- Dave McMenamin, ESPN.com
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EL SEGUNDO, Calif. -- The day before Luke Walton made his television debut as an on-air analyst for Time Warner Cable SportsNet, the Los Angeles Lakers' broadcast channel, this month, Walton ran into a familiar face who was exiting the gym just as he was entering it to work out.
Phil Jackson wanted to make sure Walton knew what he was doing.
"He pulled me aside and said, ‘Let me tell you a story,’" Walton told ESPNLosAngeles.com during a recent sit-down interview at the Time Warner Cable studios.
Jackson recalled the time during New Jersey Nets training camp prior to the 1978-79 season -- Jackson's 11th in the league -- when the rigors of NBA practices were causing him constant pain, and he wondered if he was coming to the end of his career.
"The coach kind of told him, ‘Look, I think it’s time for you take that next step and maybe get into coaching. Your body is not really working for you right now,’" Walton said.
Rather than hang it up then and there, Jackson worked through his troubles and got himself ready to play. Next thing he knew, teammate Bob Elliott went out with a season-ending injury in November and Jackson was back in the mix.
"He was still in shape and going strong and he said he ended up having a great year and having a blast," Walton said. "So he was kind of telling me that story, I think, to tell me to stay focused and stay ready just in case because that type of stuff happens all the time in sports."
With that message from his old coach in his head and with the memories of a resurgent 2012-13 season with the Cleveland Cavaliers fresh in his mind, Walton is not announcing his retirement and turning in his sneakers for a microphone.
"I want to play still," said Walton, who has already met with the Lakers' D-League affiliate, the L.A. D-Fenders, to discuss fulfilling a player development role that will allow him to work out with the team along with his TV duties. "I’ve trained all summer as if I was going to get a call. The call never came, so, I’m going to keep working out ... If nothing happens this year, then I’ll probably admit that it’s officially over."
Walton, 33, played 857 minutes for the Cavs last season, which is more than he played in the previous two seasons before that combined. While his numbers weren't gaudy, he found a niche playing point forward with the second unit and registered 14 games with five assists or more, including a career-high 12 helpers against the New York Knicks last March.
While he's now healthy and determined to try for one last shot, Walton's chronic back problems in his last couple seasons in L.A. caused him to contemplate life after basketball already. He sat in on a couple broadcasts with ESPN LA 710 radio. He coached at the University of Memphis on his former college teammate Josh Pastner's staff during the lockout ("The NCAA, they need a lot of help," said Walton, "but, I enjoyed the coaching part of it").
But it was his friendship with Time Warner Cable anchor Chris McGee, who is so close to Walton that he was the emcee at Walton's wedding this past summer, that led to his latest career exploration. Station executives asked McGee to gauge Walton's interest, and the man who made it to four Finals in his 8½ years with the Lakers was intrigued.
"For me, I’d be sitting on the couch watching Lakers games anyway, so I might as well do this and try something new and have fun with it and experience it," Walton said, who joins Byron Scott -- his coach in Cleveland -- as a new addition to the TWC SportsNet staff.
It gives both Walton and the Lakers the chance to redo their working relationship that ended unceremoniously with him being sent to Cleveland in a deal to acquire Ramon Sessions back on the trade deadline in March 2012.
"I was sick," said Walton, recalling how he stayed home and did not join the team on a road trip through Memphis and New Orleans before the news came down. "I was laying in my bed, I had been throwing up. [Lakers general manager] Mitch [Kupchak] called and I was like, ‘Oh, s---.’ Because I knew the deadline was that day."
The experience now only helps round out his résumé as an analyst who has witnessed firsthand just about everything the league has to offer. And with that background, he's not afraid to be critical on TV when the Lakers' play calls for it.
"Lakers fans know what they’re seeing, so it’s not my job to be on camera trying to say things that aren’t true," Walton said. "I know that if they’re playing bad and they’re not doing things right, that’s my job to talk about it and not try to sugarcoat anything. I’m not going to be on TV lying. I’m going to be keeping [with] the truth. If they’re playing like crap, then that’s what I’m going to be saying."
Walton is aware that his father, Bill Walton, who has been broadcasting professionally for more than 20 years, already established a reputation for being barb-tongued, but he thinks his on-air presence will be much different.
"I think I have to look at it similar to our playing careers," Walton said. "When I was coming up through the ranks in high school and people were always comparing him to me, I used to struggle with it until I just made the decision, ‘Look, I’m playing. This is who I am. This is what I do and I’m playing this game for me.’ I think that’s what I’ll have to do in broadcasting or television as well because our personalities are completely different.
"I mean, I used to bring the guy in to talk at my camps and tell him he had an hour, and an hour and 45 minutes later we’re literally physically taking him off the court like, ‘We have to get camp going.’ And that’s not me. I don’t want to talk for an hour and a half."
But he does want to talk about this year's Lakers.
"It’s not going to be easy," Walton said of the upcoming season. "One thing I learned from playing with the Lakers is the Lakers are so used to being on top and when they’re on top, they beat up on teams all the time. Anytime we were struggling, teams would love to come after us. That’s the mindset that they’re going to have to have going into this year. They have to know that it’s not just the Lakers playing Charlotte or whoever, it’s the team playing them knowing the Lakers are coming to town and wanting to put a beating on them."
Walton still hopes he can be one of those players on a team like Charlotte, that an in-season injury to a modern-day Bob Elliott will open up a spot for him to fill a need, and be on the floor playing against the Lakers rather than in the studio talking about them.
But his current situation isn't a bad alternative.
"I’m doing this because I think it’s going to be fun," Walton said. "Obviously I love the Lakers organization and it’s a way to stay involved and stay in the game of basketball while I continue to work out, in case I don’t get a call, I’m not just sitting around every day."
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