Bill Walton feels things more intensely than just about any human being on the planet. The former basketball star – a legend in college and the pros – communes with nature at almost a cellular level, taking in the beauty of his beloved Oregon, for instance, with rapt pleasure. He can tell you perhaps every body of water in the state, and its metaphorical significance (a river he compares to a fast-break in basketball).
There’s his ardor for the Grateful Dead, Bob Dylan, Neil Young, and many other musicians; fandom for Paul Krugman, Timothy Egan, Robert Reich – “everything they write.”
It’s not just the present Walton feels intensely. That goes for the past, too. For example, the January 19, 1974 game when UCLA lost to Notre Dame 71-70, ending the Bruins’ unprecedented (and still never matched) 88-game winning streak. “Worst game ever,” he tells me. And Notre Dame coach Digger Phelps, architect of that upset? “The devil,” Walton declares, with just a hint of humor.
It’s not like, for him, the game feels like it was yesterday. It’s like it ended 10 minutes ago. Like Walton just walked off the court. He feels such things so deeply in part because of his incredibly fine-tuned sense of responsibility – to win a game that should have been won (just as he feels UCLA should have taken another NCAA title in his senior year). The end of the Bruin’s 88-game streak doesn’t just sting, it burns (Walton went 12-14 from the field in that contest, but individual stats don’t mean a thing in a team sport).
Bill Walton, the man, the personality, the basketball great, is the subject of the upcoming ESPN documentary series The Luckiest Guy in the World, directed by a legend of nonfiction film, Steve James. The title comes from something Walton is fond of saying about himself, often. The first two episodes of the series premiered at SXSW on Wednesday.
“ESPN approached me,” James says as we chat in a lounge at the Four Seasons Hotel in Austin. “I don’t know his side of the story.”
“They approached me too, said they want to do this,” Walton shares. “I was leery. I’m not a self-promoter. I’m not looking for attention. I like to do my job. I like to work. They asked me, and then they said, ‘Steve James,’ and I knew Hoop Dreams. I didn’t know the other stuff. And the more I looked the more I liked.” He adds with a laugh, “It’s like my wife, the closer I looked…”
“After Bill expressed openness to it, [ESPN] reached out to me and said, would you be interested in doing this? As a lifelong basketball fan and only a couple of years younger than this guy –”
“Significantly younger,” Walton interjects.
“I grew up watching him play. I knew the broad strokes of his story,” James continues, “but then I read his memoir, Back From the Dead, which is quite a read. And based on that, I was like, yeah, I’d love to do it. I had to fly to San Diego and audition, kinda.”
Walton corrects, “To introduce yourself.” They do a lot of correcting of each other, subject and director, lightheartedly.
The four-part series, which will debut sometime in June on ESPN, takes us back to Walton’s origins as one of four children of Gloria and Ted Walton, parents who encouraged their kids to explore the world’s intellectual riches with avidity. Despite being very tall themselves, neither Ted nor Gloria got into basketball, or sports of any kind. But from a relatively young age their son Bill excelled on the court.
His greatest hurdle wasn’t basketball but just articulating himself. A stutter left him with an overwhelming sense of embarrassment.
“I just wish that I had learned how to speak at a lot earlier age. Nothing has changed my life more than learning how to speak. It’s my greatest accomplishment, and your worst nightmare. And, certainly, Steve James’s worst nightmare,” he jokes. More seriously, he adds, “I identify with everyone who faces struggles, challenges. And when you’re a stutterer, it completely changes your life. Because you’re constantly embarrassed and reluctant and ashamed. And you have to learn to overcome it. I am no longer ashamed about being a stutterer. I’m no longer self-conscious about being a stutterer. I am a stutterer.”
Walton became a standout player at Helix High in La Mesa, Calif., and UCLA Coach John Wooden and his then assistant Denny Crum spent several years eyeing the young prospect. Walton would go on to succeed another UCLA legend, Lew Alcindor (the future Kareem Abdul-Jabbar) as the Bruins’ center and seamlessly keep the dynasty going. Walton speaks with great reverence and affection for Wooden, and quotes often from the coach’s “Pyramid of Success,” a triangular depiction of attributes and attitudes that diagram how to succeed in basketball and life. In the documentary, Bill’s kids recall their dad making school lunches for them when they were young, and him writing Wooden aphorisms on the brown paper bags.
“I learned long ago — John Wooden was the first to articulate this — but every important force in my life always represented this notion that you’re only as good as your teammate,” Walton says. “That’s what John Wooden told me that became the tipping point to come to UCLA, because he told me that I would be fine [as a player]. But if I wanted to be the best it’s the quality, the abilities, the capabilities of your teammates [that determine] your ultimate level of achievement, accomplishment, happiness, and success. And like all things John Wooden, everything that he said came true — not that we believed any of it when we were 17 or 15 or 16.”
Even before he reached college, Walton had suffered significant injuries. At the age of 70 now he walks with the gait of a man with artificial knees and many orthopedic surgeries — almost 40 of them. After being drafted in 1974 by the lowly Portland Trailblazers he spent a tough couple of years with the team, injured a good portion of the time. Some fans, but more importantly the team’s management, didn’t believe he was truly injured. He got branded as a malingerer.
“That was very difficult,” Walton says. “It is still difficult to this day.”
Episode three will explore how Walton, Maurice Lucas and their fellow teammates shocked the NBA by winning the title in 1977. Injuries to his feet, knees and spine would keep Walton from earning the many more titles he seemed destined to win, though he claimed another crown with the Boston Celtics in the 1985-86 season.
Well after his professional playing days had ended, doctors with the aid of more advanced diagnostic tools could detect the congenital problems with his feet, the endless fractures, which convinced them Walton should never have played basketball at any level. There was even a time doctors thought his feet might need to be amputated.
But instead of self-pity, which would be understandable, Walton feels only a sense of letting down his teammates and coaches. If only the body hadn’t betrayed him.
“The number of coaches who were fired because I couldn’t play is staggering,” he says with deep feeling. It’s a lot to carry on your shoulders, I assure him.
“Not only on my shoulders, it’s on my spine, in my heart, in my soul,” he says. “Indelible stains and stigmas.”
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