Bill Walton Back from the Dead

ISBN 13: 9781476716862

Back from the Dead

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9781476716862: Back from the Dead

This inspiring memoir from sports and cultural icon Bill Walton recounts his devastating injuries and amazing recoveries, set in the context of his UCLA triumphs under John Wooden, his storied NBA career, and his affinity for music and the Grateful Dead.

In February 2008, Bill Walton suffered a catastrophic spinal collapse—the culmination of a lifetime of injuries—that left him unable to move. He spent three years on the floor of his house, eating his meals there and crawling to the bathroom, where he could barely hoist himself up onto the toilet. The excruciating pain and slow recovery tested Walton to the fullest. But with extraordinary patience, fortitude, determination, and sacrifice—and pioneering surgery—he recovered, and now shares his life story in this remarkable and unique memoir.

Walton grew up in San Diego in the 1950s and 1960s and was deeply influenced by the political and cultural upheavals of that period. Although he strongly identified with the cool people, particularly in music and politics, his greatest role model outside his family was super-straight UCLA basketball coach John Wooden, a thoughtful, rigorous mentor who seemed immune to the turmoil of the times. Although there was always tension and conflict between them, the two men would speak nearly every day for forty-three years, until Wooden’s death at age ninety-nine.

Despite a lifelong stuttering affliction, Walton chose a career in broadcasting after his playing days ended. He eventually won an Emmy Award and other accolades for broadcasting and was recognized as a leading media pundit.

John Wooden once said that no greatness ever came without sacrifice. Nothing better illustrates this saying than the real story of Walton’s life. In his own words, Back from the Dead shares this dramatic story, including his basketball and broadcasting careers, his many setbacks and rebounds, and his ultimate triumph as the toughest of champions.

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About the Author:

Bill Walton was NCAA player of the year at UCLA from 1972 to 1974, when UCLA set an NCAA record eighty-eight consecutive-game winning streak. A former NBA Champion and MVP, he was inducted into the Basketball Hall of Fame and selected as one of the NBA’s Fifty Greatest Players ever. He has also had a successful award-winning broadcasting career with ABC, ESPN, NBC, MSNBC, CBS, Turner, and Fox, among others. He currently resides in his hometown of San Diego with his family. Visit him at

Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:

Back from the Dead CHAPTER 1

One Way or Another This Darkness Got to Give

Summer 2009, San Diego

I can’t do this anymore. It’s just too hard. It hurts too much. Why should I continue? What’s the point in going on? I have been down so long now, I have no idea which way anywhere is anymore. There’s no reason to believe that tomorrow is going to be any better.

If I had a gun, I would use it.

The light has gone out of my life, and there’s no sound, either. Not even in my spirit and soul, where at least there has always been music.

I have been living on the floor for most of the last two and a half years, unable to move, unable to get up. I’ve cut myself off from Jerry, Bob, Neil, and the rest, just as I’ve disconnected from most everybody and everything else. The only people I see, talk to, or hear from are the few who refuse to leave me alone—my wife, Lori; my brother Bruce; our four sons; the most obstinate of my closest friends, like Andy Hill, Jim Gray, my guys in the Grateful Dead—and the one person I refuse to leave alone, John Wooden, now almost one hundred years old. Everybody else has been turned away. My mom doesn’t even know about any of this. She only gets the good news.

Lori always says my mind is like a slot machine: you never know how the spinning wheels are going to align.

The wheel is turning and you can’t slow down,

You can’t let go, and you can’t hold on,

You can’t go back, and you can’t stand still,

If the thunder don’t get you, then the lightning will.

I’ve lived with pain for most of my life, but pain has never been my entire life. It’s in my spine now, and radiating everywhere from it. It has taken me down like never before. And it just won’t let me be.

What to some is pain, to me is really just fatigue. I love and live for that fatigue and the soreness that comes with it, when you’ve pushed yourself relentlessly up and over another long, hard climb—the longer and harder the better—and met the toughest challenges imaginable, fighting against gravity and exhaustion, even when one more push seems impossible, until you reach the top, and the destination of euphoria, and you throw your arms over your head in a wild explosion of ecstasy and celebration—a high-altitude climax that you’re sure will last forever. There is nothing like it.

But this time is different—real different.

I was inspired early on by George Bernard Shaw, who challenged us all, as we approach the scrap heap of life, to become “a force of nature instead of a feverish, selfish little clod of ailments and grievances, complaining that the world will not devote itself to making you happy.”

That’s the way it has always gone for me, as a young boy growing up in San Diego, chasing my basketball dreams at UCLA, then Portland, with my hometown Clippers, and finally in Boston. It was more of the same later on, out on the broadcasting and business road for more than twenty years. It’s why I’ve gone to more than 859 Grateful Dead shows. It’s really all been one show that never ends. It’s also why, when I’m not at a Dead show, or not involved with basketball or business, I am at my happiest and best when riding high, up on my bike, dripping and soaking with sweat under the hot, burning sun, turning the crank and pushing the wheel endlessly over, time after time after time. Mile after countless mile across the warm, dry desert, along the twisting, jagged coast, or winding up a mountain, spinning, twirling, rolling, drifting, dreaming, celebrating—the chance of being on yet another long, hard climb, the longer and harder the better.

I can’t count the number of these long, hard climbs I’ve made over the years. But I do know that while the longest and hardest have taken me the highest, I never was able to get that euphoria to last very long. Every time, way too soon after I’d reached the top—so tantalizingly close to perfection—the dancing, dreaming, and celebrating that I was sure would never end would come to a crashing halt. Somehow, some way, my wheels would stop turning; I’d lose control and wind up skidding or skulking off the road, collapsing into a crumpled, helpless, hopeless heap—where everything would end up broken.

But with every inevitable catastrophic collapse, at least I always had the music—the one thing that never stopped. The songs, the stories, the dreams, the hope, would always get me through.

I realized at a very early age that all the songs of my heroes were really just songs of my own. And that they were written for me, to me, about me, and about everything that happened in my life. Somehow, some way, they all knew. About everything. The Dead, Dylan, Neil, the Johns—Lennon and Fogerty—Crosby, Stills & Nash, the Stones, Carlos, the Beach Boys, the Beatles, Jimmy Cliff, Jackson Browne, and ultimately the Eagles and Bruce Springsteen.

It fell apart, and it breaks my heart to think about how close we came.

So close, so many times. It all could have been so perfect but for the fiery crash that would ruin everything, every time. UCLA and the 88-game winning streak that should have been a perfect 105—what could and should have been, ultimately ending in disappointment, shame, and embarrassment. The Trail Blazers, Clippers, Celtics—more of the same. It all could have been so right; it all should have been so perfect.

When life looks like Easy Street, there is danger at your door.

It’s never a good idea, Coach Wooden preached, to measure yourself by what you have done rather than by what you could or should have been able to do.

But at least my crashes—painful, miserable, and frequent as they were—always eventually led to new beginnings and the next long, hard climb. And on each new climb, I had to try to remember to learn perspective, relativity, patience, and tolerance, and remind myself of the fragility of it all. You’d think I would know by now. But the pattern kept repeating. Each new challenge filled me with new confidence that this time would be different. And that the joys of this long, hard climb would finally last forever.

Coach Wooden was presciently brilliant on so many fronts. Sadly it took me too long to realize it. When I played for him, I was a teenager—seventeen, eighteen, nineteen years old. Most of what he said in those days seemed ridiculous. He would constantly remind me then, and continue to tell me over the next four decades, “Walton, you are the slowest learner I have ever had!”

Coach Wooden was an English teacher by profession; he had young men under his athletic supervision in the afternoon. Coach was charged by his father, Joshua, to “make each day your masterpiece.” Coach dutifully passed that wisdom on to all of his students. For his certificate of currency, relevancy, and authenticity, he wrote his master’s thesis on how to teach poetry. And while Coach had his poets—Shakespeare, Tennyson, Frost, Longfellow, Whitman, Dailey—I have mine: Jerry Garcia, John Lennon, Neil Young, Bob Dylan. Maybe if Coach had listened more closely, he would have realized that my guys were singing the same songs as his. I’m sure he felt the same way about me—listening more closely and all.

These days, it feels like none of them are singing anymore at all—Coach’s masters or mine. The music has finally, unexpectedly, tragically, totally stopped. I am buried too far down. It’s just too dark down here. And the climb is finally too long and too darn hard.

By the numbers, I am the most injured athlete in the history of sports. My injuries are not the gravest, but they are mine. They never go away. Sadly, they are the kinds of injuries that no one could see happen or ultimately understand—the way the world witnessed Joe Theismann’s leg snapping like a twig, endlessly replayed on TV.

And while I am a fighter and a player in the game of life, I am not much more than that. The true champions and heroes in our world are the freedom fighters struggling for truth and justice, the ones who through the ages gave up everything—their limbs, their minds, their freedom, their lives—so that all of us could have a chance to chase our dreams.

For me, the dream has too often devolved into the nightmare of endlessly repetitive and constant pain, agony, and guilt. Thirty-seven orthopedic surgeries, nearly all stemming from my malformed feet—my faulty foundation, which led to the endless string of stress fractures, which ultimately brought on the whole mess I’m in now. The insidious, ever-widening fractures in my feet, made so much worse by the fact that they were undetectable, even by machines, so that practically everyone had doubts that they ever even really existed. Confusing and confounding doubts that even consumed me.

The band was packed and gone

Were they ever even here at all?

I was born with structural, congenital defects in my feet, something that I learned way too late in life. My feet were not built to last—or to play basketball. My skeletal, structural foundation—inflexible and rigid—could not absorb the endless stress and impact of running, jumping, turning, twisting, and pounding for twenty-six years. Those fractures, tiny at first, were buried deep inside the bones, breaking from the inside out. Those bones in my feet and legs would ultimately fail just from playing the game I lived and loved, forced apart like earth’s tectonic plates, scraping and torqueing along a fault line.

I eventually ground my lower extremities down to dust.

As each long, hard climb became more impossibly difficult, the pain that I always thought was just part of life and the price of commitment and perfection would ultimately send me limping off the road into that miserable, useless scrap heap.

Yes, the external pressures on me to play—when the crippling pain in my feet would tell me to stop—were enormous and very real. But ultimately the fault was mine. I was too weak to stand up for myself.

Won’t you try just a little bit harder? Couldn’t you try just a little bit more? . . .

Tryin’ to get just a little bit farther than you’ve gone before.

Chasing my dreams was devolving into the deteriorating state of tormented conflict that has come to define my life.

I grew up in San Diego. It was perfect. My life was wonderful—great families; excellent schools, teachers, and coaches; it was sunny and eighty degrees every day. I assumed it was the same everywhere, for everyone.

Cursed with my bad feet and a lifelong speech impediment, I grew up thinking that everybody’s feet hurt all the time and that only the lucky ones were able to talk. I was twenty-one before it ever occurred to me that there might be people who didn’t have my best interests at heart.

And then I joined the NBA.

I was totally unprepared for a professional life outside the shelter of my family, my friends, my teachers, my coaches, and California. My parents loved me more than they cared about themselves. They taught my two brothers, my sister, and me to speak up and out, and to take action to make things better and right. It never crossed my mind that this could ever lead to problems.

Both my parents were college graduates and professionals. My dad was a social worker, adult educator, and music teacher; my mom was our town’s librarian. I was a top student. I loved school. But because of my profound, limiting, and shamefully embarrassing stuttering problem, I learned to live and love life by myself. I loved to read, study history, write, and immerse my spirit and soul in all kinds of music. For the longest time we didn’t have a TV, couldn’t afford one. When finally we saved up enough money to buy one, my mom, who was in charge of the finances, declared under relentless pressure from the children that while we did now have enough money to buy a TV, she had done extensive research at the library and determined that there was nothing on TV worth watching—so we weren’t going to get one.

When I was twelve I discovered, at a friend’s house, that basketball was on TV. With that revelation came the staggering conclusion that my mom was not right about everything.

I had started playing basketball when I was eight and immediately fell in love with it because of my first coach, Rocky—our local fireman. When I was ten, I discovered the Lakers and the NBA on the radio, brought to life by Chick Hearn. Rocky and Chick were God to me. They defined my reality, creating a world that was not only fun but incredibly exciting. They had the ability to paint a masterpiece every night. And they delivered.

Basketball is the most perfect of all games. All you have to do is wait for the opening tip; then it’s, Who’s got a game? Who’s in shape? Who can play? Who really wants this? It also allows someone who might be less naturally gifted than another to always have the chance to win, by outthinking and working smarter than the other guy, especially if teamed with equally smart, dedicated, and determined dreamers.

Rocky ultimately turned out to be my best coach. Rocky—like John Wooden, Denny Crum, Lenny Wilkens, Jack Ramsay, Gene Shue, Paul Silas, Don Chaney, K. C. Jones, and Red Auerbach—never really coached basketball. They all coached life. I learned early on that basketball was life, and that every possession of the ball provided unlimited opportunities to make a powerful, positive impact and contribution to our goal, a realization that I try to apply to everything I do in my life.

In basketball—like life—if your team is well coached, well conditioned, reasonably intelligent, and totally determined to make a positive, consistent contribution, you just might be able to find a way to beat anybody, maybe everybody. Or at least to have the chance to succeed on any long, hard climb.

Despite my bad feet and cursed speech, things were going fine for me until I was fourteen. I was 6'1", maybe 110 pounds, and playing basketball every minute that I could. Then one day in the summer of ’67, down at the Helix High gym, I was playing against some really old guys—they must have been in their thirties. I was having a big day, just torching them, and they didn’t like it. So they took me down with a high-low, tearing up my left knee. They stood over me, laughing.

Bob Dylan wrote: “When I was down, you just stood there grinning.”

After a few months of rest and rehabilitation during which my knee didn’t get any better, I was wheeled into surgery in the early fall for my first operation. I was fourteen years old. Afterward the doctor told me, “We don’t know how this is going to play out, Billy. Just go home and lie down for a few months and we’ll hope and pray for the best.”

Things were never the same again. I dutifully went to bed, and when I got up three months later I was six and a half inches taller—but only five pounds heavier. My parents were aghast; none of my clothes fit anymore. But my coach, now Gordon Nash, was ecstatic.

I loved basketball from the very beginning—because of Rocky, because of the nature of the game, the speed, strategy, execution, repetition, running, jumping, and sweating. And I really loved the results—like winning.

In my first varsity season as a Helix junior in 1968–69, we won our last sixteen games. The next time my team lost was about five and a half years later, midway through my senior season at UCLA.

I lived to play on winning teams. At UCLA, I was All-America, Academic All-America, and College Player of the Year three times each. In the NBA,...

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