Grateful Red Bill Walton Shares Strange Journey

By: Greg Esposito, Suns.com

Posted: March 29, 2013

Like most good Catholic school boys, I have never partaken in any illegal substances in my life. On Thursday evening at US Airways Center though, I got the opportunity to experience what it might feel like to be living in an alternate state of mind.

That’s because I got the chance to sit down with the one and only Bill Walton. The basketball legend, Deadhead and world class broadcaster is known as much for what he did on the court as what he’s said off of it. While I’ve had the pleasure of interviewing other outspoken professionals in the past, including the irreverent Charles Barkley and the uniquely scholarly Shaq, talking with the “Grateful Red” was an out of this world experience.

Asking him four questions that added up to no more than 60 spoken words on my part led to a journey that included, John Wooden, Nelson Mandela, the old Chicago Stadium, a “smoking crater that is the mind”, 835 Grateful Dead concerts, stuttering, the female Kareem Abdul Jabbar and going streaking.

Walton is like a bullet train through the far recesses of a mind that has been to the edges of the universe and back. As a passenger all you can is strap in, try to avoid the haze, hold on and hope you, through some great biological osmosis, take in some of the bizarre yet brilliant knowledge he is dispensing.

Take this for example. A man who played for John Wooden, played with Larry Bird and against Michael Jordan had quite a unique choice for who would be the most important man in basketball history. No, he didn’t say any of the aforementioned people or the man who invented the game, James Nasmith, instead he choose someone more current.

“We can never thank David Stern enough,” Walton said in his unique diction. “His vision to use basketball to improve the quality of our lives to make this world a better and saner place, that guy, is the most important man in the history of basketball.”

His takes aren’t just relegated to those running the game either. He had a unique way -- as if you’d expect anything different -- of describing his UCLA team’s 88-game win streak to the streak the Heat recently just completed.

“Our winning streak was different because we never played against a team, even when we lost, that was ever better than we were,” Walton reminisced. “The NBA is a much different level. The Lakers’ streak of 33 back in 1972 was back when we [at UCLA] were in the middle of our 88-game streak. We were very close with all the Lakers. It was fantastic. I love what Miami did this year. It’s good for basketball. It brings so much attention. What they are doing now is tremendous.”

Possibly his most interesting ruminations though come when you move away from the hardwood and into his life and love for music. That’s when the Bill Walton Experience truly kicks into high gear.

“The wonderful thing about the music is, which is so critical in our lives because it’s our inspiration, it drives us, the reflection of the soul,” he said. “It was as if [the Grateful Dead] were singing those songs to me, for me and about me. I’ve been able to ride the giant tsunami of rock and roll and oh my gosh, turn it up and play it loud. Let’s go.”

And turn it up loud he did. Since he was 15 years old he has attended over 835 Grateful Dead concerts. In his estimation, that is 20 shows a year, or ‘not nearly enough.’ His dedication to the band lasted through college, his NBA career -- where he once traveled to see the band in Egypt during his playing days -- and beyond even landing him in the Grateful Dead Hall of Honor (he’s likely the only person in the NBA Hall of Fame and a bands hall of fame as well).

“The Grateful Dead, they’re my best friends,” he said with a large smile. “Their message of hope, peace, love, teamwork, creativity, imagination, celebration, the dance, the vision, the purpose, the passion all of the things I believe in makes me the luckiest Deadhead in the world.”

But life hasn’t always been all rosy for Walton. Throughout his career he struggled with injuries. It eventually ended his basketball career. Along with the injuries, he had to overcome another large battle to even begin his second career.

“My career in broadcasting is the most unlikely career path of all,” the hall of famer said. “I’m a lifelong stutterer. Twenty-three years ago, when my basketball career finally came to an end, I had to have my ankle fused. When I was lying there in the bed in the hospital I knew I would never play again. That was the first time I thought that.

“I’m lying there thinking ‘what am I going to do? Basketball has been my life.’ So it just dawned me. The lightning bolt of inspiration seared across the smoking crater that is my mind. I just realized when you’re 6-11, have red hair, a big nose, freckles, a goofy-nerdy face, you’re a stutterer and a dead head that television is the only career possibility for me. They looked at me and said ‘we’re not putting you on the air!’ But hey, I’m here today. I’m the luckiest man in the world.”

His upbeat attitude was put to the test about six years ago when his spine began to give out. It was an injury that derailed his second career. One in which he had already been named one of the top 50 sportscasters of all-time and one of the top 10 pundits in all of media at the time of the health issue.

In an interview on Dan Patrick’s nationally syndicated radio show he admitted to contemplating suicide in his darkest hours. That was until February of 2009. Crippled by the pain in his back and with his broadcast career gone, Walton turned to Dr. Steven Garfin, the chairman of the Department of Orthopaedic Surgery at UC San Diego. After a surgery that lasted over eight hours, and being relegated to his own home without being able to move, Walton is finally pain free. He returned to his broadcasting career recently with both the Sacramento Kings, the Pac-12 Network and ESPN.

“Life is easy when you’re hot,” Walton said. “But what happens when the ball bounces the other way? You just keep getting back up and climbing up.”

He’s been climbing up comeback mountain lately making national waves for his work on the Pac-12 tournament. His eclectic and out there style made headlines two weeks ago proving that Walton was back to the rare form that made him one of the world’s top broadcasters so many years ago.

While Walton’s life experience gives him many places to draw inspiration from, he gives credit to a man a world away that has had a great impact on many.

“You never know how the game of life is going to play out,” he pontificated. “As we ponder and reflect on the events that shape and change our world and our lives just think of Nelson Mandela who is fighting it again one more time today. He gave us one of the greatest lessons in life. A man who spent 27 years in the hole for what he thought and what he believed. He told us after he got out, ‘people will never remember what you say, they’ll never remember what you’ll do but they will always remember how you treat them.’ That’s why I’m the luckiest guy in the world. People have always treated me much better than I deserve.”

And for a basketball hall of famer and one of the most recognizable broadcasters in the country, Walton treated me much better than I deserved. From his gentle suggestion of a better spot to stand to get a better shot for the interview to his willingness to take 10 minutes out of his busy schedule before broadcasting the Kings vs. Suns game, he was a class act.

It wasn’t just for the cameras either. As I observed Walton after, he took time to stop and talk with any fan interested in meeting him. It looked almost as if he relished in each hand shake, picture request and conversation.

Walton is the real deal. He practices what he preaches. Even if what he preaches can be quite a long strange trip without the enhancement of any additional substances.