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It’s just before game time and the unthinkably successful Golden State Warriors are getting ready to hit the court. The team is confident and low-key as the players filter out from the training room, and a good-looking, six-foot-eight son of an NBA Hall of Famer is on display, shooting the bull with a couple of the team’s stars. Requisite athlete’s tattoos peek out from his upper right arm for now; minutes later, he’ll be out on the court with this 19–0 team. He’ll be suited up, barking instructions to the players — all from the sideline.
Luke Walton, at 35 years old, is no Stephen Curry, starting point guard, or stellar defensive player. He’s a coach — an interim coach, to be specific — and his unlikely perfect record is as formidable as the Warriors themselves. (No pressure as the Warriors head into tonight’s game with the Charlotte Hornets.) Walton, a former assistant who’d never been a head coach at any level, found himself in charge of the Bay Area–based team that took the NBA championship five months ago when head coach Steve Kerr underwent summer back surgery. And now? The team, under his leadership, has smashed the league’s mark for consecutive wins at the start of a season.
All this ‘could catapult him’ into the big time.
Only a few years older than many of the Warriors, Walton is already respected, despite being a little bit green. But Walton’s getting respect for his chops, says Sacramento Kings general manager Vlade Divac, who calls Walton “a brilliant basketball mind.” This is no pure strategy geek, though. He may sport one of the NBA’s classiest tattoos — four Grateful Dead skeletons (signifying Walton and his three brothers!) holding basketballs, dancing around the initials LW, all on his meaty upper right arm. And he competed against some of the guys he now coaches when he played forward for the Los Angeles Lakers (when they won two NBA titles). He has allowed Golden State, the league’s best offensive team — and its most entertaining, with behind-the-back passes and lots of long-range 3-pointers — to maintain its Harlem Globetrotters–like panache.
Walton is still “learning on the job,” says David Hollander, an assistant professor of sports management at NYU, but he has a lot to pull from, having seen plenty of great coaches in his time, from Kerr to the famed Phil Jackson, under whom he played with the Lakers. (Jackson holds a record 11 championships; six with the Chicago Bulls before heading to L.A.) “There are other people who have been coaching and demonstrating the ability to coach a team [for much longer],” Hollander says. But all this “frenzy” these days, he adds, “could catapult him” into the big time.
This young Walton has quite a legacy to uphold: that of his dad’s, Bill Walton, another two-time NBA champion, not to mention a three-time national player of the year at UCLA in the early 1970s. To add to the pressure, Papa Bill later attended Stanford Law School and was an NBA broadcaster known for his tie-dyed shirts (he’s the original Deadhead). Luke tells us he got “more life knowledge and basketball knowledge than I did athletic genes from my dad.” He adds, with a stretch too much modesty, that his dad “was a pretty good athlete, and me, not so much.” Turns out Luke did OK for himself, and so did the other brothers — all four kids played college ball, but he’s the only one who made it to the big leagues.
Ironically, though, despite all this hullabaloo, Walton is not, officially, making history — in name, anyway. A quick primer: NBA tradition gives wins and losses to the titular coach — in this case, Kerr — and doesn’t credit anything to an interim guy like Walton. For his part, Walton tells us he doesn’t care who gets the wins. The Warriors’ dominance has caused at least a few people to question just how good Walton himself is. ESPN’s Dan Le Batard asked on air what Golden State’s record would be if a crash-test dummy was the coach. And Walton says he’s doing things Kerr’s way, not with a Luke twist: “When you’ve had the success we’ve had, I’d be foolish to come in here and try to change things around.”
As the season rolls on, plenty of variables remain in play, including that of Kerr himself, who’s had a rough time recovering from surgery. And after this year? Walton himself wouldn’t need to hold any real allegiance to the Warriors for the long run, and coaches are pretty mercenary, taking the best job around, says Hollander. When asked about his ambitions, Walton diplomatically told us this job is not an “audition.”
For now, it’s a heady time to be leading Golden State. Warriors forward Draymond Green told OZY on his way out of the locker room after Saturday’s 120–101 win against the Sacramento Kings, already in his street clothes and fresh off ESPN’s camera: “Luke is very smart. The thing I have enjoyed the most about Luke is that he’s the same as when he was an assistant.”