Bill Walton. Some know him for his days at UCLA with John Wooden. Others know him for his Hall of Fame pro career. Then, there's him yelling "Throw it down big man!" on national TV airwaves and of course, there's also his love for the Grateful Dead.
Bill is a multi-faceted character and someone I have loved getting to know over the years. He can always offer perspective on any topic in and out of sports. Just last month he released a new book called "Back from the Dead" where he chronicles his incredible life experiences and how he faced the challenge of dealing with debilitating physical injuries, most notably when he suffered a catastrophic spinal collapse in 2008.
I don't like this book...I LOVE it. And, you don't have to be a basketball fan to love it, too. If you're interested in the game of life, this is for you.
In this March 11, 2016 photo, analyst Bill Walton, left, speaks with play-by-play announcer Ted Robinson before a Pac-12 conference tournament game in Las Vegas. A Walton-called basketball game is like performance art, viewers left buzzing and maybe a little confused when it's over. (AP Photo/John Locher)
Brandon Steiner: Who did you write Back from the Dead for and why did you write this book?
Bill Walton: This book was written for anyone interested in the game of life. And I wrote this book based on a lot of the epiphanic moments that I faced while standing at the fork in the road.
I grew up in the world of books. I’m a nonfiction guy – history, biography, adventure, and exploration.
My mom is a librarian. All of the books that I read as a child inspired me to dream beyond the narrow confines of my own small existence. Those books shaped me and ultimately made me who I am today.
I have led a blessed life and I’ve had the privilege of learning from, spending time with, and being friends of, some of the most important people in the world for the last 63 years.
I hope that one day this book will do for others what the books I have already read have done for me.
BS: Walk me through the challenge of suffering your spinal collapse and how you dealt with it.
BW: My spine health issues have been the hardest thing that I have ever experienced in my entire life. Athletics and academics have always been the easiest part of my life. My biggest challenges have been orthopedic health and a lifelong debilitating speech impediment.
I was born with bad feet and ankles. I have birth defects in both of my lower extremities---which are now completely fused. I ground them to dust.
When I was 14, I tore up my knee playing basketball, and I had to have the first of ultimately 37 orthopedic operations. When I was 21 and playing for UCLA, I broke my spine. I’ve lived my whole life with a defective foundation. And in anything in life, when your foundation is bad, ultimately, everything up the line goes bad.
After chasing my dream all of these years and living in a world built for preschool children, when I was 56, more than eight years ago (February 2008), my spine ultimately failed and collapsed.
Trying to get back up, trying to get back into the game of life, trying to climb on the mountain one more time, trying to ride my bike once again has been the hardest thing I’ve ever done in my life. It required everything that I had and ultimately tested everything that I know and believe in.
I’m alive today and have the life that I do have because of the sacrifice of others: My spine surgeon Dr. Steve Garfin from UCSD, and NuVasive, the medical device company that has pioneered all of the revolutionary advances in spine health care; my wife Lori, our children, my older brother, my friends who reached out every day and constantly told me, “Bill, don’t give up. You can make it.”
Nobody ever makes it to the top of the mountain alone.
How do I ever begin to thank them---for my life.
BS: How did your previous life experiences carry you through this physically trying time in your life?
BW: My life has been marked by meteoric climbs to the top followed by precipitous falls because of my orthopedic health catastrophes. It has happened far too many times. I was never able to sustain the excellence that I was always trying to achieve. So while my spine failure and collapse has been my toughest, the most tenuous, and the most fragile---it has not been my first.
I know how to get what I want. I know how to get to the top of the mountain. I use my personal foundation of human characteristics and personal attributes -- my spirit, my soul, my psyche, my mental acuity, and my emotional commitment. I know how to do this. I’ve been there before. What I didn’t know was how hard it would be? Why it keeps happening? And will this please be the last time?
BS: What are some of the most valuable and important life lessons from John Wooden?
BW: John Wooden taught us how to think. He taught us how to learn, how to dream, how to build, how to philosophize, how to analyze. He also taught us how to compete.
John Wooden was a teacher who was interested in us, not so much as basketball players but as human beings. He taught us how to build a life, how to chase our dream and how to become a champion. He tried to impart upon us a life based on a foundation-- a foundation based on the human qualities embodied in his Pyramid of Success, his Seven-Point creed, his Two Sets of Threes, his endless lists of maxims and mantras, and then his tools to overcome the adversity that he knew as a veteran master teacher would one day come to impact his young students.
BS: By most people’s accounts, you’ve had success---championships at both the college and pro level. How do you define success?
BW: Brandon—you and I have had this conversation many times over the years. Coach Wooden always told us to never measure yourself by what you have accomplished, but rather by what you could or should have been able to do in and with your life. Success is the self-satisfaction of knowing that my effort and preparation was the best that I could put forth. I tried my best. But my broken and crippled body just would not carry me where I wanted to go. And it is a very difficult reconciliation. I live with a lot of tormented conflict on a daily basis.
BS: You are famously a huge Grateful Dead fan. How has the band, and music in general, influenced your life?
BW: I have been a proud, loyal, happy, lucky, Dead Head for 49 years. The Grateful Dead made me the basketball player that I was. The Grateful Dead have made me the human being that I am.
Growing up in California in the ’50s, ’60s and ’70s, my world was one of curiosity, exploration and experimentation. My first show was in 1967 in Southern California during the Summer of Love. I made it to the front of the stage and I never left.
I’m with those guys. I am the luckiest guy in the history of the world.
BS: After being a broadcaster for the NBA and for the college game, which do you prefer?
BW: The NBA and the NCAA are two totally different sports, each with their own uniquely fabulous aspects and characteristics.
I love basketball. I love the team. I love the game. I love being part of something special. I love being the champion.
Even though I work for ESPN, I do not live in the world that they have created where everything has to be ranked, rated and compared.
I just enjoy, and try to get what I always really wanted---more, of the best of life.
BS: Will the Warriors break the wins record this year?
BW: I hope so. I want them to even though I’m involved in a lot of the records that they are trying to break. I want what’s best for our son, Luke Walton.
I love the Warriors and everything about them. I love the way they play. I love their ownership group. I love their management. I love their staff. I love their fans. I love the Bay Area.
I want the Warriors to win every game, break every record, win the championship and I want Steph Curry to be the first unanimous MVP in the history of the NBA.
I’m a proud, loyal and grateful Warrior of the Golden State.
BW: Thank you, Bill.
Pickup a copy of Bill Walton's newly released Back from the Dead on Amazon here.