Catching up with Bill Walton | 7/1/2011

Remembered as one of the greatest and also most injured players in NBA history, Bill Walton is known simply as a basketball legend. A two-time NCAA and NBA Champion, Walton was the 1977-78 NBA MVP and was inducted into the Basketball Hall of Fame in 1993. Walton spent four injury-plagued seasons with the San Diego and Los Angeles Clippers from 1979-1985, appearing in 169 games and averaging 11.8 points and 9.0 rebounds. Walton retired from the NBA in 1987 and started his successful broadcasting career as a Clippers announcer in 1990. How do you describe your time with the Clippers as a player?

Bill Walton: It's always extremely difficult when you fail at your grandest dream. San Diego is my hometown and it is every player's dream to get it done at home. Because of my injuries, which led me to being the most injured player ever, my time as a Clipper was really one of frustration, disappointment, unfulfilled dreams and ultimately, embarrassment.

It could have been so wonderful. The exhibition game in Anaheim against the Lakers in 1979 was a terrific portent of great things to come. But the very next day, I could not run a single stride. And the rest is history.

The team did whatever they could to make it possible for me to succeed. But I could not get the job done. It is my greatest failure as a professional and it's something I desperately wish I could have another shot at. your time with the organization, what experiences and what people -- either on the court or off -- remain memorable to you?

Walton: There were so many great players and a near endless list of wonderful personalities on the team. Sidney Wicks, Swen Nater, Randy Smith, World B. Free, Phil Smith, Terry Cummings, Tom Chambers, Michael Brooks, Lionel Hollins, Bob Gross, James Donaldson, Brian Taylor, Marvin Barnes, Norm Nixon, Marques Johnson, Junior Bridgeman -- all are absolutely some of my best friends -- forever. And the coaches: Gene Shue, Paul Silas, Don Chaney, Don Casey and Jimmy Lyman---great.

But when you don't get it done, it is always tough on the personal relationships. Now that I'm old and in the way, I can try to put a happy face on a tough time. But it was hard -- the losing, the injuries and all.

The Clippers, the players, the coaches and the fans all deserved better than I was able to give them.

But the most memorable friend and personality in all of my Clipper years (six as a player, 13 as a broadcaster) is unquestionably Ralph Lawler, who is as smart, as quick, as nimble, and as fine a man as I have ever known. When you started out as a broadcaster, what were your goals?

Walton: To be allowed back tomorrow.

The Grateful Dead wrote a song about me -- Saint Stephen -- the applicable lyric: "Wherever he goes, the people all complain."

At the beginning I couldn't get a job. They looked at me and said, C'mon Walton, we're not putting you on the air. You're 6-11, you've got red hair, a big nose, freckles, a goofy nerdy looking face. You stutter and you're a Dead Head. We are not putting you on TV where you're going to be quoting Jerry Garcia and Bob Dylan; and then you'll be stuttering and spitting all over everybody and ruining our shows.

But for a chance encounter with Ralph Lawler at the 7-11 in Pacific Beach and then through the gracious, courteous generosity of Mike Fratello and the dream and vision of executive producer Michael Weisman, the world would have been saved.

At the beginning, I was certifiably awful, a disgrace to the profession. But through the thoughtful kindness of Ralph Lawler, through the loyalty of the Clipper faithful and through the educational genius of Charlie Jones and Pat O'Brien, I tried to make something out of my life.

By the end of the line, I am proud, privileged, honored, lucky and humbled to have been named one of the top 10 Pundits in all of Media; to be named one of the top 20 Sports Business Athlete Representatives and to be named one of the 50 Greatest Sportscasters of all time.

I'm a lucky man. I realize I'm a very slow learner. Thank you for your patience. You always brought humor to the broadcast booth in addition to tremendous insight into the game. Was there something you ever said on the air during a broadcast that stands out to you even to this day?

Walton: I am still waiting to say anything memorable in my life and still searching for that tiny grain of knowledge about the world's greatest game: basketball. The brilliance of the Clipper Nation comes from Ralph Lawler, who to this day delivers as professional, enjoyable, insightful, entertaining and fun a broadcast as any I have witnessed.

While there were so many incredible moments with Ralph, two come quickly to mind, buried deep inside the smoking crater.

  • Related: A Look Back at Randy Smith

  • When you're as talented, creative and imaginative as Ralph, trying to describe his impact is pretty much like asking me to solve the problem of hydrogen fusion or to explain why John Wooden, Larry Bird and Jerry Garcia are really the same person.

    First, there was a game when after a mad scramble on the floor and one of the Clipper players had inadvertently kneed a fallen and vanquished opponent in the groin. During the replay I commented, "Oh, the old knee to the groin trick--- always an effective technique -- and Ralph Lawler, without missing a beat said, "Reminds me of my first marriage."

    There was nothing I could say.

    Another time we were witnesses to one more in an endless stream of remarkable classics---simply an epic confrontation between two of the finest teams you've ever seen in the history of basketball. The action was fast and furious, the performances exquisite. I suggested that this game was so good that it didn't even need broadcasters.

    Ralph rambled on -- ignoring me as usual. The game rolled on spectacularly and we eventually went to a commercial break. The instant we were off the air, Ralph turned to me, put his finger in my face, locked in eye contact and said, "Don't you ever say that again."

    I miss you Ralph, I love you, and I thank you for the gift of life. Upon retirement as a player, how important was it to you to stay active in the game?

    Walton: Basketball is my life, the game my religion, the gym my church. My retirement was not voluntary. I am the most injured player ever. I have now had 36 orthopedic operations. I have two fused ankles. My knees, hands and wrists don't work. My spine has been reconstructed and fused.

    There is nothing more important to me than to be on the team and in the game. I am so very lucky. I've been on some of the greatest teams in the history of basketball. I've been involved in the game since 1960 when I was eight years old. I have reaped the benefits of UCLA and the NCAA. I have enjoyed the magic carpet ride that is David Stern and the NBA. I've been to the top and I know what it's like on the bottom. I've also been on the ground and unable to get up.

    I learned many years ago-- as I was reminded so often by many fine friends during this last grounding by my back-- to never give up, and to do whatever it takes to get back---and ultimately to give back. In high school your team won 49 games in a row and in college your team won 88 consecutive games. Did you fear losing?

    Walton: Fear of losing is one of the motivational techniques that used to drive me. It doesn't matter what your source of motivation is. If you don't have one, then make one up. More important than fear of losing is the ability to train yourself to compete against a standard of excellence that strives for perfection. Self motivation is something worth learning.

    I was lucky. I've played with great players, I've had the best of the best coaches at all levels. I like to win, I need to win. I would do whatever it took to win. Sadly, I couldn't always get it done.

    We went nearly six years without a loss, but it's the losses on both ends of that run that stand out.

    I lost a game in high school at 9:00 a.m. to Long Beach Millikan and a player by the name of Tim Stoddard, who later was the starting forward on the North Carolina State team in the March 23, 1974 debacle for UCLA. To lose to the same player both in high school and college is a bitter pill that I still have trouble swallowing. You would think that I would learn something along the way.

    The injuries to my back started on January 7, 1974. I was high above the rim at Washington State. I was submarined and taken down by a thug from the Cougars out on the Palouse. I came down hard on their Tartan floor. It forever changed my life.

    Two broken bones in my back, 36 years of ever increasing back pain and now a spinal fusion with four four-inch bolts, two titanium rods, a big cage to hold it all together and spacers between the vertebra. UCLA's 88-game winning streak was over, 12 days after I broke my back. What do you remember the most about your first encounter with John Wooden?

    Walton: It was the night he visited our family home in 1968 to try to convince me of what I already knew. I was the easiest recruit that John Wooden and UCLA ever had. That's all I wanted in life---to go to UCLA, to play for Coach Wooden, and to be a part of something special.

    Coach spoke of his Pyramid of Success, of the value of education, personal character and positive human attributes. I was already a true believer on the spirit road. He also pointed out that my ultimate level of success, achievement, accomplishment and happiness in life would be based not on how good I was, but how good my teammates were. Can you tell Clippers fans how you are doing right now?

    Walton: I am back in the game. I couldn't be happier. I am the luckiest guy on earth. It is a miracle. The last two years have been the toughest years of my life. I had it all. I was on top of the world. I had no idea, you have no idea.

    The debilitating, excruciating and unrelenting nerve pain radiating through my body took everything I had and left me on the ground writhing in unbearable pain--- a helpless, pitiful, useless ball of flesh, unable to do anything.

    But now, after my 36th orthopedic operation, I am back at it. I am happier than ever, I am busier than ever and I am healthier than I've been in longer than I can remember.

    My endless gratitude, love, appreciation, admiration and respect, goes out to my family, my friends, Dr. Steve Garfin and everybody else who regularly told me, "Don't give up, Bill. Don't give up."

    I had nothing. I had a life that was not worth living.

    And now I have made it back. It's a miracle and I'm back for one more run in the greatest game of all -- the game of life.