Bill Walton could be bitter. One of the most gifted basketball players ever, Walton never reached his full potential because his body kept failing him. The NBA Hall of Famer has had almost 40 surgeries. From broken bones to torn ligaments to everything in between, Walton has gone under the knife to fix injuries to his wrists, hands, back, feet, ankle, knees and nose.
And despite the constant trips in and out of the hospital, Walton still considers himself, “the luckiest guy in the world.”
Steve James, one of the most accomplished documentary makers of all time, directed ‘The Luckiest Guy in the World,’ a four-part “30 for 30” docuseries on ESPN. Parts 1 and 2 premiered on June 6 and parts 3 and 4 are set for June 13 at 8 p.m. ET.
James takes a deep dive into Walton’s life. He touched on his dominant high school days, his three National Player of the Year awards at UCLA under legendary coach John Wooden and his 13 injury-plagued seasons in the NBA.
While Walton went on to win a league MVP and two championships in the NBA, he is also known for his successful broadcasting career, his political activism and his love of the Grateful Dead.
James got Walton to open up about all of that and more. NBA.com caught up with James and he explained how the project came together.
Editor’s Note: The following conversation has been condensed and edited.
Bill has had an unbelievable life. I guess that’s why the documentary is four parts?
This started as a stand-alone, and I convinced the ESPN people that it needed to be longer. It didn’t take any convincing of Bill. As it grew, it started as three parts and then four. Then Bill was like, ‘Let’s make it six parts. Bill Russell’s number.’ I’m like ‘Bill, we are lucky to be at four.’
I feel like it’s the right length. He’s had quite the life both on and off the court. I feel good about the length it’s at. Sometimes these docuseries can get inflated with the length.
Bill could do it all – passing, defense, rebounding, unselfish. That started at a young age, right?
The one thing that stood out to me about his high school career is when you look at footage of him playing in high school, you see the same player that he was at UCLA and when he was healthy as a professional. He was outletting the ball quickly. His coach says in the series, he would rebound and start the fastbreak before his feet hit the ground. That became a signature of his game. He was as good of an outlet passer and rebounder as Wes Unseld, who was the master. Bill was able to do that in high school and nobody taught him that. In high school, he was the best player in the nation and that was the year Tom McMillen was on the cover of Sports Illustrated as the best player in the country. History has shown us there is no comparison there. Even then he was capable of scoring a lot of points, he chose to do a lot of the dirty work. He scored by rebounding, putbacks, tip-ins, you know working around the rim. He wasn’t the center of the offense which contributed to him being a team-oriented player. He could have averaged 40 a game in high school if he wanted to but that’s not what he was about.
I remember hearing a story about Wooden telling him he had to get his hair cut or leave the team. Do you have any other interesting stories between Bill and Coach?
[We] interviewed Greg Lee, Walton’s teammate at UCLA, before he passed away. Wooden came to him early in a practice during his senior season and was like, ‘It’s come to my attention you’re smoking marijuana.’ Lee admitted to it. He said he did it occasionally, but never on a game day. Walton says he saw Wooden make a beeline to him across the gym and he straightened up, looked him square in the eye and said, ‘Coach I have no idea what you’re talking about.’ Bill was smart enough not to admit to it. Wooden benched Greg Lee. Senior year he didn’t start until late in the season when things started to fall apart.
Seems like Bill started caring about activism at a very young age.
He inherited some of that from his parents. His mom was a librarian, very smart woman, and his dad worked in the welfare office. There was a level of consciousness that went on in that family that he certainly was around. It was uncommon for athletes to take that position. Athletes rarely spoke up even though they agreed with it. It extended to his years in Portland. Amongst white athletes with that clear caveat, he was one of the most outspoken professional athletes of his time.
You think he would have made a good politician?
He’s so weird and quirky, maybe that would have worked. I don’t know if he would have had patience with all that. He’s a very opinionated guy. In the documentary, he takes issue with questions I ask and you’ll see him bristle with me. Not sure he would have had the patience to be a politician.
You have so much detail in the documentary. How long did it take to complete the project?
I met him in 2020, then the pandemic hit. We started shooting in 2021 when the pandemic was subsiding and we could travel again. We shot all the way to the first part of this year – solid two-year project.
From spending so much time with him, what is something we would be surprised to learn about him?
He absolutely doesn’t like talking about his accomplishments as a basketball player. There is a part in the series where I quote his statistics and he says he’s part of a team. He’s a team guy. Entire time I’m reading the stats, he’s yawning. He doesn’t toot his horn about how good he was. On the other hand, dude loves to talk, he loves to tell stories. Nobody has trouble making Bill Walton talk.
You got so much information into a four-hour series.
Normally for a sports biography, you sit down with someone for two major interviews. We sat down for interviews with Bill a dozen times. It would have been impossible to get him to say everything he has to say in two interviews. I wanted to take him through his life. So I’d say this time we’re going to talk about the Celtics or this time UCLA or this time the Blazers. This way he could pick the right tee shirt to wear for the interview. [For the] Grateful Dead interview, he wore one of his favorite Grateful Dead shirts. We got the regular stories but also got something that dug a little deeper.
Why is the series called “The Luckiest Guy in the World?”
Bill says that about 100 times a day. It’s his mantra. Clearly, Bill Walton has not been the luckiest guy in the world. This is a guy who has been very unlucky but has also had great fortune.