SAN DIEGO - His spine and feet betrayed him, so Bill Walton’s long legs and tireless mouth power him on in his 66th year, toward the next long, hard climb.
It’s the uphill sections he loves so on 60-mile bicycle rides through mountains and canyons surrounding his longtime San Diego home.
The long climb also describes a life so originally lived by a man uniquely gifted and gregarious, who knows well that after the conquered climb comes an inevitable drop.
Walton was destined to be the best two-way big man of his or any generation if the little bones in his big feet hadn’t turned to dust. He remains the freest of free spirits and yet a lifelong believer in the most structured of men, the late, legendary UCLA coach John Wooden.
In the 1973 Final Four title game, Walton made 21 of 22 shots and scored 44 points to lead UCLA over Memphis State. It gave the Bruins a record seventh consecutive championship, a streak starting with Lew Alcindor’s three and ending with Walton’s two.
UCLA’s absurd winning streak ended at 88 games his senior season. His team lost four of its final 17 games, including a double-overtime national semifinal to North Carolina State that haunts him still.
“You’re assuming I’ve gotten over it,” he said, “and I haven’t.”
Political activist, voracious reader, honorary Grateful Dead member, berry eater and herbal expert, father, friend and mentor then or now or both. Walton stuttered until he was 28 but now won’t shut up with his stream-of-consciousness commentary in the unlikeliest of broadcasting and speaking careers.
“It’s my biggest accomplishment,” he said, “and your worst nightmare.”
Walton won two NCAA and two NBA titles, attended at least 1,000 Dead shows, underwent 37 orthopedic operations and fusions of his ankles and spine. Eleven years ago, he contemplated suicide after his spine collapsed and he couldn’t pick himself off the floor for months until innovative surgery rebuilt it and saved his life.
Today, he walks only for function. Those who greeted him in Minneapolis during the Final Four got fist bumps because he can’t shake with his hurting hands.
But the most injured man in sports history has never been better.
“I’m busier than I’ve ever been, I’m happier than I’ve ever been and I haven’t been this healthy since I was 13 years old,” he said.
His parents didn’t care for sports. His father, Ted, was a social worker/teacher, his mother, Gloria, the local librarian. They stressed education, loved literature and music, encouraged their four children to think for themselves and question authority. They instilled in little Billy a lifelong search to find the great teacher.
Introverted and embarrassed by his stammer as a boy, Walton found refuge in what he did well: He was an excellent student and uncommon athlete who considered basketball his religion.
New Los Angeles Lakers announcer Chick Hearn’s voice wafting from radios and UCLA games televised across Southern California changed his life. He was 11 in 1964 when Wooden won the first of nine NCAA titles in the next 10 years.
“I knew early on I was going to play in the NBA,” he said, “but all I wanted was to play for John Wooden at UCLA.”
He found truth in his coach’s “Pyramid of Success” and endless maxims Walton later wrote on his four young sons’ lunch bags. He keeps a card Wooden wrote him on graduation day that reads, “It’s the things you learn after you know it all that count.”
Long after Wooden retired with his 10th and final title in 1975, Walton guided his own son, Luke, to attend Arizona because he considered its coach, Lute Olson, the next generation’s John Wooden.
“I knew how much my dad loved me when he came to our UCLA games wearing an Arizona sweatshirt,” said Luke Walton, now head coach of the Lakers. “He really, truly loved John Wooden.”
Walton’s 2016 autobiography “Back From the Dead” thoroughly detailed his college years before there was a shot clock, three-point line or freshman eligibility. He didn’t mention only a single miss in the 1973 title game, but did include what Wooden said that night in St. Louis: “Walton, I used to think you were a good player — until you missed that one shot.”
His performance remains unforgettable 46 years later, although not everybody there fully appreciated his made 15-foot banked shots and layups alike.
“When you’re playing, you don’t realize how special it was,’’ said UCLA teammate Larry Farmer, a three-time NCAA champion and career coach who retired from Western Michigan last year. “My job was offensive rebounding. Halfway through that game, it became painfully apparent to me I hadn’t scored many points [two] because he hadn’t missed very many.”
Late that night, Walton refused ABA executives who offered ownership in his own Los Angeles team if he’d join their upstart league. He returned for his final season and chased the third title Alcindor — who changed his name to Kareem Abdul-Jabbar in 1971 — won.
He never reached it.
In both the loss to Notre Dame that ended the winning streak and the semifinal defeat to North Carolina State, UCLA blew big, late leads that violated a trusty Wooden mantra: Don’t beat yourself. Don’t cheat yourself. That’s the worst kind of defeat and you’ll never get over it.
“We thought it was all nonsense,” Walton said. “But everything he said came true, everything. I didn’t know what we had, what I had. I didn’t know how lucky I was until I joined the NBA.”
Most unlikely choice
The 1974 NBA draft’s first pick, Walton lasted 13 seasons as a pro. Disabling foot pain surrounded championships nine years apart in Portland and Boston. He won NBA Finals MVP when his young Trail Blazers won in 1977, league MVP the next season and Sixth Man of the Year for the 1986 champion Celtics.
He also sat out three entire seasons and played 44 percent of possible games those 13 seasons before he finally retired in 1990.
Uncertain what was next, Walton listened to a suggestion from longtime Los Angeles Clippers announcer and friend Ralph Lawler that he try broadcasting. Years earlier, famed New York broadcaster Marty Glickman had helped him with his stuttering by telling him speech was a skill and giving him simple exercises to practice.
“I’m 6-11, red hair, big nose, freckles, a goofy, nerdy-looking face, I can’t talk and I’m a Deadhead, so of course … television!” said Walton, who now calls games on ESPN and Pac-12 games. “It was the most unlikely career choice of my life, and I had no idea what I was doing.”
Love him or loath him, he has soul. Farmer calls his ex-teammate “a superstar who didn’t think the sun rose and set on himself. That allowed him to cross over to many people — entertainment, music, political. Anybody around him was attracted. He was just that kind of guy. He still is.”
Former Celtics teammate Jerry Sichting calls him “America’s guest” and said, “Anywhere you go with him, something fantastic always happens.”
In Minneapolis all weekend for radio work and personal appearances, Walton considers Minnesotans Kevin McHale and Bob Dylan “two of my best friends and heroes,” and both are from little Hibbing.
Walton will be special guest for Lawler’s final regular-season game Wednesday as the Clippers’ voice, ending a 40-season career that included 13 with Walton his partner.
“We taught him how to talk, and now we can’t teach him to stop,” Lawler said. “People see all his crazy hyperbole and think this guy is just one big goofball. He’s an amazing, generous, compassionate man.”
Listen to the music
Walton and his wife, Lori, were the first to visit when Lawler had cancer surgery in 2006. Lawler was there in 2008 when back pain incapacitated Walton for so long he didn’t see any way out until broadcast colleague Jim Gray discovered the surgeon and medical company right there in San Diego.
“It was over, my life was not worth living,” Walton said. “I was so sick, I had forgotten to turn the music on.”
He has written himself a reminder at his desk in his expansive home that abuts Balboa Park, where he roamed as a kid. He bought it on sight 40 years ago when his hometown Clippers made him the NBA’s first million-dollar player.
Mexican tile and dark wood, it’s a musical museum — complete with baby grand, bongos, drums — that pays homage to his Dead.
“They’ve been there and played all those instruments, too, you can believe that,” Sichting said.
Ten years after his surgery, the music plays on there again.
He now mentors stutterers and spinal patients, and reminds all to turn their music on.
“It could mean anything,” Walton said. “The lesson is, know what heals you. I spent half my adult life in the hospital and all my adult life in chronic pain. I never thought I’d be free of that pain, and today I am. I never thought I would be happy in love, and I’m more in love with Lori than when I married her 29 years ago. I was lucky someone showed me a way forward.”