lyrics, "You're as fine as anything's fine."

Michelangelo said when he saw Bobby, "I saw the angel in the marble and carved until I set him free."

We all know what makes things fail -- selfishness, greed, individual agendas, hype and self-promotion. What we don't know is what makes things work. Bobby made that Portland Trail Blazers team of the 1970s a world and NBA championship squad.

Thursday at the Rose Garden, there will be more than 20,000 Blazermaniacs going absolutely crazy in proper acknowledgement, recognition and respect of Bobby's contributions to making that Trail Blazer team the youngest squad in NBA history to win the championship, with a starting five that included a rookie, two second-year players and two third-year players.

Those passionate and ever-so-loyal Blazermaniacs realized Bobby's unique brilliance and, in that recognition, laid down their hard-earned money for 18 straight years to set an NBA attendance record for consecutive home sellouts. A record neither Larry Bird nor Michael Jordan could beat.

It was an unbelievable privilege to watch Bobby play, even more so to play with him. While the world has changed so much during the past 31 years and analysis today is usually based solely on statistics and who has the numbers, this current trend is the antithesis of Bobby and certainly the antithesis of any great championship team.

When you put it in today's context and look at the incredible job the Boston Celtics are doing each and every day as they regularly amaze us with their intensity, their focus, their concentration, their brilliant team play, the fierceness of Kevin Garnett, the clutch play of Paul Pierce and the unbelievable class, grace and brains of Ray Allen, who's to say what makes this current Celtics magic work? Who's to say it's not Rajon Rondo? Who's to say it's not the toughness and the concept that men are made in the paint, which Kendrick Perkins brings to work every single day?

With that Trail Blazers team, on its road to glory, it was Bobby who made our river flow.

Without Bobby, none of the Trail Blazers' long list of storied accomplishments would have ever happened.

We had Lionel Hollins and Johnny Davis in the backcourt, two people who still are involved in the NBA today as top-tier assistant coaches with Milwaukee and Memphis, respectively. These guys were the fastest players you've ever seen. You witness LeBron James fly up and down the court these days, but Hollins and Davis would have had to look backward over their shoulders and wait for him -- that's how fast they were.

You see the toughness of the Cleveland Cavaliers' Ben Wallace and Anderson Varejao out there. Maurice Lucas would look at these guys and say, "What, these are the only guys I have to punch in the face to get this job done?"

Bobby was the glue, he was the grease, he was the lubrication that made it all happen.

Bobby was Bill Bradley a decade later; he innately knew where everything was. Bobby and Bradley never thought about their own statistics, never thought about, 'OK, I've got to show someone up.' They never overplayed any situation or opportunity.

It was always about making the next pass. It was always about being in the right position. It was always about understanding the flow of the team and how it's not just one guy dribbling and nine other people standing there watching, which was what we had to sit through with the meltdown of the Atlanta Hawks on Wednesday night. No, it was a team game all the time for Bobby. It was life and life only -- at its purest and finest.

While Hollins and Davis were Mozart, with the speed, dexterity and incredibly delicate touch, while Lucas was Beethoven with the crashing thunder, Bobby's dynamic smoothness was a combination of Chopin and Shubert.

Now on Thursday, you will have this guy, Bobby Gross, who will be standing out there all alone -- uncomfortable in the spotlight and ill at ease in accepting all the individual credit and praise that is his fair due. He is so embarrassed, so shy, that everyone is coming to say thanks for EVERYTHING, Bobby, as No. 30 is rightly raised to the rafters.

He'll stand there Thursday and say all the right things with such eloquent dignity because that is his way. But we all should realize this special spirit was the reason the Portland Trail Blazers became one of the most successful franchises in the history of NBA. He was the ultimate golden goose.

Bobby, who was so identifiable by his humble and selfless nature, was as great an athlete as I've ever seen. His balance and quickness were flawless. To see him hit a golf ball, play pingpong, swing a tennis racket, throw a Frisbee, body surf, fly a kite, teach my young son Luke Walton how to win at Monopoly with that relentless, analytical approach to how he's going to figure it all out and win every time -- it was pure grace, it was Multnomah Falls cascading down into the Columbia River Gorge.

We played many great teams along the championship road-- the Chicago Bulls, the Denver Nuggets, the Los Angeles Lakers, the Philadelphia 76ers. And every game, Bobby had to play against the best of the best.

Scott May, who had just come into the NBA after a great run at Indiana; then David Thompson, the unbelievable Hall of Famer from the Denver Nuggets and North Carolina State, who was so good he could have made our UCLA team.

Then Cazzie Russell, the former No. 1 overall draft pick; and ultimately in the NBA Finals, Bobby had to go head to head against the incomparable Julius Erving -- Dr. J., the most vibrant, exciting and dynamic player I've ever played against.

While those fine performers had the spectacular plays and the dynamic highlight-reel exploits for ESPN (which didn't even exist in those days), Bobby, at the end of the line, ultimately outplayed them all.

I never played with a finer player, never played with a finer human being. Bobby, in his quiet, reserved and distinguished manner, made the team what it was and ultimately made us who we have become.

They found him at Long Beach State. Bobby was a second-round draft pick, mired in questions:

Who's he?

What does he do?

But what we all found was the unearthed treasure that is the lubrication that allows the machine to work.

Jack Ramsay, the brilliant coach of that team, like John Wooden and Red Auerbach knew more than anything else how to put together a team. You don't just put a group of five individuals on the floor, roll out the ball and say, "OK, everybody dribble, everybody shoot, just figure it out while you play by and for yourselves."

Like Phil Jackson, like Gregg Popovich, Ramsay knew about combinations of players, and Bobby was the ultimate combination player.

But one thing has always bothered me to this very day. It was just so perplexing, sad and embarrassing that when Maurice Lucas and Lloyd Neal screwed everything up, Ramsay inevitably blamed Bobby and threw him out of practice. What was up with that?

Last season, Lucas had on NBA.com one of the greatest quotes I've ever read. Lucas -- who was the most important and influential teammate I ever had, so important that I named my son Luke after Big Luke -- when asked why there is so much trash talking in today's game compared to when he played, encapsulated it perfectly in one sentence:

"When I played, if you punched someone in the face, it only cost you 50 bucks."

In Game 2 of the 1977 Finals against the Sixers, we were getting blown out, we were getting crushed at the Spectrum. The fans were taunting us, we had no spirit, we were broken. At that point, we didn't believe we were going to win the championship.

At the end of the game, a 20-point blowout, Bobby and Darryl Dawkins were scrumming for a loose ball. They both had it, and Dawkins started swinging Bobby around like a rag doll but Bobby simply wouldn't let go. When Dawkins finally had enough of his weird concept of fun, he threw Bobby violently to the ground. Bobby immediately jumped up and got in Dawkins' face. "Darryl, you're an idiot," he said. "That's why we call you Darryl 'Double Dummy' Dawkins."

Dawkins lost his mind, went crazy, reached back and went to punch Bobby, but Bobby had the grace, fluidity and athletic reaction of Muhammad Ali and Sugar Ray Leonard. So when Dawkins unleashed this big roundhouse overhand right, Bobby moved to the side with the perfect rope-a-dope defense.

Doug Collins, the terrific 76ers guard, had come running in to see what was going on and ended up being the one to get hit in the face; his lip splattered open, his teeth loosened and it was an absolute miracle that Lucas was able to step in and immediately restore peace and order to the universe.

When we got back to Portland, Bobby found his game and went absolutely wild. Our running game came back to us, and Dr. Jack's relentless attack was on the move once again.

Dr. J had all the statistics. He had the 35- and 40-point masterpieces game after game, along with incredible slam dunks in my face time and time again. But it was Bobby who clearly and mythically outplayed the great Dr. J.

When you look at how you play winning basketball and when you look at the record books, Bobby is still in there, 31 years later, for highest field goal percentage in an NBA Finals series (67 percent).

To realize what really makes a player special, look no further than the top of John Wooden's Pyramid of Success: Competitive Greatness -- be at your best when your best is needed.

That was Bobby, who had an abundance of the most important skill of all: the ability to deliver peak performance on command.

While I'll be in Connecticut for ESPN and the NBA on Thursday, sad and sorry to be unable to make it to Portland to cheer on, acknowledge and credit the great Bobby for making the Trail Blazers such a special and unique team, rest assured that I'll be standing as tall as I can these days, beaming ever so proudly.

I've been 6-foot-11 for quite some time now, but I think that Thursday I'll be so proud and happy that even with tears of joy tumbling down my cheeks, I might finally break the 7-foot barrier.

When you think back and reflect on all the things that have gone down in your life and how you've tried so desperately hard in your desires to be part of something really special, I will rest easy Thursday as the lights go dim, knowing that I got to play ball with Bobby and, more importantly, that I got to be his friend.

Next week, Bobby, who gave much of his life to make the Trail Blazers and NBA what they are, will have to have his left knee replaced -- the same left knee that once allowed him to soar with the eagles.

So, please say a prayer for Bobby and hope that his pain goes away quickly and that he gets back to where he belongs -- to being the active, joyous spirit who always was able to blow the cloud cover off the clear blue Oregon sky.

Thank you, Bobby, for everything.

Thank you for your game, but more importantly, thank you for being the human being you are, the dutiful husband to your wonderful wife, Cindy -- who still works for our beloved Blazers -- and the loving, caring father to your two dazzling daughters, who have made you and all of us so very proud.

You are the definition of a champion, Bobby -- on all levels. You are our inspiration. You are our shining star. Thank you for closing the circle. You might be No. 30 to some, but to us, you'll always be No. 1. Rest assured that our love for you will never fade away.

And may you stay -- Forever Young.

Bill Walton is an NBA analyst for ESPN.

ESPN.com NBA Insider and Basketball Hall of Famer Bill Walton will again serve as a game analyst for ESPN's NBA telecasts. He joined ESPN and ABC Sports' in their inaugural season of NBA coverage in 2002.