Bill Walton Is Talkin’ With TJ
Tom James: You’ve led such an interesting life and accomplished so much in so many different areas. Yet to me the most impressive thing about Bill Walton is your optimistic outlook. Always a big smile. A great, positive energy. An amazing passion for life. What is your key to happiness?
Bill Walton: Health. Family. Your home. And then dream and hope for a better tomorrow. Those all build off each other. It starts with your health. I’m very fortunate. I haven’t been this healthy since high school. I’ve had 36 orthopedic operations, have two fused ankles, my knees, hands and wrists don’t work, I now have a fused spine, other than that, everything is great. My life changed irrevocably four-and-a-half years ago when my spine failed and collapsed. I spent two years on the floor, in excruciating, debilitating and unrelenting pain. I can only describe the pain as being submerged into a vat of scalding acid that has an electric current running through it. And you can never get out, ever. My life was over. Then two-and-a-half years ago I had a clean-out and reconstruction of my spine. Now I’m all bolted back together with three titanium rods, erector-set cages, spacers between the vertebrae. I’m back in the game of life. I had no idea what life was like without back pain.
TJ: With all the physical issues you’ve had to deal with how is it that you are still able to ride your bike as much as you do?
(Dick Raphael/NBA/Getty Images)
TJ: Pray for better weather. We’ve had over 50 days of 100-plus this summer. Are you saying the weather’s not good enough in San Diego?
BW: Ohhh. Today is glorious. Just perfect. Hot, sunny, beautiful, just the way we like it. Like a beautiful spring day in San Antonio and the Spurs are going for yet another championship. How much fun we used to have with all those great guys, how fun it was.
TJ: Your amateur and professional basketball career was filled with so many amazing accomplishments. There are two that I’d like to ask you about. The first is maybe the greatest winning streak in the history of sports. For five years, between your junior year in high school and your junior year in college, you didn’t lose a single game. By my math it was 49 straight at Helix High School, a perfect 20-0 on the freshman team at UCLA then 73 straight wins to start your varsity career. What did it feel like to win 142 straight games?
BW: Well. It should have been a lot more than that. We had good teams. We had very good coaches. I was so lucky to grow up in Southern California in the 50s and 60s. I live in my hometown, San Diego, and every coach I ever had has a child was a John Wooden disciple. Upbeat, positive, encouraging, supportive. That whole style, that whole nature. One of the things that’s always impressed me so much about the Spurs franchise is that same type of leadership, which starts with Peter Holt and comes down through Gregg Popovich and RC Buford. How it plays out in the type of people the Spurs draft, trade for and sign as free agents. The way they build their team. That was the way I thought all of life was. It was beautiful, it was sunny. My parents were incredible. I had great teachers and coaches and teams. It was all just wonderful. I’m the luckiest guy in the world.
TJ: You always took pride in making those around you better. But in the 1973 NCAA Championship game you turned in what has to be the best big-game performance in basketball history: 44 points (hitting 21-of-22 field goals) to go along with 13 rebounds and 8 blocks. And, the one shot you missed, you tipped-in your own miss. What are your memories of that night?
BW: Coach Wooden’s comment after the game, which he kept reminding me of until the day he died, “Walton, I used to think you were a good player until you missed that one shot.” My favorite player growing up, my favorite player ever to this day, is Bill Russell, on and off the court. Basketball has changed and evolved tremendously over the years. I was not the type of player that dribbled a lot or shot a lot. I just liked to do whatever I could do to help the team win. My favorite part of the game was starting the fast break. One of the truly remarkable things about Bill Russell was that he controlled everything - he controlled the whole world we live in - and he never had the ball. His ability to dictate, his ability to impact, his ability to lead - to change the direction of the world - is unsurpassed. That’s the standard that’s been set.
Grateful Dead Hall of Honor Member
(Andy Hayt/NBA/Getty Images)
BW: They were really the same person. And you can put Larry Bird in there, in the same conversation, too. Selfless leaders who were more concerned and interested with the success of other people, with the success of the team, than they were with their own personal accomplishments. One of the great things for young people is to have heroes. To have role models. When I was a child my heroes, my role models, were Bill Russell and Mohammad Ali in the sports world and Dr. Martin Luther King, Bobby Kennedy and Sergeant Shiver in the social and political world. I got to meet three of those five guys and know them well. Bobby Kennedy and Martin Luther King were both gunned down when I was 16 years-old. The thing that was striking about me getting to know these heroes from my childhood as an adult was how much better they were in their real lives then you dreamed that they could possibly be. That’s hard to do. And John Wooden, Jerry Garcia and Larry Bird are all like that. In that they are selfless, they are humble, they are giving, they are caring. They have no interest in stuff, they’re not interested in material accumulation, they’re not interested in their own physical gratification. They’re interested in a better world. And they always had that responsibility of everything. It was always on their shoulders. It’s very tough when you’re that guy because there’s so much you have to do and you can never really be the guy who is happy because it’s always about ‘what’s next.’ Jerry Garcia played at Pauly Pavilion a lot and I would always invite Coach Wooden down to the shows. Coach would politely decline but he’d counter-offer with “Bill I’ve got some tickets to the upcoming Lawrence Welk concert if you’d like to go” and I sadly declined those. But I was on tour with the Grateful Dead and that could be a full-time job as well.
TJ: Why is music so important in your life?
BW: Music is critical in our lives and culture. It’s the inspiration that drives us. It’s also the window to our souls. It’s a reflection as to who we are, what we stand for and where we’re going. Which leads to the ultimate question of now that we’re here, what do we do? That’s why I look to David Robinson so much for inspiration and for guidance. What he’s been able to do with his life. The stature, the pride and the legacy that David Robinson represents like John Wooden, like Jerry Garcia, like Larry Bird, like Bob Dylan, like Mohammad Ali, like Bill Russell. What does it all mean and did it matter? When I think back about what David Robinson has done, he does matter. What he does on a daily basis, it makes a huge difference, the gigantic impact on our society, on our conscience and on our souls. He makes us better than we could possibly become on our own. His leadership, his discipline, his principles, his loyalty – that guy is just better than perfect. I’ve been touched in my life by other people like that, my parents, my coaches, my heroes. John Wooden, Jerry Garcia, Larry Bird, Bob Dylan, Neil Young, Maurice Lucas, I’m truly the luckiest guy in the world.
Bill Walton & David Robinson in 2002
(Catherine Steenkeste/NBA/Getty Images)
BW: When I look at what David Robinson has been able to do with his life. The number of people that he’s been able to help and inspire, what he’s done to create one of the most successful franchises in the history of basketball. The remarkable greatness that the Spurs are and that David Robinson is as an individual as well. There are a lot of other important people down there, to get the job done too, but this guy David Robinson, my gosh.
TJ: Up until your late 20s you had serious speech issues, a stutter and what you’ve described as a lot of “stammering.” For those of us who didn’t know you 30 years ago this is literally unbelievable. Not to mention an amazing story, going from someone who is basically unable to speak in public to an Emmy award-winning national TV broadcaster. Your thoughts?
BW: I’m a life-long stutterer. Coach Wooden always said “I used to like you a lot better, Bill, before you learned to talk.” It’s the greatest accomplishment in my life, learning how to speak. While it was Marty Glickman, the Hall of Fame broadcaster who taught me how to speak, now they’re scouring the earth trying to find the person who can get me to stop talking. I’m very lucky as my life has changed. How different my life would be if I’d learned how to speak at a much earlier age. I grew up thinking that everybody’s feet hurt all the time and only the lucky people could talk. And then after I broke my spine, on January 7th, 1974 playing for UCLA, I thought everybody’s back hurt all the time. I’ve since come to learn that none of those three beliefs hold up. Over the course of time, what you really learn, besides what’s important in terms of making you happy – your health, your family, your home and the dream and hope for a better tomorrow – you always learn perspective, relativity, tolerance and patience.
TJ: Since this is for spurs.com, guess I should ask one final Spurs question. Over the years you’ve told me how much respect you have for Gregg Popovich. Can you talk about your views on Coach Pop?
BW: I’m a huge Pop fan. He’s brilliant, he’s passionate, he’s humble, he’s caring. He’s all the things you could say about all the great ones. About Red Auerbach, about John Wooden, about Phil Jackson, about Chuck Daily, about Pat Riley. Gregg Popovich is right there in that class. It was such an honor for me, as a broadcaster, to be able to go in on a weekly basis and sit and learn from him. And like any great teacher the subject matter means nothing, it’s the fact that Gregg Popovich is speaking about something that’s important to him. I learned from him every day. While I’m busier than ever now, while I’m happier than ever now, I do miss my time in San Antonio. At Rosario’s. With that great weather, love that heat. Love the spirit and the soul of the Spurs. When you’re going through it, when you’re in the fight, you just have no idea how special it is. When you’re old and in the way, like I am, you think back and say “wow, how cool was that.” And you spend the whole rest of your life trying to duplicate that environment again. You have so many legends in that franchise. The continuity and the creativity and the expressiveness and the freedom, but always with the structure and the discipline which makes the team happen. It always just feels so good when you think about San Antonio and the Spurs and all the people involved.
TJ: Bill, thank you for your time today. It was truly an honor and a pleasure to talk to you.
Tom James has served as the Spurs director of media services since 1994. In a new feature on spurs.com he will visit with various folks he’s met in his two decades working in the NBA, asking them questions about basketball and life.