Bill Walton & Life After Basketball
"Ladies and Gentlemen, I'd like to introduce my partner, my pal, the former Clipper, the former Trailblazer, the former Celtic, - (wait, let me get all this in) - former UCLA Bruin, collegiate All-American, NBA MVP, two-time NBA Champion and Hall of Famer, the big red head, Bill Walton!"
Whew. That was a mouthful during the 12 seasons I worked Clipper telecasts with Bill Walton at my side.
But let's go back to the beginning. It began shortly after the end of Walton's storied, but troubled NBA playing career. It was the summer of 1988. My wife Sweet Jo and I were enjoying the day at Pacific Beach in San Diego. We stopped by a convenience store to pick up something to eat and drink and ran into our old friend, Bill Walton. It was a chance meeting that changed both of our lives.
Let me go back a bit further. Bill could hardly talk when he first joined the Clippers in San Diego in 1979. He and I worked together on a weekly radio program on KSDO. It was an hour-long show designed to feature Bill's love and expertise of basketball, politics and music. We would go down to the station on a Monday night and spend a couple of hours doing interviews and engaging in storytelling and commentary. It was a hoot. The hard work was after Bill left the studio.
I would sift through two hours of audio tape. The task: Remove the hard to follow stuttering and stammering that characterized Bill's torturous efforts to speak.
It started with "W-w-w-w-Welcome to our p-p-program." After tedious trimming with a razor blade, the end result was a smooth, "Welcome to our program," with a dizzying collection of snippets of c-c-c-consonants on quarter-inch audio tape splashed on the editing room floor. It was a process that regularly took until 3 or 4 o'clock in the morning to come up with a listenable one-hour program, as this was decades before today's quick and exacting computerized digital editing.
I go through this just to point out the amazing road that Bill Walton had to travel. Here was a man who had trouble speaking, but wound up being a man I could not get to shut up!
He became one of the top sports commentators in the business, a much in-demand public speaker and trusted commercial spokesman. He actually made more money as a broadcaster than he did as the player known as "Million Dollar Bill." He calls his ability to speak effortlessly to be the "greatest accomplishment of my life."
So there we were in a 7-11 store in P.B. back in 1988. Bill had no clue what to do with the rest of his life. Even he could go to only so many Grateful Dead concerts. Off the top of my head, I suggested he should think about going into broadcasting. It came to me like a lightning bolt.
Before you knew it, he was working on a volunteer basis on the radio in basketball's minor leagues. He got his first NBA broadcasting job working on a limited number of Dallas Maverick television broadcasts. That was enough to get our attention with the Clippers. KTLA jumped at the chance to bring him in. We had a three-man booth at first with Mike Fratello, Bill and me.
The games moved to KCOP and then KCAL and FSN. He was now a seasoned and talented broadcaster, a rare original who dared to be different, even irreverent. Our work was recognized with Emmy Awards and solid ratings. Bill drew the attention of NBA rights-holder NBC and Dick Ebersol, who helped make him a national TV star. His workload was extended by the network to the 2000 Olympics in Australia. Walton was once again at the top of his game.
Somewhere early along the line there, Bill received his greatest honor by being inducted into the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame on May 10, 1993. He could not be more deserving.
He continued his work with the Clippers and NBC through the 90s and into the new millennium. It took a couple of years, but Bill and I ultimately became comfortable and trustful working with each other.
His national exposure made for some unexpected experiences for us working on our local telecasts. Once he said something on an NBC game that angered Seattle SuperSonics fans. We were in Seattle the following week for a Clippers-Sonics game, and fans were throwing things at us (really, him) at the press table and we required a security escort in leaving the building. But most of it was just plain fun.
Here is a sampling of some of my favorite Walton gems from the broadcast booth:
Bill: "Piatkowski is killing Szczerbiak....Oh, what a Scrabble game that would be!"
Bill: "What is the record for having your shots blocked in the first six minutes of a game?"
Ralph: "I think there's a pretty good chance Rasheed Wallace will set the mark for most technical fouls tonight."
Bill: "Will they stop the game and present him the ball?"
Bill: "Mick Jagger is in better shape than far too many NBA players. It's up in the air if the same can be said about Keith Richards."
Bill: "What is the NBA record for most turnovers in one trip up the court?"
Bill: "What is today's date, March 16? No, the 18th? Mark it down - a 'Bank-Shot Bingo!' "
Bill: "What is a Nittany Lion anyway?"
Bill: "Where is the outrage in the face of this injustice?"
Bill: "The Clippers need to find some offense. The Clippers need to find some defense. Otherwise, things are going tremendously!"
We eventually lost Bill Walton's ingenious brilliance on our telecasts when ABC/ESPN won the NBA broadcasting rights from NBC. The new platform demanded much more time from him and ultimately had him actually living in Bristol, Connecticut for part of the year. I may have lost a partner, but I did not lose a friend.
Jo and I were home watching a ballgame on TV on an off-night during the 2003-04 NBA season. The phone rang and it was Bill Walton with an invitation. He was making plans to take 14 friends whitewater rafting on the Colorado River through the magnificence of the Grand Canyon. Would we be interested in joining them? I turned to my wife and she seemed intrigued. Then I mentioned it was 18 days and 17 nights with no electricity and no bathrooms or showers. We would be camping in tents on the banks of the river each night. Please understand, Jo's idea of "roughing it" was a luxury hotel room with no flat-screen TV. God love her, she was game and we were in. What an experience and what a gift the Walton's gave to their friends. We will cherish those memories forever.
I had surgery for prostate cancer in May of 2007. The "C" word is among the scariest in the English language. I was lucky with good timing and a good surgeon but I was a bit of a wimp in recovery. Our first, and a week later, our second visitors after the surgery were Bill and Lori Walton who would make the 75 minute drive from near downtown San Diego to our home that was then in Orange County.
They took us out to dinner one night during which my wife casually mentioned she was going to get back into bicycle riding. Two days later, Jo had a call from Bill with instructions to go to a certain bike shop in San Diego to pick up the new bicycle he had bought for her. She rides it to this day.
Meanwhile, the back and forth air travel to Bristol was wretched for the big man's back. He had been forced to have both ankles fused and that allowed him to continue riding his beloved custom made bicycle, but his deteriorating back was another matter. By 2009, the pain was insufferable. He could no longer stand the rigors of constant cross-country air travel. The ESPN job was taken away from him. Extreme surgery was undertaken. The recovery was the biggest challenge of his often challenged life. He spent much of his time lying flat on his back on the floor in the bedroom of the expansive home he had bought in San Diego in 1979. He was unable to get up, unable to move. Bill was almost paralyzed by painkillers as he contemplated life -- and death. It was the low point of his 57 years.
Jo and I were among the first to visit Bill during his recovery. This was not the same confident, robust, positive thinking Bill Walton I had come to know and love over the years. He was shaken to his very foundation. Bill was clearly uncertain if he would ever again lead a life worth living. He would not have made it without his wife, Lori.
Time passed and wounds slowly healed. Bill was getting better. He was improving thanks to some outstanding medical and rehabilitation care. He was getting better by absorbing himself fully into a workout routine that would have brought down a man half his age. He began before dawn and was not finished until dusk.
"I have three bone fusions--both ankles and my spine, which has a titanium rod in it from the '09 operation," Walton said about his injuries. "The fusions limit my motion, but enable me to get back in the game of life. These days, my bike acts as my wheelchair, my gym and my church, all in one. Always my first question to the doctor is: Will I still be able to ride my bike?"
And ride it he does. A 100-mile ride is "routine." His October bike tours through Death Valley would be torturous for most but like Valhalla for Bill Walton.
Despite the rigorous challenges of rehab, Bill was always there for a friend. When Mike Smith and I were going through a very public embarrassment in November of 2009, the first call I received the next morning was from Bill Walton. He was comforting, supportive and a voice of reason at a time I needed all that and more.
We went to San Diego to see him a short time after that. We watched an NBA game together on television and he told me excitedly about his new ventures and his return to "The game of life."
He is busier now than he has ever been. Check out his website: www.billwalton.com . He spends his time working hard to make a living and even harder to help others through his never-ending charity work.
That's who Bill Walton is. I've neither known a better man nor had a better friend.
"Lately it occurs to me, what a long strange trip it's been." - Grateful Dead, Truckin'