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Bill Walton wants to expand the list of the NBA’s greatest players

He rejects our decision to cut some of the old stars: ‘That’s binary decision-making’

Bill Walton immediately lets you know that he has no interest in updating the 50 Greatest Players in NBA History if it means jettisoning himself or any of his legendary peers.

“I am not into throwing people off the bus, nor am I into self-immolation,” said the Hall of Fame center turned television analyst.

To demonstrate how frivolous such an endeavor is, he tells a story that begins in the most Waltonesque way: “I was at John Wooden’s house one day.”

Every one of Walton’s stories about Wooden — the man who coached him and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar at UCLA, won 10 national collegiate titles and taught as many life lessons as he won basketball games — has a moral. This one is no different.

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A reporter from Indiana is calling Wooden to talk about an all-time Indiana high school basketball team he is compiling. Anyone with a sense of Hoosier hysteria history, Walton reminds you, knows there are three locks on that team, at point guard, shooting guard and small forward: Wooden, Martinsville High, Class of 1928; Oscar Robertson, Crispus Attucks, Class of 1956; and Larry Bird, Springs Valley, Class of 1974.

“So this guy is going on and on. ‘Oh, Coach Wooden, there’s this new high school player in Indiana. He’s so good that Bob Knight was recruiting him since he was in middle school. His name is Damon Bailey, and everybody is just saying that he is the greatest player ever.’

“Coach Wooden finally cuts him off. ‘Hold the phone, son. Let me go across to my desk. I’m going to get you Oscar Robertson’s phone number. You can call Oscar and tell him that he’s off the team.’ ”

It is at this juncture that it gets awkward telling Walton he is off The Undefeated’s Top 50 NBA Players of All Time, especially because he’s helping pick another team: Bill Walton’s 70 Greatest Players. “This is the 70th year of the NBA,” he said. “For the 70th anniversary, you gotta do the 70 players.”

He’ll give you a head start, picking 18 players to add to the original 50:

  • Ray Allen
  • Kobe Bryant
  • Stephen Curry
  • Tim Duncan
  • Kevin Durant
  • Kevin Garnett
  • Pau Gasol
  • Manu Ginobili
  • Allen Iverson
  • LeBron James
  • Reggie Miller
  • Steve Nash
  • Dirk Nowitzki
  • Tony Parker
  • Paul Pierce
  • Dwyane Wade
  • Russell Westbrook
  • Yao Ming

When you inform Walton you can’t take all those players and that others need to be cut, he interrupts you — like Wooden did to that reporter in Indiana.

“This goes back to that qualitative, binary decision-making process that we’ve been forced into as a media that always wants lists, that wants best, that wants worst,” Walton said. “It doesn’t work like that. It’s not yes or no. It’s hopefully. Maybe. Possibly. Yes!”

Walton comes to celebrate instead of calibrate and denigrate. He appreciates the different eras of players. Indeed, that’s why Nash was the first player he picked for his expanded list.

“In the late 1990s and the early 2000s, the game was really grinding to a halt,” Walton said. “Steve Nash and [former Phoenix Suns coach] Mike D’Antoni saved basketball. They were the springboard to what it is today. The speed, the quickness, the skill. And Steve just epitomizes everything that I love about basketball, that I love about life, that I love about the world.”

Walton really, really likes Nash.

“No player that I’ve ever watched in my entire life — started watching in 1965, read about basketball and listened to it on the radio before that — ever elicited more awe, more inspiration, more, ‘Oh, my gosh, did you see that? Oh, Steve!’ — than little Stevie.”

Little Stevie? (He’s 6-foot-3.)

“Yes, Little Stevie.”

Walton’s favorite player of all time remains Bill Russell, who answered in the affirmative the only questions Walton was taught mattered about basketball: “Did he help win the games? Did he have an impact on whether his team won the championship? All of these new guys are like that. They’re foundational pillars of what the game has become. What Kevin Durant and LeBron James and Steph Curry are doing on a daily basis is just phenomenal.

“LeBron is a player that now transcends everything, including the concept of position,” he said. “What LeBron has done is spectacular, not just as a basketball player but as a human being. On the business level. And as a positive force for good. He is an intergalactic force for good.”

An intergalactic force for good?

“Yes,” Walton said. “An intergalactic force for good.”

This seems like a good time to ask whether James will eclipse Michael Jordan as the greatest basketball player of all time. But Walton won’t take the bait.

“How many children do you have?” he asks.

“Uh, two.”

“Which one’s the greatest?”

You pause, thinking how impossible the choice is.

“Don’t go down this road of qualitative, binary decision-making,” Walton says. “Here we go, 70 for 70.”

Mike Wise is a former senior writer and columnist at The Undefeated. Barack Obama once got to meet him.