Vice Sports Q&A: Bill Walton
The inimitable television analyst and basketball legend talks UCLA, injuries, John Wooden, broadcasting, overcoming a severe stutter and debilitating back pain, and his son Luke coaching the Golden State Warriors.
Brian Spurlock-USA TODAY Sports
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On January 19, 1974, the No. 2-ranked Notre Dame basketball squad defeated top-ranked UCLA 71-70 in South Bend, Indiana. That put an end to the Bruins' 88-game win streak, and left an indelible mark on UCLA's center, Bill Walton. Yep: that Bill Walton. Long before he became the most ebullient, inimitable broadcaster in college basketball and the world's most recognizable Grateful Dead apostle, Walton was one of the greatest players in the history of the sport, starring for the Bruins and later the NBA's Portland Trailblazers.
VICE Sports recently spoke to Walton about his UCLA days; his injury-riddled professional career; his son Luke's successful interim coaching stint with the Golden State Warriors; and overcoming a severe stutter en route to developing his singular game-calling style.
VICE Sports: What goes through your mind when you think back to January 19, 1974 and the end of the UCLA win streak in South Bend? (Editor's note: Walton played that game with an injured back, but he played all 40 minutes and finished with 24 points and nine rebounds. He also missed a shot with 12 seconds remaining that could have won the game for UCLA).
Bill Walton: Disappointment! (In an uncharacteristically somber voice).
Coach Wooden told us every day, "Do your best. Your best is good enough and that is all I ask of you, but whatever you do, don't beat yourself. Don't cheat yourself. Don't short-change yourself because that is the worst kind of defeat that you will ever suffer. You'll never get over it."
We had a 17-point halftime lead in that game. We had the ball and an eleven-point lead with 3:00 to go in an era that pre-dated the shot clock and the three-point shot. We missed our last six shots. We turned the ball over four times. They made their last six shots and we gave that game away.
It turned out that Coach Wooden talking to us about not beating, cheating, or short-changing ourselves was a profound lesson in life because forevermore, wherever I go, I am required to apologize and say, "I'm sorry" to the UCLA family and to the basketball world and to the people who have built this most incredible university.
I have a stain on my soul that I will never be able to cleanse, because you can't get these things back. What I try to impart to young people is how fragile, how tenuous, but also how precious it is. We didn't know. I didn't know. I had no idea how special what we had at UCLA really was. Then it all came crumbling down. I am paying for it to this day and that was a long time ago.
I've got to say that I am a little bit shocked. I've known you for a long time. You worked your first televised college basketball game with me back in 1990 on the Prime Ticket Network. You are one of the most positive people that I know. You always talk about overcoming adversity and putting the negatives out of your head, but now you are telling me that you can't put behind you that loss to Notre Dame that happened 41 years ago?
It is very personal and it is very painful.
Learn from the past.
Live in the present.
Dream about tomorrow.
That is what I try to do and when I try to learn the most important lessons in life from the past, what I really try to learn is what not to do. My failures in basketball have all come from not being prepared. Coach Wooden had so many mantras, so many powerful, simple messages of life. The one that comes into play here is, "Failing to prepare is preparing to fail." If you are not ready, you are not going to get the job done once the game starts.
On a lighter note here in 2016. How do you feel about your son, Luke Walton, and the great run he is having filling in for Steve Kerr as the head coach of the Golden State Warriors?
What could be better as a dad? There is nothing like the pride of a dad. Luke is in a truly remarkable position. Luke loves to win. He loves to be part of a team.
Luke has had some great training for the job. His first coach was Greg Lee, our point guard at UCLA. Then Luke had a great coach in Jim Tomey at University of San Diego High School. Next came Lute Olson at Arizona. This man is a Hall of Famer and, really, the 21st-century version of John Wooden. Then Luke got drafted by the Lakers and played for Phil Jackson. That changed all of our lives.
Now, he's gotten himself into this situation with Steve Kerr as the head coach and Jerry West as the guy overseeing things. I know that Luke calls Lute Olson and calls Phil Jackson. He calls his former coaches all the time. That's what makes me feel so proud.
Does Luke call you, too?
No. I call him. (Smiles).
You have four sons Nate, Luke, Adam, and Chris. They have all had some basketball success at least at the collegiate level. How difficult do you think it was for them to grow up playing basketball as Bill Walton's kids?
Near impossible because the teams that I was on were clearly some of the most spectacular teams in the history of basketball! We had incredible coaches and phenomenal players and I had so many other things going on in my life. I had business interests and all the cultural and musical involvements that I have in my life to this very day. I wish that I could have been a better dad. I wish that I could have been there more.
Think of the life that I had growing up, Larry. There was not one night in my life that both of my parents were not there at the dinner table. Not one! My parents were there every morning when I woke up and every night when I went to bed. They had zero interest in sports as participants or spectators, but they never missed our games. They went because they were great parents.
I think about all the things that I missed with my boys. It hurt so much when I was actually able to be there for them and they would look at me say, with all sincerity, "Dad. Thanks for coming." It tears at my heart because any parent would always do anything for their children, but I haven't been able to be there when I was needed most.
When did your love affair begin with the game of basketball?
I discovered basketball when I was 8 years old. I knew immediately that it was the perfect game because you don't have to wait for anything. You just go. The game starts and it's all about who is in shape, who's got a game, who really wants this, and who can play. I love that! Standing around waiting for the action to come to you, that is not my ideal.
When you are playing, the great thing about basketball is that you can make a positive contribution on every possession. You can go out there and just sweat and yell and run and scream and bark at the refs, yell at the coach, "Come on! Get me some players out here! I'm tired of doing this all by myself."
Practicing basketball is more fun than the games because the games are organized. They have timeouts, free throws, half times...
Wait a minute. Are you telling me that you enjoyed practice more than you enjoyed playing the games during your career?
I loved practice. There were no refs. You never stopped. You just kept going and going until you couldn't go anymore.
Basketball was my religion and the gym was my church. I am a stutterer. I couldn't talk, so basketball was the way I expressed myself. Basketball and academics and writing. I love to write.
I was just chasing this dream. "Yeah! Basketball! UCLA!"
The 1964 and 1965 UCLA championship teams inspired me so much and then all of a sudden Kareem showed up at UCLA. Then Coach Wooden starts calling me on the phone. I was like, "Yeah! It is going to happen. " It was perfect.
I came to UCLA 46 years ago. When I got here, I was so excited because I was thrilled to be out and away from my parents. They were so strict and so straight. I couldn't wait. "Yeah! UCLA! 1970!" Then I got here and there was Coach Wooden. "Walton. Come right in here. You are mine for the next four years."
I thought my parents were strict. This guy was "off the charts" strict. I was just flabbergasted at the discipline and the routine, the determination, the concentration and the focus on every little detail. These are all things now that are the foundation of my own personal life.
Wasn't that the time in your life that you were kind of a hippie guy who was rebelling against just about everything?
Oh. I'm still a hippie and proud of it because we were right. We still think that way. I fought Coach Wooden on everything. I fought him on facial hair, hair length, wardrobe, Nixon, Vietnam, the cheerleaders. He was mad as could be at me on a constant basis. You look at all the pictures of Coach Wooden before I got to UCLA in 1970. He looked pretty good, but immediately after I arrived, you could see him deteriorate. I basically ruined his life.
Nobody has made more mistakes than me. Nobody has made more wrong decisions. I can only imagine what Nell Wooden must have told John at night when he would come home after dealing with me at practice.
Then I graduated and I made a conscious decision that I was going to stop causing consternation in his life. I was just going to be nice to Coach Wooden. I wasn't going to fight him anymore, but at that point, he didn't have the power to put me on the bench. Coach Wooden always told us that the bench is the coach's greatest ally. As much as he and I disagreed and argued, we all knew, as players, that our fate was in his hands. If he didn't put us in the game, it was over. Listen. At UCLA you were either a starter or you were cannon fodder.
It would be easy to look back on your NBA career and say, "Wow! How good could Bill Walton have been if it hadn't been for all those injuries?" The other way to look at it is to say, "Man! Look at what Bill Walton became in spite of all the injuries and surgeries and games that you missed."
After all the adversity that you went through during your NBA career, I thought one of your greatest accomplishments was coming back in 1986 and winning the Sixth Man of the Year award with the Celtics in that championship season.
That just means that I was Larry Bird's valet and my job was to tell Larry what the schedule was.
Wow! To be on that team! Red Auerbach and Larry Bird and the people in New England didn't give me my career back; they gave me my life back. I had spent six brutally disappointing years with the Clippers and Donald Sterling.
At the time, that seemed like a perfect fit. Bill Walton back in San Diego playing NBA basketball.
It was bizarre. My greatest professional failure in life is the San Diego Clippers and the fact that I could not make it go in my hometown. I love San Diego, but my feet were just broken. I was born with bad feet, structural congenital defects. When I was 14, I had to have my first knee operation. I was taken down by some thugs. They were guys in their 30's and I was torching them on the court. I was having a really big day and they didn't like it that Little Billy and his red hair was showing them up, so they took me down and trashed my knee.
When I was 21 and playing for UCLA, I broke my spine. So, I had all these orthopedic crises. It was very tough. It ultimately came to a head in February of 2008 when my spine collapsed and I spent years, literally, lying on the floor. I lost everything. I lost my job. I lost my insurance. I lost my dignity and self-respect and as I was lying there I was thinking, "This is not worth it! I would be better off dead."
Did you really feel that way? Did you consider suicide?
Absolutely! Anybody would if they were lying there helpless on that floor. You always ask yourself, "How do I get out of this?" There was no way out. If I had owned a gun, I would've used it, but I was saved by a brilliant physician who was willing to take a risk in conjunction with a pioneering medical device company (NuVasive). They're based in San Diego and they have revolutionized spinal healthcare with new surgical techniques, procedures and equipment and new theories about how to treat the spine. Because of that, I'm alive today.
When I was lying there for all those years, I just kept asking myself, "What am I going to do with my life if I ever get up again?" Here I am today. I am the luckiest guy in the world.
You wouldn't be a broadcaster today if you had not overcome a terrible stuttering problem. You said you could barely talk even into your days at UCLA. How difficult was it for you to get over that hurdle?
Learning how to speak is my greatest accomplishment and everybody else's worst nightmare. (Smiles).
I was a good enough basketball player and I was a straight "A" student, so everybody just let it slide that I could not speak. I never went to a speech therapist. I never went to a doctor. I met Ernie Vandeweghe (Kiki's dad and a former NBA player) 46 years ago when I first got to UCLA. He became my personal friend and mentor. Everything good in my life can be traced to the day I met Ernie Vandeweghe. He knew broadcaster Marty Glickman from the days when Ernie played for the New York Knicks. Marty was the "Chick Hearn" of the Knicks and one of the greatest broadcasters in history. I got to meet him through Ernie. Marty taught me how to speak. He gave me the keys. He gave me the tips. He gave me the structure and the foundation. His last parting words to me were, "Now take what I've just given you and apply it with the same learning methods that John Wooden gave you. I think you can learn how to speak."
Marty has now passed and they are scouring the earth to try to find a person to teach me how to stop talking. Who would've ever thought? It is the most unlikely scenario.
Do you still worry about stuttering when you are broadcasting?
I still stutter all the time, but I don't worry about it anymore. I practice. I do know that when I stutter, I can just stop, let it go and start up again. These are all tips and techniques and learning methods that Marty Glickman gave me. One of the things about people who have problems, challenges and issues is that you have to accept them. When they happen to you and cause problems in your life, you have to just brush it aside, cleanse yourself of it and let it go.
As a dad and a mentor and a business leader, I am always working with young people coming up. One of the things that I always try to impart to them is that they have to learn to like themselves first. If you don't like yourself, how is anybody else going to like you?
How long did it take you to figure that out about yourself?
I am still working on it. (Laughs).
How do you approach calling basketball games on television for ESPN and the Pac-12 Network? Has Coach Wooden's "failure to prepare" mentality found its way into your broadcasting career as well?
It is all about preparation, but is also about fun and joy and happiness. I got that from Chick Hearn and even from Coach Wooden who was very serious and very strict, but it was fun.
I love sports. I love competition. I love life. To be able to come to games and see young people chasing their dreams and building their lives. To be able to sit there and talk about it and relate all my experiences. We are the luckiest people in the world because in our world, if you dream it, if you think it, you can do it.
Some would say that your broadcasting is, to put it mildly, "unfiltered." What do you say?
It is all filtered! (Smiles).
It is all filtered?
It is all structured. It is all written down. (Smiles wider).
Oh come on!
We are out there having fun.
Do you ever get to the end of the game and say, "Man. I wish I hadn't said that?
I usually get to the end of the game and say, "Gosh. I wish I had said more."
What should we expect to see from Bill Walton ten years down the road?
I love what I'm doing now. I have never been busier. Never been happier. I am happy in love, 26 years married to my sweetheart, Lori, who is also a UCLA grad. Business has never been better. I've got tons of businesses going on right now. Health care, solar energy, sports technologies. We have a tequila company. You can see all the different companies at billwalton.com. It's just fantastic! So, I am doing the things that I want to do. I just want to be able to do more of them.
Just think. I missed two thirds of my professional career because of health injuries and orthopedic health crises. The injuries started and I really never thought that I would be healthy or pain-free. I never thought that I would be happy in love. Right now, I am all of those.
I'm doing great and I just want to keep this thing going. The problem that I face is this. You look at a historical graph of my life and I have all of these meteoric climbs to the top. Once I get there. "BAM!" I get hit with an orthopedic health crisis that takes me right to the bottom. Right now, I am doing fantastic, but I also know how the song goes. "When life looks like Easy Street, there is danger at your door."
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