Bill Walton Interview

Bill Walton shared some wonderful stories for this interview. Photo Courtesy: Will Martin
Bill Walton shared some wonderful stories for this interview. Photo Courtesy: Will Martin

By Will Martin

Back on October 24th I received a phone call very early in the day from my editor.

Always a conversation with brevity. ‘How’d you like to interview an NBA Hall Of Famer?’  Of course I go Drew Rosenhaus and retort, ‘Next Question?’

Next thing I know I am off for a 10am interview with a young man who got to play for a winning program at UCLA.

This man was also a part of Blazermania, be the only duo of a father-son combo to win NBA titles, win an MVP in an NBA Playoff, as a 6th man, and as an All-Star.

I also learned a little about his brother and a football connection…

Did I fail to mention he has been a Dead-Head for close to 50 years? What I wasn’t aware of-and the reason for this interview-was that Bill Walton has dealt with life-threatening pain for many years before advances in technology have now allowed Mr. Walton to be pain free and loving life again.

Bill Walton had a birthday on November 5th and was about to do a meet and greet at a location in Plano, Texas for people dealing with chronic pain. Walton now content to share his story of pain and overcoming, along with a few basketball questions along the way.

Opinionated, grateful, passionate, a man of convictions, and still that perfectionist it was my honor to be seated among 12 of Plano’s finest at the Texas Back Institute while interviewing the one and only Bill Walton!

Thanks for taking the time to speak with us this morning. Let’s begin with some parental history. You and son Luke are the only Father/Son duo to have gotten an NBA ring/title. How special is that for you as a Dad?
I was the luckiest Dad in the world. That there’s nothing like the pride of a Dad. This is a Dallas based deal too isn’t it (referring to Blitz Weekly)?

Yes sir it is.
So even though I am a product of the most unathletic parents you’ve ever seen in your life, my older brother Bruce and I are the ONLY brother combination in the world to have played in the Super Bowl (He was with the Dallas Cowboys) and NBA Championship.

And you yourself have the distinction of being the only NBA player to win an MVP 6th Man Award, an MVP regular season, AND….and MVP for an NBA Final.
And I was the 1st Dallas Mavericks broadcaster back in 1980.

I did not know that…October 11th 1980 their first game.
Yes. They were an expansion  team, a brand new franchise. I was injured, unable to play and so they were using a Los Angeles based production company to get started and…they asked me if I would do the games, and I said yes. I worked with Frank Glieber.

Yes! I remember Frank. The pride of Highland Park. Called lots of games for CBS alongside Roger Staubach in the early 80’s.
I’m the luckiest guy in the world. I know Dr. Ray and I know Dr. Jessica and (smiling broadly) I’ve got a great new spine! (Laughter from all the doctors)

If memory serves correctly…
I’m ready for the next 65 years.

Amen to that. If memory serves correctly the back problems that you now no longer have to deal with thanks to successful surgery. Did that start in high school or college?
I was born with structural congenital defects in my feet which led to an endless string of stress fractures. 

When I was 14 I tore up my knee and had to have my first operation of ultimately 37 so I had a very bad foundation. You have to have a good foundation. If you have a bad foundation everything that happens up the line turns out bad.

When I was 21 I was playing for UCLA…and I broke my spine in a very bad fall. I was taken down very hard…can your recorder catch all of this? (Getting up for a glass of water)

You’re all good. Please continue.
And so I had those early challenges…bad feet…with the bad knee and a broken back. And I lived with it my entire life until February of 2007. February 2007 I could no longer move. Then I spent two years on the ground.

I did everything I could do to avoid surgery, and then I had no choice. (Sees me adjusting the recorder) If you want to move that microphone over there go right ahead. Sorry.

(Continues) Then I had my spine surgery on February 8th of 2009.

Who did the surgery?
It was done by Steve Garfin as in G-A-R-F-I-N.

Doctor Ray: I know Steve! He’s from the UCSD (University California San Diego).
Dr. Garfin saved my life.

San Diego was also where you got drafted by the Conquistadors of the ABA, I believe?
I was the Class of ’74. The ABA offered me my own team. I was going to be the owner and the player. They were going to allow me any other players from the league on my team that I wanted, other than DR. J (Julius Erving) whom the ABA wanted to keep in New York for competitive balance but…I’m an NBA guy so I turned them down.

I mentioned Blazermania a few moments ago. You had a heck of a staff you played with.
We don’t call them staff we call them team members (smiling).

People like Dave Twardzik, Lionel Hollins, Maurice Lucas who I absolutely loved. You became the second team in history to overcome an 0-2 deficit. You beat Philadelphia in six after sweeping the Lakers and a young man who preceded you at UCLA-Kareem Abdul Jabbar-whom you guarded and defended very well. What fond memories do you have of that period in your life?
The Blazer team (1977) was the youngest team in the history of the NBA to ever win the championship to this day. That’s where I played my best basketball…or least the best since my knee injury at 14. It was a beautiful and wonderful team with a brilliant coach (Jack Ramsay) and incredible fans…and anchored by the greatest teammate that I ever had-Maurice Lucas. It was a team for the ages and I loved playing on that team.

Can it be said that had you not gotten injured in 1978 that we might be talking about a Blazer dynasty? Seattle doesn’t go the Finals the next two years and fate might be different for you injuries notwithstanding?
There are no guarantees in life. The simple twists of fate and the breaks of the game are the two maxims that define so much of the success and failure in my life. That was a a great time. The oldest guy on the team when we won the championship was 24.

Doctors: Your oldest guy was 24?
Yeah, 24…you know we had a very, very promising future.

I know that in 1978 I’m a young kid growing up in New Jersey and someone gives me an album called ‘Steal Your Face’ by the band that you know and love (Grateful Dead). I come to find out your hanging with long time friend Mickey Hart in Egypt at that time. How did your relationship with the Grateful Dead begin and what is the running number of times you have seen the band perform. I have read in excess of 650.
841 times.

Random Doctor: You’ve seen the Grateful Dead over 800 times?
Over 841 times, including a lot of shows at Stanford (paying homage to the many doctors seated with us who attended Cardinal country at some point).

How did that connection, that relationship begin?
We were in law school and the Grateful Dead performed at the Amphitheatre for the first time in the 80’s. All of us law students wanted to go so we marched down in unison toward the library and they opened the back gate and let us walk right in.

But I’m a Deadhead, and a proud Deadhead. Have been since I was 15. Went to my first show when I was 15. 1967 I was in high school and I’ve been going ever since. I had the pleasure of getting to meet the Grateful Dead. I had a lot of opportunities to meet the Grateful Dead. I was so painfully shy as a young man because of my horrific stuttering problem.

I’m a lifelong stutterer and I turned down all the early opportunities to meet the band, I finally was introduced to the band in 1974 when I moved to Portland and we’ve been best friends ever since.

I remember reading a story, aside from the  fact you have been a lifelong Celtics fan, in 1985 on September 6th you get signed by them. Rumor has it or perhaps you can confirm that getting you into Boston has much to do with Larry Bird being in the same room as Red Auerbach with Bird saying, ‘If he’s healthy, bring him on!’
I called Red (Auerbach) and told him that I wanted to be on his team. I heard later that when I got Red on the phone he was having a meeting with Larry Bird with what to do for next year’s team. And so, when I told Red that I wanted to be on the team he said, ‘Hold On’, Red told Larry, ‘I got Bill Walton on the phone and he wants to play in Boston.’ Larry looked at Red and said, ‘Go get him!’ That was how I became a part of the Celtics.

At that period of your career was that the healthiest you were feeling?
No…no…I’m healthier now with my fused ankles and my knees, hip replacement and my new spine.

You mentioned ankles and I must mention that I remember being 14 or 15 when I heard the term ‘navicular’. You have spoken about how much better you’re feeling with spinal surgery. Who was the doctor or doctors that figured out lessening the distance from tendon to bone thus allowing you to play with less pain in the ankle and foot area?
They finally…as spine surgery and spine health have been revolutionized they (doctors) finally realized after years and years that I had Calcaneonavicular bars coalition that led to the terrible rigidity and immobility in my feet which forced all the impact straight into the navicular bone which was being dissipated through all the tendons, ligaments, and joint muscles.

Every time I ran, jumped, walked, whatever, all that impact all that force was going straight into the navicular bone. Eventually it just cracked…that was the stress fracture and then I would just stop, and it would heal and then I would start again. It was an endless cycle for a lot of years, decades where ultimately they were ground to dust. Doctors finally had to fuse the ankles.

Where spine health is concerned Bill, knowing you played and now cover from a journalistic standpoint, the grind of a nine month season, being on the road, all the relentless travel, do you find that your story is one that players should seek out in terms of awareness, diet, health, sleep, maybe proper shoewear?
Health is a function of three things. 1. Luck 2. Genetics and 3. Choices in your lifestyle and…I did everything wrong. 


I stole Coach (John) Wooden’s lucky penny, putting the curse of bad luck upon me the rest of my life, and then I had the bad degenerative genetics of the structure of my feet, and then I chose to play basketball, and I chose to be the broadcaster. Those were things that were not good for my health. I loved doing it!

Any coaching similarities having played for John Wooden and then transitioning into Jack Ramsay at Portland?
I played for six coaches who are in the Basketball Hall Of Fame. More than Wooden, had my feet and body been able to carry me to my dreams, but…Jack Ramsay made me the best player that I ever was. 

John Wooden was the most influential and inspirational person that I had in my life aside from my Mom and Dad. I have learned over 60 years or the 61 years when this interview gets published.

November 5th (Bills Birthday)!
I have learned to never rank, rate, or compare coaches, children, concerts, or championships or congratulations. Just enjoy them all. 

Dr. Ray: Amen! I’m taking that home with me to use on my four kids.
I have four children older than you Ray.

(Heavy Laughter)

Dr. Ray: I had a friend call the other day and I told him, ‘Bill Walton is coming in for a meet and greet and the friend said, ‘You mean Luke’s dad?’ He went to UCLA.
I went to UCLA…I’m sorry we lost, and I’m sorry I stole that penny..

The transition from player to broadcaster what was the one thing that happened in your life that you didn’t expect as you transitioned in life?
That it would work. That I would actually make a career of it. I was encouraged to go into it by other people, and I had no idea.

At the beginning I couldn’t get a job. They looked at me and said, ‘Don’t even think about it Walton. We’re not going to put you front of a TV with you spitting and stuttering over everything. Talking endlessly about Jerry Garcia and Bob Dylan and Neil Young. We just can’t have it!’ 

But, when I was forced to stop in February of 2007 because of my spine I was voted one of the Top Ten pundits in all of media. I was named in the Top 20 in all of sports news representatives on the whole planet, and I was voted one of the Top 50 sportscasters of all time.

So much going through my mind as I look at you…
I know I’m scary looking (smiling).

That’s not what I mean, there are so many questions I’m vibing on. Let’s go this route. It has often been stated that you were a height of 6’11”. Some have said as high as 7’2″ but that you never wanted to be referred to as ‘A Seven Footer’.
The last time I was measured here I was 6’11”. If you are ever doubting that you should see me standing next to Kareem (Abdul Jabbar). He was a full three inches taller than me and he was 7’2″. Or see me standing next to Yao Ming who was 7’6.5″ and I would up to here on him (points to neck). 

It’s not how big you are but how hard you play!

You’ve been around the NBA a long time as a player and as a broadcaster. You’ve been around the whole tenure that is David Stern (who left his post February 1, 2014). I recall back in your day/my day the NBA Finals games would be on a tape delay basis. Not so now! What did David Stern do to make the NBA so globally popular, loved by so many, and throughout the world, a great product?
David Stern is the most important man in the history of basketball, and NEVER made a basket! David Stern brought the business acumen and capabilities to a beautiful and wonderful game. There has always been great players. There has always been great teams. But you need to be able to run the business and that was what he did magnificently. 

He is just a fantastic human being and what he has been able to do in the name of creating, and building, generating opportunities, and wealth for so many people has just been fantastic. The dream that we all had of being part of something special. He (David Stern) was able to make that dream come true.

That being said, I would dare say ‘what a long strange trip its been’. Back to spine awareness. For someone who is in pain now, for someone who has dealt with pain for most of their life. They may not know the questions to ask but they know that there is something that needs to be done. They may not know the avenue in which to go. What should that person do?
Call me! Call me up or email me. And educate themselves on the incredible evolution and change that has taken over the  world of spinal health care. You will become familiar with the good work of Dr. Ray, Dr. Jessica, Dr. Patel, and Dr Jim Cable…. 

To know what these guys can do today. To know exactly what is available. The tasks remain the same. Do you know what this is? (points to a smartphone) A smartphone which is six years old. You know what this is? (Points to a tablet) This is a tablet and this is three years old. 

In the last 7-10 years what has changed? The spine surgeons, what they do has always been the same. They take junk out, they decompress, they straighten, and then they stabilize. That hasn’t changed but the tools, the techniques, the technologies and the procedures, that is what has changed which then allows greater outcomes, greater success, less blood loss, more cause, shorter hospitalization stays, lesser chance of infection. Everything is getting better.

Compare it to the world of knee and hip replacement surgery. A few years ago that wasn’t happening. Doctors would do it, but not all of them worked. The success rate of knee and hip replacement surgery today is phenomenal. Also for the spine.

Also you have education which is the solution to all of our problems. The way that these guys have all come around, what they’re able to do now in the sharing of information, the teaching capabilities, the contributions of the medical device companies, and if we can only get the support of the insurance companies, the DEA, and the IRS we’d all be a lot better off.

Dr. Jessica: I hear you there!
The medical device tags that are being used are a terrible mistake. Why are we taxing people for trying to save lives and trying to make lives better, make peoples lives healthier? Those taxes should be placed on alcohol, tobacco, junk food, guns. Those are all the things that destroy health. Of course health is the most critical thing in our life. With your health anything is possible, without it you can’t do anything. 

And so here we are. We’re having a taxed policy which is Antithetical to what we’re trying to do to our own individual lives. 

Speaking only for myself Bill, I’ve always respected the fact that you’ve never been afraid to voice a fact, to voice an opinion. It’s safe to say that through your pain came a lot of wisdom. Now you get to pass the lessons along to people like myself, and even younger.
And that’s what we do with the better way back organization. A volunteer group of patients, former patients who work with current patients on both ends. Ones coming in, and the ones going out. This is a terrifying experience, the toughest thing I’ve gone through in my life. That’s why I do it. It’s the most rewarding thing I can do to pay it forward.

I’ve had 37 orthopedic surgeries. My ankles are fused. I’ve got a knee replacement that’s six months old. Those 36 operations I had that weren’t on my spine were a piece of cake compared to the spinal operation. Don’t ever let anyone tell you that this procedure is easy.

For the record you are here on behalf of the Texas Back Institute.
Yes sir.

Feel free to talk about the other groups or charities or events that are near and dear to you that allow you to promote this kind of awareness.
I usually spend an hour a day on the internet, face to face, on the phone with people who are threatening to kill themselves. More people kill themselves from spine pain than anything else in our health system. I know. I’ve been there. Your life becomes ruined. 

My life has been saved by people like Dr. Ray, Dr. Jim, Dr. Jessica, Dr. Nye- am I pronouncing that correctly? When you have the good fortune and the privilege of getting your health back, how do ever begin to thank the many people who helped to save your life? That’s why I do this. I have learned the mathematical equations in that when you have combined purpose with passion in your life that leads to pride and loyalty.

Pride being the satisfaction in our choices. Do we care about anything? I care about other people, about our country, about other people’s health and happiness. That’s why I do this. That, and the great lessons of life I learned lying on that floor. For two years prior and 1 year after you lie there and you ask yourself, ‘1 minute is a long time. 1 day is a long time. Three years is a long time lying down and you wonder if you’re ever going to get up again.’ Asking yourself the ultimate question. What am I going to do with my life if i can ever get up again? 

That’s why I do this. I have learned perspective, relativity, tolerance, and patience. If anyone would have thought to equate those four words with Bill Walton we’d have to seriously question that person’s sanity.

I would add one more word to that list, Bill. Family. I have to believe Lori and the four kids played a part in seeing this transition happen for you.
Family is before that because family comes after health. There are four pillars to happiness, which is the ultimate goal in life-to be happy. Health is first, family is second, home is third. That safe place where you can go to and regroup, be in a safe place by yourself start over. Those three things lead to the fourth pillar which is the hope and dream that tomorrow is going to be better. Without that you have not much at all. 

If you’re living for today, if you’re only dreaming about yesterday, it doesn’t work. You got to know that tomorrow is going to be better. Then you’re on your way. To the point of the family  I would not be here today were it not for my wife Lori. Every day she told me, ‘Don’t give up Bill! Don’t give up!’ and I had given up, it was just too hard.

As a term of endearment in case anyone thinks I am poking fun. Why are they calling the wrong person the Zen Master? Yes this applies to Phil Jackson but couldn’t this apply to you with your insights?
I’m Bill with two l’s (smiling).

As one with over 16 years sobriety I understand to a degree the hurdles overcome that you speak of. We’re all challenged. Some of you just don’t know it.

Moderator: I’m so sorry but we’re going to have to wrap this up pretty quick.

No problem. Last basketball question. It was decided that the NBA Finals format of 2-3-2 will now revert to the old 2-2-1-1-1 format. Thoughts?
I like the old format. I like the 2-3-2. It doesn’t matter what the rules are as long as the rules are applied equally. I like the 2-3-2 because it cuts down travel and I think it negates home court advantage. I think you want to make it possible for the best team to win. Home court advantage in the NBA is an extremely powerful thing. Do whatever you can to make the best team win. It’s what the rules say. They have really smart people sitting in an office all day saying ,’2-3-2 or 2-2-1-1-1? 2-3-2 or 2-2-1-1-1?’ They have TV and marketing executives and other big wigs pondering the dynamic of 2-3-2 or 2-2-1-1-1. 

I just want to play. I’m a person who wants to participate in the game of life. Because of these people (the doctors) I get to play. I get to ride my bike. I get to talk to these patients, these doctors who have given up so much of their time to be able to help someone like me be happy again.

I know how many people-I don’t know them all-but I know how many people have sacrificed their time for me. With that comes responsibility and duty which is why I am here.

And you sir, are the silence between the notes making the music. Keep doing what you do.
(Laughing heartily) I don’t know about that…I just listen to the music play.

*Special Thanks to Dr. Ray, Dr. Jessica, and the good people of the Texas Back Institute for this day. Meeting Bill Walton and to let him discuss his triumphs and tragedies was truly a blessing*.