Playing Footsie

The year is 1974, the first season in Cavs franchise history without Bill Fitch as head coach. Stan Albeck heads the team; Cleveland selects Clarence “Foots” Walker as the 38th overall pick in the 3rd round of the NBA draft. We have our team:

7 Bobby Smith
10 Dick Snyder
14 Foots Walker
20 Campy Russell
22 Jim Chones
24 Fred Foster
34 Austin Carr
35 Jim Cleamons
42 Dwight Davis
44 Luke Witte
50 Steve Patterson
52 Jim Brewer

Clarence spent ten seasons (1974–1984) in the NBA, playing for the Cleveland Cavaliers until 1980 before he hopped a bus to New Jersey and Roger Phegley woke up in Cleveland. Back in the day when a triple double was still a triple double, before LeBron made it a nightly event, Clarence became the first Cavalier in franchise history to record double digits in rebounds, assists and points.


A 6′ 0″ guard (also known as a 5’11” guard and a 6’1” guard), Foots teamed with Bob McAdoo at Vincennes Junior College to lead the team to a 34-0 record and an NJCAA National Championship. Mission accomplished, Foots headed to West Georgia State, now known as the University of West Georgia (UWG), where he was First Team All-American and First Team All-Tournament Team in his senior year. In the first of several career firsts, Foots left West Georgia to become the first West Georgia College athlete to play in the NBA. In 1988, a standing UWG Athletic Booster Club committee nominated Foots for the West Athletic Hall of Fame.

Ten years later, Newsday would select him as one of the 33 most intriguing athletes to cross Long Island’s landscape in the 20th century, calling Clarence, of Southampton, NY, a mythical figure on the East End [of Long Island]. Foots led Southampton High School to two county titles and a 62-game winning streak, causing opposing Westhampton coach Rich Wrase to utter these words:

He was like a God.

While in college, Foots played in only one National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics (NAIA) tournament, but was named the Most Valuable Player, leading the West Georgia Braves (now Wolves) to the national championship.

A two-time All-America pick; a playmaking guard who could score, averaged 21 points and 14.5 assists in his college career, Foots left his mark on the Cavaliers, remaining to this day an all-time top ten leader in assists (#4) and steals (#2, just behind Mark Price).

Jerry Reynolds, in his memoir, Reynolds Remembers: 20 Years with the Sacramento Kings, reminisces about recruiting Foots to West Georgia. Foots was with Reynolds at Vincennes and followed him south. In 1974, Foots’ senior year, West Georgia won the national small-college championship. Reynolds recalls:

Foots was special. We got him at West Georgia mainly because most people didn’t realize how good he was. They were concentrating on recruiting bigger guys. It’s the same old thing: coaches look at big klutzes who can’t play and ignore the six-foot one guys who really can.

Foots went to Southampton High School on Long Island, and I recruited him there. His team lost something like one or two games in three years. Then he went to junior college and maybe lost five or six games in two years and won a national championship. It was like, “Duh, you think he’s a winner? Is there a correlation here? “. He was just one of those guys who overachieved and was simply a winner.

Tony McClean, writing for Black Athlete.net in June of 2007, as the Cavs moved upward toward the final round of the playoffs, paid tribute to Foots:

Before I begin this article, I must congratulate all of you long suffering Cleveland Cavalier fans for reaching the NBA Finals. I’m not talking about those fly-by-night hangers-on like Geraldo Rivera or folks who became “Witnesses” just a few years ago when a certain No. 23 showed up.

I’m talking about folks are old enough to remember guys like Bingo Smith, Austin Carr, Campy Russell, Dick Snyder, Mike Mitchell, and one of my personal favorites, the immortal Clarence “Foots” Walker.

More recently, writing in Lakers Blog, Andrew Kamenetzky relates this story:

. . . Assistant Coach Jim Cleamons reminisced about a teammate from his days playing with the Cavs back in the 70′s. The dude’s name was Foots Walker – that Cleamons had a teammate named “Foots” is fantastic in and of itself – stood about 5’11″ and fancied himself the team enforcer . . . “Get behind me” was the standing order from ‘Ol Foots if anything ever jumped off. They always say it’s the little guy in a brawl situation that you gotta be scared of. In the case of Foots . . . that seems to be the case.

As a nickname, Foots ranks right up there with Boobie, confusing some and altering the lives of others:

I’m fairly confident I have a firm grasp on the way the world works . . . Now I’m not so sure. I found this 1981-82 card of Foots Walker today . . . and its existence, well really the existence of Foots Walker himself, has thrown my understanding of the world under the bus.

I get it that basketball players of the Seventies and early Eighties had crazy nicknames. Many players were naked without them. I’m thinking of Nate “Tiny” Archibald, Earl “Slick” Watts, Lloyd “World B.” Free. And now Clarence ‘’Foots”Walker.

But what I don’t get is: why “Foots”? Shouldn’t it be “Feet”?

Or is it a sociopolitical reference that I’m not reading?

Needless to say, my view of the world has changed.

Sporting News, in a piece called “Where Have all the Great Nicknames Gone?” puts Clarence in some heady company:

Gerald “Ice Cube” McNeil, Bobby “Bingo” Smith, “Sudden” Sam McDowell, Dick “Bam Bam” Ambrose, Clarence “Foots” Walker, and . . . Leon “Big Daddy Wags” Wagner.

Foots may not know it, but if it weren’t for him (and a couple of other guys) Flip Saunders could have had a sterling NBA career. After graduating from Minnesota, Saunders thought about the NBA, going so far as to attend a Cleveland Cavaliers camp. But against Austin Carr, Campy Russell and Foots Walker, he failed to make the team.

Larry Brown, talking about the 1981-83 New Jersey Nets, also mentions Foots:

I went there [to the Nets] for the wrong reasons. … I had a little family pressure about going back East. But it was really fun. We had a rocky beginning, but lo and behold, I had a team with Buck Williams, who won rookie of the year, and Ray Williams, who had an unbelievable year, and guys like Len Elmore, Foots Walker, Sam Lacey, Mike O’Koren and Albert King. It was fun.

Ironically, Foots injured his foot; playing in April 1982 against the Pistons, the NY Times reported:

Two men lunged for [the ball]. One was Walker; the other was Isiah Thomas, the Pistons’ rookie point guard. Editor’s note: “rookie point guard” – such a nice way to think of the man who is the subject of never ending chants of “Fire Isiah” in NYC.

“I remember having the ball and then placing my foot to take off on the fast break,” Walker said. ”But my foot must have gotten caught up in Isiah’s because after that there was just pain.”

The Times continued with hints that the Nets relied on Foots as much as we used to:

With Walker out Tuesday, the Nets were beaten by the Bullets, 96-83.

In the same article, Roy S. Johnson reports rumors that Larry Brown was attempting to trade Foots for a younger guard:

“A veteran player like Foots deserved to be on a winning team,” Brown said recently. ”It is late in his career and he deserved that. Golden State was interested in him. So was San Antonio and Boston. But nothing materialized.”

Sounding altruistic, and trying to convince everyone that starting Ray Williams, Otis Birdsong and Darwin Cook with Foots as a substitute was brilliant coaching, the NY Times comments in retrospect:

It was indeed a lucky thing for the Nets that a trade did not come about. When Birdsong went out with a knee injury in early January, Walker stepped onto the scene. In 48 games as a starter since, Walker averaged 7.7 points and 7.1 assists.

Unfortunately, Foot’s foot injury was not his first. In his 1978-79 season with the Cavs, Foots’ leg injuries kept him out for 27 games and arguably decreased his potency for most of the games following his return that year. Even so, from 1979 – 1981 Foots finished third in the league in assists (8.0 average per game) and ninth in steals (2.04 per game).

Foots was a proud member of the “Miracle of Richfield” gang. Bill Nichol’s 1976 piece, “No Laughing at Cavaliers Any More” in The Sporting News (March 1976) sets the scene:

They have been snubbed by national television. They were rejected in the All-Star Game and until recently they were basketball’s answer to Rodney Dangerfield – they got no respect. That’s the Cleveland Cavaliers.

Adding insult to injury, the Cavs accommodations reflected their prowess:

They called the antiquated Cleveland Arena home. The Arena was so bad, Boston’s John Havilicek once said this about the old building on Euclid avenue, “This is so bad, someone could catch a communicable disease in here.”

The old building, which was erected in 1936, mirrored the early editions of the Cavaliers. They were both sort of funny – and a mite pitiful. People laughed instead of cried . . . the Cavaliers made the last wrong-way basket in the NBA. And the Arena once had a season opener rained out. Now, that’s pretty funny.

A Cavs fan, writing in an online forum, summed up the Cleveland Cavaliers vs. Washington Bullets, 1975-76 NBA playoffs this way:

This was the “Miracle of Richfield”, as we called it locally. The Cavs, an expansion team in ’70-71, had never had a winning season until then, when they went 49-33 and won the Central Division. The Cavs were a blue-collar team led by Jim Chones at center, backed up by Nate Thurmond, who was playing out the string but still an effective defender in limited minutes, along with point guards Jim Cleamons and Clarence “Foots” Walker, forward Bobby “Bingo” Smith, shooting guard Dick Snyder, and power forward Jim Brewer. The Bullets featured Wes Unseld, Elvin Hayes, and Earl “the Pearl” Monroe.

And who led that team? Dan Dean, on ClevelandCavalier.com:

Led by Walker, the Cavaliers defeated Boston twice of five times during the regular season and won three of four from Phoenix. The Cavaliers had momentum—they believed. So did the city.

The Miracle season—nearly one score ago—seems like a distant memory except to the Cleveland faithful and players, where the memories remain fresh and vivid.

“That was one special year,” says [Nate] Thurmond. “We put aside our individual desires and bought into the team concept. I’ve never felt closer to that group of guys than during the season.”

And neither have we.

I would be remiss if I didn’t mention these final thoughts:

. . . he has a keen sense of where the other players on the court are (as has been widely reported by scouts), but he also has a sense of history, and a . . . sense for players who are no longer around. While playing in and around Cleveland, he has been known to “feel” Foots Walker, and to tell his teammates, “Foots has got to get some touches tonight . . . “

  • Foots’ sightings have been recorded at various charitable events, including Athletes Against Autism, the Sunshine Center and the Bicknell Celebrity Charity Classic.
  • The origin of “Foots”. The nickname was given to him by a relative when he was 5 years old:

“An uncle said I had big feet, and it stuck with me,” said Walker, whose feet today are size 12. “It’s been ‘Big Foot,’ it’s been ‘Footie,’ it’s been ‘Foot Man,’ it’s been ‘Footsie.’ It’s back to ‘Foots’ now. That’s what I prefer.”

Foots it is. No more playing Footsie.

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