NBA great Bill Walton talks basketball, injury, inspiration

NBA legend and broadcaster returns to South Dakota for kids' basketball camps

Bill Walton holds a basketball.

NBA legend Bill Walton returns as one of the feature athletes for this year’s Legends for Kids free clinics and events. Walton was one of the first athletes at the Legends for Kids, which is celebrating 20 years this year.

Here, Walton — a Southern California native — shares his excitement about returning to South Dakota as well as some other gems about life, injuries, music and sports.

How did you get started in basketball? Did you play any other sports, or was basketball the sport that pulled you in?

I got my start in basketball by following my older brother, Bruce, around after school. In 1960, I was 8 years old, and our coach was the local fireman. His name was Rocky, and he turned out to be the best coach I ever had.

Rocky volunteered at our elementary school for 59 years, never taking a penny.  When he died a few years ago, Rocky was the richest man I’ve ever known. I cannot tell you today if Rocky knew anything about sports, but he sure knew people, he knew life, he knew community, he knew family, and he knew fun. He coached us in all sports, but really what he coached us in was life. And my passion for sports and life can all be traced ultimately back to Rocky.

I also played flag football, a little baseball, and I ran track and field. In football, I was the combination between Kellen Winslow as a tight end and Ray Nitschke as the middle linebacker. In baseball, I was the precursor to Reggie Jackson. In track and field, I was the combination of Usain Bolt and Dick Fosbury.

How did you relate your love of basketball to your parents, who were not involved in sports?

My parents, the greatest parents ever, never had any interest in sports — it was not their thing. But they were supportive of anything and everything that I did.

I was a model child, a straight-A student and a good basketball player and athlete from the very beginning. But my parents were encouraging, nurturing, loving, supportive, and they just kept emphasizing to chase my dream and just go up and do it all and get out of the house by the time you’re 18, and I surpassed that: I left when I was 16.

John Wooden, one of the most successful coaches in the history of not only basketball but also team sports, had a profound impact on you and your career, on and off the court?

John Wooden, one of the four inspirational pillars of my early life — along with my parents, Rocky, Chick Hearn and then Coach Wooden.

Coach Wooden taught us how to learn, and he taught us how to compete. He taught us how to think, how to dream, how to build, how to develop, and his impact on me has been everlasting across all levels of my life.

I did not know what I had in Coach Wooden or my parents, or Rocky, or Chick Hearn. I thought that everybody’s life was like mine. But I was born on third base — I had the most wonderful childhood ever. I was born, raised and still live in San Diego. I had, as one of my master teachers, John Wooden, who taught me the game of life.

John Wooden is viewed as a larger-than-life figure. What was it like being around John Wooden every day?

Everyone has an image of their hero, and everyone has an image of John Wooden. I spent 43 years of my life with John Wooden: three years as a recruit, four years as his player and then 36 years as his friend — by far, the most interesting part of my relationship with him.

However you view Coach Wooden — and everybody views Coach Wooden in a positive light because he was an extremely positive, optimistic and upbeat person — he was better than that.

Coach Wooden lived to talk, yet he was not a self-promoter. He was a man of action. He did not like accolades. He did not like awards. He did not like acknowledgment. He did not like credit — he wanted to work the entire time.

I was Coach Wooden’s easiest recruit. I also became his worst nightmare, and I drove the poor guy to an early grave at 99. Coach Wooden, who taught by anecdotes, mantras and maxims, wrote a special maxim for me on the day I graduated from UCLA in June 1974:

“To Bill Walton, it’s the things you learn after you know it all that count.”

I am guilty of being Coach Wooden’s slowest learner ever. I’m also guilty of smiling on a cloudy day.

Did you ever get annoyed you were not allowed to dunk?

It was against the rules for my entire high school and college career, and we never really gave it much thought.  We played to win, and we did that most of the time.

Not being able to dunk ultimately made me a better basketball player, focused on skill, timing and positioning — the three elements that Coach Wooden continued to hammer home as to what makes a talented contributor to any group dynamic. As long as the rules apply to everybody, and as long as the rules are all equally enforced, it doesn’t really matter what the rules are. The best players, the best teams, we are going to win.

You have played on big stages across all levels of the game. Do you have a favorite memory of college or professional games?

I played on three of the greatest teams in the history of basketball.

UCLA: We started there 49 years ago, and the records still stand to this very day.

Portland Trail Blazers: The youngest team in the history of the NBA to ever win the championship. The oldest guy on the Blazers was 24.

Boston Celtics: My boyhood dream team in the shadow of Bill Russell, my favorite player ever on and off the court, and I got to play for Red Auerbach. Like John Wooden, like Jack Ramsay, one of the premier team builders in the history of all sports and one of the finest human beings you’ll ever come across.

I wanted the big stage. I dreamed about the big stage. I wanted to play for the championships. I wanted to win the championships, and a lot of those dreams came true.

But I’m still haunted to this day by my failures, so many of my failures related to my orthopedic injuries and also not living up to John Wooden’s standards of “failing to prepare is preparing to fail.”

But the greatest moment of my entire basketball career came at the very end in practice, for the Boston Celtics, when I played Kevin McHale one on one in front of the entire Celtic family, and I crushed him.

Many people have called you the best passing big man of all time. Who was the best or favorite player you played with and against?

I started playing basketball when I was 8 years old, and I was a guard. Jerry West and Pete Maravich were the guys that I always adored. Then when I was 14, I got hurt, and I grew 6.5 inches in three months, and everything changed in my life, and Bill Russell became my favorite player and still is to this very day.

The nicest thing that anyone ever said about me as a basketball player was that I helped my teammates play better ball. I grew up with the ball in my hands. I was a guard, and I had the ball all the time. I did everything: dribbled, shoot, passed, rebounded, blocked the shots, scored, I kept the score, I called the fouls, I made all the substitutions — it was fantastic.

The best player I ever played against was Kareem. The best player I ever played with was Larry Bird, and the greatest teammate I ever had was Maurice Lucas. I played to win, and I played to try to make my teammates the star players, and I lived by the leadership element of, “Do what others can’t or won’t do.” And I was willing to do all that stuff.

What do you think of the modern-day NBA? The cultural shift toward positionless basketball, and the stretching of the floor with a greater emphasis on the three-point shot?

I love today’s NBA. Players are bigger, faster, stronger and better than ever before. The level of excellence over the last five years with the Golden State Warriors is a dream come true. I love the skill game. I love the passing game. I love the fast break. The relentless offense. The team game. The level of physical fitness. I love the brilliant management/ownership. I love the coaching for the Warriors, they are the thorium standard in the world of the NBA today. On the collegiate level, that is with Duke and Coach K. I’m a big believer in the value of the coach, of the team, of the culture and of the foundation that goes into those defining characteristics.

I love innovation, I love new things, and what the three-point shot has been to the sport of basketball, it has changed everything. It has quickened the pace. It has called for greater skill, and it makes the games more exciting, and the players today, with what they are doing, is just spectacular.

Today’s NBA is the fulfillment of a dream — the dream that I had, the dream that I lived and to see how it just keeps going and getting bigger, better and more financially successful all the time, and I’m just glad to be a part of something as special as the NBA.

Your career was well-documented with multiple injuries. Mentally, how did you push through those struggles?

I was born with bad feet. I tore up my knee when I was 14. My first operation was in 1967. I’ve had 37 orthopedic operations. Both of my ankles are fused. My knee was finally replaced a few years ago after I dragged it around for 36 years, and my spine is fused as well. Other than that, everything is going well!

I spent half of my life in the hospital. I spent half my adult life in chronic pain. Today, I’m doing fantastic! I have no pain, no medication, and I can go full speed all day long. I’ve never been busier, I’ve never been happier, and I haven’t been this healthy since I was 13 years old, and I’m madly in love with my wife, Lori. I cannot speak for her.

A person’s life is defined by what happens when the ball bounces the other way. What happens when things go wrong? I’ve been super lucky in that my parents, Rocky, Chick Hearn, Jerry Garcia, Bob Dylan, Neil Young, Martin Luther King, Bobby Kennedy, Sargent Shriver, all my musical heroes, all my heroes in business and in life … their resiliency, their perseverance, their persistence, their ability to get up and get going … again, and not wallow around in the muck at the bottom, because things do go wrong, and you’ve got to be able to figure out a way to start up one more time.

I was super lucky in my life to have come across, 10 years ago, Duane, Byron, Ted and Gordon Roth (of California investment banking firm Roth Capital Partners) — to allow me to restart my life after spending 4.5 years on the ground is just invaluable, incalculable. I’m just the luckiest guy in the world.  I know the Roth family from Wayland, Iowa, which is right next to South Dakota. And if I didn’t have such a great life in San Diego/Southern California, I’m sure I would just pack up and move to South Dakota.

In your post-playing career, you have become one of the most entertaining broadcasters in basketball. How have you overcome issues with stuttering and moving forward with this path after your career?

Who would have ever thought? How can this be? My decision to become a broadcaster was a spur of the moment deal. I never gave it a single thought, much less a second thought, as to, “Oh, yeah, I’m going to be a broadcaster when I’m done.” It came to me on the hospital bed on March 15, 1990, when I realized that when you’re 6-foot-11, have red hair, big nose, freckles, goofy/nerdy looking face, you can’t talk, and you’re a deadhead — that television is the only career possibility.

At the beginning, I could not get a job. Then I finally got one, and I chased that dream for 18 years until my spine failed on Feb. 24, 2008 (not that I remember the date).

My broadcasting hero was Chick Hearn — that is who I grew up listening to. What he was able to do with his mind and his voice was just something that was so inspirational and awe-inspiring. Chick Hearn could talk perfectly faster than I could think. I’m a stutterer. For me to be a broadcaster is the most unlikely career choice ever. I love doing it now, but it was terrifying at the beginning. I had no idea what I was doing, and I’m often guilty of still not knowing what I’m doing. But I try my best and do the best job I can, each and every day.

It is like one of Coach Wooden’s mantra’s, which is, make each day your masterpiece.  I hope to continue as a broadcaster for as long as they’ll have me. I love doing it, and being a broadcaster is very much like being a history major in college, which I was. And in broadcasting, you have an oral examination every day, and you better get it all right, or you’re going to get fired. And I’ve been fired more than anybody, but I keep coming back, and I’m still here.

What advice would you give to kids looking to be successful in their sport?

Chase your dream. Play for fun. Play to learn life’s lessons. Play for your health. Play to learn how to deal with success and adversity working within a group dynamic. Learn to love what you do — the cornerstones of (Coach Wooden’s) Pyramid of Success are industriousness and enthusiasm. Do you love what you’re doing, and are you willing to work at it?

I live by all that stuff, whether it’s sports, whether it’s music, whether it’s meetings. Whatever. Just do what you love, and be a part of a special team. Find great teachers. Live a life of honor, sacrifice and discipline. With values, human characteristics and be willing to subjugate your ego to the greater goals of the team.

When you have a collective sense of effort and purpose, anything is possible, and there is nothing like being part of a special team. It will stay with you forever, and it will change you forever. Once you’re part of a special team, you will spend the rest of your life trying to get back on that unique and fabulous championship team.

What advice would give to parents who are watching their kids grow up in sports?

Be a great parent. It’s the child’s life, not your life. Your job is to help them chase and fulfill their dreams. It’s not how or what you teach, it’s who the teachers are themselves. You have not taught until they have learned. Help them find the greatest teachers/coaches they can. Help them get on the best possible team. But mostly, as a parent, tell your child that you love them, every day, every opportunity that you can. Be positive, be encouraging, be nurturing, and just never stop telling them, “I love you.” Even when the children ask you to stop, that is when you double down.

And make it fun for the children! Make it so they cannot wait to start playing. Teach them that sport is a reflection of life, and sport embodies a grand celebration of all good things!

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