“Back from the Dead”: Bill Walton’s Long Strange Trip

“I wish I could give Brother Bill his great thrill.
I would set him in chains at the top of the hill.”
–Bob Dylan, “Tombstone Blues.”

I used this epigraph once before, in writing about Bill Walton’s formal retirement from the NBA in December of 1989[1]. It’s irresistible to me still, since Dylan’s lines evoke the shifting ecstatic moods and dramatic reversals that have characterized Bill Walton’s fascinating life: also a certain sado-masochistic, even manic, element that seems to resonate with brother Bill’s hyperbolic style in the broadcast booth and in his book. It’s a style nearly Trumpian in its outrageousness, but, very much unlike Trump: essentially human and lovably innocent. Like a metaphor for his childlike way of being,

Walton’s idiom is located somewhere between the hyperbolic and the apocryphal.

Plus: the music itself–Dylan’s and the Grateful Dead’s version especially–so much a part of the story of Bill’s life. And quite a story it is, not only the basketball parts that his fans will joyously recall and re-live, but also the continuing roller coaster ride of his post-player life. It is as if Agony and Ecstasy are Bill’s Scylla and Charybdys, with his 7’+ wingspan wide enough to touch both simultaneously.

His aptly titled 2016 memoir Back from the Dead distills and expands Bill’s essence in a rambling narrative that, like a concert by his beloved Dead, asks a lot of its audience even as it gives readers more than the ordinary hagiographic sports hero book.

This is a profound testament.[2] Reviewing it risks trivializing it: like a Dead concert, it takes many forms and a variety of turns, but always returns to Walton’s theme: the joy of life. That’s how he played and should be remembered (though we’re grateful that he lives on). Walton competed with an exuberance akin to Earvin Johnson’s, though Walton’s playfulness was more understated. To understate exuberance is either simply oxymoronic, or else… Waltonesque!

His memoir takes us through his idyllic childhood in warm, beachy San Diego where he was raised by parents (his mother a librarian, his father a teacher) who had no interest at all in sports. Somehow (need I warn you not to try this at home?), in their modest television-free household, built around long family dinners, they spawned their outlandishly sprawling 6’11” son, born after his ample harbinger–big brother Bruce, 6’6” 251 lbs.–who played three years of professional football as a tackle with the Dallas Cowboys.

After a hallowed high school career (unbeaten in his last year and a half, extending far into his senior year in college), Bill followed Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (then Lew Alcindor) to UCLA, where he led the Bruins to an NCAA record 88 consecutive victories, and won two national titles and three Player of the Year awards in his three years[3], all the while jousting with beloved Coach John Wooden about his hair length and other aspects of the free-spirited life that eventually brought Bill into close association and friendship with the Grateful Dead. Talk about spanning antinomies!

II

I have always loved Bill Walton. The way he played the game gave the lie to the universality of Yeats’s observation: Walton was both the best and the most full of passionate intensity. I marveled at his uncanny ability to capture, encompass, and then suddenly change a game’s flow, sometimes in a matter of seconds [4].

But: Bill Walton had a tragically foreshortened career, falling victim to the combined effects of an astonishing array of structural deformities in both his legs and in his spine. This was not made easier by being 6’11″, and his book traces the prolonged nature of his excruciation.

Having overcome being a stutterer well into adulthood, Walton launched a successful career as a broadcaster with ESPN, only to have it torpedoed and nearly ended forever by devastating and crippling spinal injuries that had him lying on the floor in constant pain, completely unable to move.

A near-miraculous eight and a half hour surgery was the first step toward becoming, as of the book’s publication in 2016, almost free of pain or medication. Other steps included countless hours spent in the ninety degree healing waters of the Mission Valley YMCA–which functions as a kind of institutional deux ex machina in Back from the Dead–in Bill’s beloved hometown of San Diego. Walton’s narrative details the many tragic–and some comic—reversals on his long arduous odyssey.

After many failed operations, through ESPN booth cohort Jim Gray, Bill found Dr. Steve Garfin, a miracle-working spine surgeon[5] who succeeded after Bill had experienced myriad disheartening failures, leaving him hopeless, reduced by unbearable pain and repeated failure to exclaiming “it’s just too hard.” Dr. Garfin’s spinal surgery held together even after Bill was hit and practically left for dead by a reckless skate-boarder.

Just before Dr. Garfin, there was a life-saving chance encounter with a champion swimmer (at the Mission Valley Y) who saw the despair in Walton’s eyes and loudly shouted at him “Don’t do it.”

Now, Walton is back on Pac 12 television, hyperbolically celebrating any display of passion or excellence, riding his beloved bicycle all over San Diego, and reveling in the accomplishments of his four sons and the healing love of his wonderfully patient wife Lori. When declaring himself pain and medication free, Bill proclaims that “participation in sports, being part of a team, and music are my medicine.” He left out his bike.

III

Walton’s accounts of his agonies make his highs–the championships and the memories of his ecstatic play–all the more special. Those moments are undiminished by the trials of daily life. And they were many; far more than many people remember, in part because the highs were mired in controversy and interspersed with pain and failure.

I loved Bill Walton so much: through his glory years at UCLA and during the incandescent though sadly brief year and a half that he and Coach Jack Ramsey were molding an adequate Portland Trailblazer team into an unbeatable juggernaut that won the 1977 NBA Finals 4-2 after trailing 2-0. My feeling for Walton’s game was so strong that I could not bring myself to root against the Celtics once he joined their 1986 championship team [6] though I’d been a devout Celtic hater all my life. On that team, Walton tipped the power balance critically in his late career role as “sixth man.” It was his title as much as Finals MVP Larry Bird’s.

So much so that I have always maintained that at his sadly-truncated peak, Walton was the equal of Wilt Chamberlain and, based on their head-to-head match ups, especially the Western Conference Finals during Portland’s 1977 championship season–superior to Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. The radical disconnect between Walton’s “peak value” and overall “career value” (notions first introduced to sports vocabulary and lore by baseball historian Bill James) raises the question of how to understand him; where to locate his voice, his career, his significance.

Walton names Bill Russell as his all-time favorite player, and, though Walton’s modesty and tact forbid his saying so, Russell is the only center ever to have played the game so cerebrally. And while there is no arguing with Russell’s eleven titles in thirteen seasons, Walton was bigger, better offensively, a far better passer, and very close to Russell’s peerless abilities as a defender, rebounder, outlet passer, and ability to read and then change a game’s rhythm at the most critical times.

Interestingly, the many photos in Back from the Dead show how big Walton really was. (Though listed at just 6’11″, he is clearly taller than both Kevin McHale and 7’ Robert Parrish.) He towers over Russell, and isn’t very much shorter than Chamberlain; his massive presence is also amplified by his prominent chest and remarkably upright posture[7].

Still, Walton’s string of crippling injuries, which dogged him throughout his career, sullied his reputation in the eyes of less magnanimous observers. When Bill finally decided he could eke no more basketball out of the body he somehow resurrected for that final title run in Boston, Kareem–to whom emotional generosity came only later in life–derided him as Dr. Scholl. Now, Walton is extolled with the faint praise of being one of the NBA’s all-time Top Fifty[8].

He played the center position in a unique and highly mindful fashion. I only saw him once in person, when he toiled with the Clippers, that night managing to rally them sufficiently to defeat Hubie Brown’s Knicks. I had taken a chance and scalped (the only time I ever did this) $15 tickets, and wound up sitting three rows behind Hubie. Bill was in the high post, resembling a helicopter, wildly gesticulating to players on the perimeter to direct both their movement and the ball’s: a giant point guard in the post

IV

But Walton doesn’t trumpet his own greatness. Perhaps “admiration” best captures the childlike quality of the showers of adulation that pour from him as if he were a sprawling river. The praise flows in many directions: Maurice Lucas is celebrated as “the greatest Blazer of them all,” and you sense that Bill–that team’s MVP–says it with complete sincerity. Jerry Garcia and the rest of the Grateful Dead band members are duly celebrated and lionized, along with UCLA team-mate Jamal Wilkes, and Portland Coach Jack Ramsey. Larry Bird inspires another level of reverence. Kareem gets due respect, and Walton’s four sons rev up his loving responsiveness.

A rare exception to Bill’s good-natured  respect for all who cross his path has to do with an incident in which Coach Wooden, about whom Walton otherwise speaks reverentially, sours on play-maker Greg Lee, the point guard who fed Walton during his 21-22 shooting streak in the 1973 title game. Unlike Bill, Greg failed to convince Wooden when the Coach came asking about marijuana use, leading to Wooden’s installing Tommy Curtis at point guard, which ruined team chemistry. Walton’s analysis of Curtis’s character and basketball flaws–which he believes undercut his path to a third straight national championship–are withering. His observations also raise interesting and unresolved questions about Wooden’s legendary sagacity.

It occurs to me that there may be a shared trait of spiritual generosity that unites two of Walton’s great heroes, Bill Russell and Jerry Garcia. It’s a trait that informs Walton own appreciations of such lesser Portland teammates: Larry Steele, Lionel Hollins, Johnny Davis, and Bobby Gross.
Bill’s humility, individuality, and curiosity were all apparent to me the only time I met him, in 1991, at an Adult Fantasy Basketball Camp, run by Don Nelson. As a psychologist, I am accustomed to anxious joking from athletes when they find out my profession. As such, I was stunned by Walton’s initial question: “What kind of a psychologist?” At breakfast, he then proceeded to plow through the five newspapers that were delivered to him.

Most prominently, Walton thrives on human interaction. Yes, we all do–or at least we should, but he does in a way that I find inspirational and unique. Perhaps his parents deserve a nod here: both educators, neither with any interest in sports; a house free of television.

Protean to the end, he is so real, he’s surreal.

What I wouldn’t give to see him play Wilt! Or Hakeem! A friend of mine conceives of Heaven as a place where we get to see everyone in his prime, to settle all arguments about players of different eras[9]. Just thinking of that is like knocking on heaven’s door.

But I digress. Thank you, Bill Walton.

Notes

1 Liss, R. “Five Greatest Centers: Why Walton Belongs.” Welcomat, December, 1989.

2 I almost passed on reading his book, and might have, had my high school friend Ivan not conferred it upon me as a birthday gift over a year ago.

3 Freshmen were not yet eligible for varsity play, but stories kept emerging from UCLA about how their NCAA champion varsity was getting beat decisively in scrimmages by Walton’s freshman class.

4 In this respect, he is the real precursor of Magic Johnson. Their infectious glee brands them as true spiritual brothers.

5 Bill muses that Dr. Garfin’s meticulous approach reminded him of Coach Wooden’s.

6 Liss, R. “Laius and the Parquet Floor.” Welcomat, June, 1986.

7 Walton’s listed adult playing height was 6 feet 11 inches; it has been reported that Walton is actually taller (7 feet or more) but does not like being categorized as a seven-footer.

8 In being stripped progressively of all his great honors after such a spectacular beginning, the plight of a Walton advocate becomes reminiscent of Shakespeare’s King Lear, who is asked to cut his retinue of one hundred knights in half and has his protests met with a challenge as to whether he still needs or merits any attendants at all.

He was a credible candidate for greatest player of all time.  Walton’s rookie contract was the largest ever at the time, and he was the winningest and most decorated college player ever, with only the loss of a semi-final game in his senior year to even arguably undercut his case.

9 Liss, R. “The Afterlife League: Basketball heaven.” Welcomat, April, 1990.

 

 

 

 

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