Hall of Famer talks about his new autobiography, admiration for the NBA, the 2016 Warriors, Grateful Dead and much more
POSTED: Mar 22, 2016 4:36 PM ET
Luke Walton says John Wooden and K.C. Jones are two of the most important coaches during his playing career.
Bill Walton has lived a life less ordinary. Between his career in high school in San Diego and college at UCLA, Walton won 142 consecutive games, including National Championships in 1972 and '73. The Portland Trail Blazers made Walton the first pick in the '74 NBA Draft, and Walton helped lead the Blazers to their only NBA Championship in 1977, averaging 18.6 points and 14.4 rebounds.
Walton was named the NBA's MVP one season later, just as injuries began to derail his career -- following a move to the Clippers, from 1978 through 1984, Walton played in just 102 games. In 1985, Walton joined the Boston Celtics, playing in 80 games for the 1985-86 Celtics, who went 67-15 and won a championship. After retiring, Walton overcame a lifelong stuttering problem and spent many years humorously calling NBA games on local and national broadcasts.
All told, Walton played in 468 NBA regular-season games, had 37 orthopedic surgeries and attended over 850 Grateful Dead concerts. He played for John Wooden, played alongside Larry Bird, and was friends with a diverse collective of people ranging from Jerry Garcia to Maurice Lucas. His son, Luke, had a nice run earlier this season as interim head coach for the Golden State Warriors. And somehow today, at 63 years old, even after a catastrophic spinal collapse in 2008, Walton is somehow still standing.
In his new autobiography, "Back From The Dead: Searching for the Sound, Shining the Light and Throwing it Down," Walton details his journey. We sat down with him this week in New York City to talk about the book, basketball and, of course, the music.
LANG WHITAKER: You actually wrote this book yourself. What was your writing process like? Did you have a specific time or place when you would write?
BILL WALTON: Wherever I could. At my desk, on the airplanes, in the cars. I've been on the road since I was 17, so I just kept going and kept going, and kept working it and massaging it. I'm really, really fortunate in that I have been able to be part of things that are really special: UCLA, the NBA, CBS, NBC, ESPN, ABC, and now Simon and Schuster. There's nothing like being part of a team, especially when that team is already at the top.
LW: You talked in the book about how your favorite thing in basketball was throwing outlet passes.
BW: Right! Starting the fast break.
LW: And you hated playing high post or being out on the perimeter, which is different than the way many big men play today.
BW: There was nothing more fun than to start that fast break. When I was a young player, before I hurt my knee the first time when I was 14, I was the one handling the ball all the time, and I was the one doing everything coast to coast. But then when I hurt my knee and grew so much, then I couldn't run and move like I needed to, so I would start that fast break. And you know, Bill Russell was my favorite player ever, on and off the court, and that's what he did better than anything. The Celtics' offense, which won all those championships, that offense was a result of Bill Russell starting the play. That's what I look for in players -- players who can start the play, and players who can create, players who can initiate. Kareem [Abdul-Jabbar] was the greatest at it.
LW: At one point in your book you call Kareem "the standard" at the center position.
BW: Oh yeah. There are five centers at the top: Russell, Wilt [Chamberlain], Kareem, Hakeem [Olajuwon] and Shaq [O'Neal]. But Kareem made college basketball what it is today. And then Kareem carried the NBA for 20 years on that remarkable left leg of his, and those broad shoulders, and incredible persona and pride, that heart and mind. That guy, he was incredible.
LW: It seems like you admire Russell and Kareem as much for what they did off the court as for what they did on the court. You were a political science major at UCLA and were very outspoken off the court when it came to social issues. Do you wish players today would be more vocal about off-court issues?
BW: It's everyone's choice in life, and I grew up in a culture where that was a responsibility, and that was what we did, and that is what we still do. I think of my 42-year relationship with the NBA, and how proud I am of what the NBA has done in terms of making the world a better place. The NBA today is a much, much different business than when I joined in 1974. To see what David Stern has done -- the most important man in the history of basketball never shot a single basket. But his ability to bring business acumen, social responsibility, caring on the efforts of people, it's an endless list. From [Bob] Cousy and [Red] Auerbach and Bill Russell and Oscar Robertson and Wilt, Rick Barry and Spencer Haywood and Walt Frazier, and all these guys who lives have been about saying, "Let's make this better." That's why I'm so proud of the NBA. Bill Russell, my favorite player ever, on and off the court, I was there one day when he was asked about Michael Jordan and the newer players, and Bill said, "It is a great thing that not every battle has to be fought by every person." Bill, he fought his, and Michael's fighting his, and it's a team, it's a family, it's something that allows us to chase our dreams. There's nothing like the NBA, Lang. Nothing.
LW: You won a title with Portland in 1977, and in the book you say your teammate Maurice Lucas is the greatest Blazer of all time. What made him the best?
BW: Because we would not have won the championship without him. We would not have developed that fan base. We had Maurice Lucas and we had Jack Ramsay, and nobody else did. (Lucas) was so fantastic. The nicest thing anybody ever said about me is I helped my teammates play better ball. Nobody made me play better than Maurice Lucas, who was just such a force of nature. He loved being responsible for order. He established order, he said what order was, he determined it, he created it. And there was nothing that anybody could do about it. From the very first game he played with the Blazers, when he threw down a game-winning reverse slam dunk at the buzzer in Kareem's face at the Memorial Coliseum, it was the night that started the chant of "LUUUUUKE, LUUUUUKE," for Maurice. Twenty-five years later, I'm at McHale Center in Tuscon, Arizona, and little Luke Walton, who is named for Big Luke, he starts wheeling and dealing and the fans start chanting, "LUUUUUKE! LUUUUUKE!" And I pull out my phone and I call Maurice, and I say, "You gotta listen to this!"
LW: In the book you talk about when you were leaving the Clippers, you reached out to Jerry West and the Lakers but they weren't interested in signing you. Which I thought was interesting considering you had known him for years going back to your time at UCLA.
BW: Well, he had seen my feet. He knew about my troubles, and he just didn't want to get involved. You know, I'm the most injured athlete ever. I missed more than two-thirds of my NBA career.
LW: What was the longest stretch you had where you stayed healthy?
BW: A year-and-a-half. I played, really, for two-and-a-half seasons. A year-and-a-half for Portland, and then a year for Boston. But even in those times I wasn't completely healthy. I have structural congenital defects in my feet that led to an endless string of stress fractures, and the more I would play, the more my feet would break down, and then I would have to stop, because they'd be broken. Then I would get better, and I'd come back and I'd play again, and it would break. I played until I could no longer walk. I loved it. There is nothing like being a player.
LW: Did you ever feel snakebit? Did you ever wonder, Why does this keep happening to me?
BW: No, no, I didn't. You play to do your best. You play to win. And you play to do what you can to contribute to the team. I loved the team nature of the whole thing. And to be on UCLA's team, to be on Portland's team, to be on the Celtic team, it was phenomenal, phenomenal. It was a dream come true. But then, I also spent six years on the Clippers (smiles). But it always comes down to leadership. At UCLA, we had John Wooden, J.D. Morgan and Chancellor Young. We had Jack Ramsay and Maurice Lucas. We had Red Auerbach and K.C. Jones and Larry Bird. We had the aura of Bill Russell, which just permeates everything in Boston. I got to meet all my heroes, and they're better people than little Billy ever dreamed they would be. What an incredible turn of events.
LW: I'm a bit younger than you...
BW: Most people are.
LW: ...and I grew up watching that '86 Celtics team. I grew up in Atlanta, so you guys were always thumping my Hawks.
BW: We loved beating them! But one of the things about Larry Bird: Larry never got tired of beating the other guys. Never! He just woke up saying, "Let's go beat somebody!"
LW: That '86 Celtics team was one of the greatest teams of all time, but it seems the coach, K.C. Jones, doesn't get as much attention as some other coaches. In your book you say he was the closest coach you had to John Wooden.
BW: Out of anybody I ever played for. K.C. was incredibly low-key, restrained, calm, poised, extremely confident, and only interested in us. Only interested in making us better, and making the team work. He was just perfect for our team. He made it fun. There were never any side issues or hidden agendas or mind games. We could not wait to get to practice every day, and K.C. knew that, so he was always trying to call practice off, and we wouldn't let him. We'd get there and he would say, "If anybody can make a halfcourt shot, no practice today." And Larry would make the shot, and we'd say we wanted to practice anyway, because we were having too much fun. We would do anything for K.C. We all knew his life. We had all seen him play, and seen what he did to build his life, and how tough and how fierce he was. And then Red would tell us, reporters would ask him why he was playing K.C. Jones, and Red would say, "I don't know why. The only thing I know is that whenever I put K.C. Jones in, we win the game. Whenever I take him out, we fall behind." But K.C.'s sense was always big picture, never getting bogged down in little minutiae. Attention to detail, yes, but in the big picture, it was about our team, our culture, foundation, how we were going to win, who we are. He epitomized Celtic Pride, and we loved that guy.
LW: Who would win in a game, the '86 Celtics against the '16 Warriors?
BW: Never rank, rate or compare greatness, just enjoy them.
LW: Well, in the book you said you never compare, what was it, championships...
BW: Championships, coaches, concerts, children and congratulations. Just enjoy.
LW: Right. So I was hoping my question may have squeezed in under those requirements...
BW: I don't live in that world of ranking everything. I just enjoy and I love this Warriors team. I love the way the Warriors play. It's a team that if I could play, I would love to play for them. I love everything about them. I love their ownership, their management, coaching staff, players, fans, California. I mean, it is fantastic. It's super fun, fast-break, uptempo, incredible atmosphere around the team, and you've got this guy Steph Curry who is so fun to watch. I'm just amazed at the things he does, this little, tiny, little boy. When I watch the games, as he's dribbling the ball up the court, when he's still in the backcourt I'm yelling at the TV, "Shoot it, Steph! Shoot it!" I love to watch him. His skill level, his fitness level, his discipline, his mental focus and concentration, this doesn't just happen. This is a lifetime. I've seen this before in terms of guys who bring it -- Kareem, Larry, Magic, Michael, and now Steph Curry. He's just so incredible in terms of the attention and the focus. I'm a Deadhead, a Californian, and to see how happy everybody is, and then to have one of our sons be part of the franchise, and how special that is, to meet up with the team on the road as my schedule intersects with theirs, and to be in the hotel having lunch with our son Luke, and then to see the fans just come to the road games, it is just so inspirational and gratifying to see what has become of this team. But all the players, you love them all. And then there's Steph Curry.
LW: You talked about being part of the NBA's 50 Greatest Players ceremony in Cleveland in 1996, and how there was a moment when there was nobody in the green room but the actual 50 greatest players. What was that like?
BW: It was fantastic. It's what you live for, and you never think it's going to happen because there are always responsibilities -- and we accept that and love that -- but there's always photographers or somebody with an agenda. But on this day, there was nobody, just 50 guys, and it was just an absolute lovefest, just the joy and the happiness and the satisfaction, the sense of accomplishment, pride and loyalty, all the things that drive you in life.
LW: Last thing, I've never listened to the Grateful Dead. Give me a gateway Dead song to start with.
BW: It's all one song, with just many different verses. They're like John Wooden maxims, there's one for everything. I heard John Wooden speak a thousand times. Literally, I'd sit in the audience a thousand times when he was giving a corporate speech, and every time it was completely different, because it was all based on how I was feeling, what was happening in my life, and that's the same way it is with the Grateful Dead. I've been going to see them live for 49 years, and it's how you're doing that day. That's why we learned to come ready, and don't come tired and don't come overworked, and don't with too much on your plate. Come to be inspired. Come to gather strength and gain confidence. But also, come to be healed. (Walton raises his hands to the sky, closes his eyes and smiles.) I am healed!
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