TrueHoop: Bill Walton

Bill Walton rides again

July, 12, 2011
Harper By Zach Harper
In April of 2010, Bill Walton confessed to the world that he once contemplated suicide because his back pain had become so unbearable. He was spending the majority of his days on his back, suffering through the simplest of activities. He was incapable of broadcasting basketball games or even participating in the daily activities that so many of us take for granted.

If you’ve had the pleasure of experiencing him in real life, and not just on a TV screen, you were probably shocked when he gave that glimpse into the depth of his everyday struggle with back pain.

During the past NBA season, he was getting back into the broadcasting business with the help of the Sacramento Kings and Boston Celtics. A couple of times, I happened to be in the Kings media room before games when Bill was around. It sounds a little cliché, but being around him you could really see how much he enjoyed the basketball and NBA experience.

Watching him interact with Kings Director of Player Personnel, Jerry Reynolds, and seeing the joy those discussions brought to his face, made me think back to this quote from last year:
"It got to the point where my life wasn’t worth living. I was standing on the edge of the bridge, figuring it was better to jump than to go back to where I was.”

“You can’t understand until you’ve been where I’ve been.”

A little over a year later, the red-headed giant has gone from hoping his latest back procedures can continue to turn his life around to riding a bicycle for 10 hours while traversing the highways of Oregon.

Jonathan Maus from has a story (and pictures) of his friend Jeff Bernards taking Bill Walton on this ride.
I suggested he ride to Multnomah Falls and back. I said that’s about 60 miles, he said he needed 100 miles. I’m thinking you’ve had nearly 40 knew surgeries... 100 miles?!! OK.

After our adventure in Gorge, Bill was just getting warmed up. He still wanted to ride out to the coast (by himself, with his wife driving a sag vehicle). I put together a route for him to Astoria, via the Banks-Vernonia Trail and Hwy 202 and then the Lewis & Clark Rd. to Seaside and Hwy 101 to Cannon Beach. He called me when he got to Cannon Beach. He did the whole ride in 10 hours!

Back in May of this year
, Walton was participating in the L’Etape du California, a chance for amateur cyclists to find out what it’s like to ride a full stage of the Tour of California. Now he’s pushing himself even further by cycling through the Oregon countryside.

It’s good to see that he’s no longer forced to take his ailments lying down.

Bill Walton: Back pain nearly led to suicide

April, 19, 2010
Abbott By Henry Abbott
In a column that reads a tad like a press release for some new medical procedure, Bill Walton delivers some very serious news.
"It got to the point where my life wasn’t worth living. I was standing on the edge of the bridge, figuring it was better to jump than to go back to where I was.”

“You can’t understand until you’ve been where I’ve been.”

A little over a year ago, Walton says, his back pain was so intense that he says he considered suicide. Walton says that the good news is that new treatments have drastically reduced his pain, and he is once again embracing life with his trademark enthusiasm.

The back trouble began 35 years ago, Walton tells Nick Canepa of the Union Tribune:
In 1974, when UCLA was riding the longest winning streak in college basketball history, he and the Bruins played at Washington State. Late in the game, Walton was low-bridged by a Cougar and fell hard to the floor.

“A despicable act of intentional violence and dirty play,” is how he put it. “I broke two bones in my spine that night, and things were never the same for me again.”

Via The Baseline.

Bill Walton trivia

March, 11, 2010
Abbott By Henry Abbott
As I learned from reading Jackie MacMullan's When the Game Was Ours, the night after winning a title with the Celtics in 1986, Bill Walton spent the night alone, in someone else's kitchen, listening to the Grateful Dead and sipping Wild Turkey.

Whose kitchen was it?

Answer after the jump.

(Read full post)

By Henry Abbott

There once was a time when the entire basketball blogosphere would fit in a VW bug, if you packed those bloggers tightly.

I'm talking ages ago. Like, maybe, 2005, when there were about two dozen people blogging hard about the NBA. We were sort of like those little dudes who took Snow White in. Matt from Blog-a-Bull was grumpy. J.E. Skeets was ... Sneezy (as there is no dwarf named "Canuck"). Bethlehem Shoals was Bashful. I guess I was Doc, 'cause that one wears glasses.

The Cavalier, of YAYsports!, was the lesser-known eighth dwarf, known as Insane. Really really funny guy. I mean, super off-the-charts. Nobody could walk in his footsteps, 'cause they were all over the moon.

And he did the craziest thing ever! He turned some funny ideas from his blog into a real movie, called "Who Shot Mamba?"

It took so much of his time he killed the blog entirely. And there were real people in his movie, including Bill stinking Walton. And it has a big fight scene with a Ben Wallace blow-up doll. (Even crazier than that, he gave up his true name "The Cavalier" and now goes by the obviously contrived "Brian Spaeth.")

The movie is in the process of being released, in stages, on this here Internet. Here's the fifth-installment, featuring Bill Walton mocking Italy's "spaghetti league" while rattling off just about all the elements of John Wooden's Pyramid of Success. What more could you want? had Luke and Bill Walton write open letters to each other, in honor of Luke's first title.

It's 99% pure father-son championship-inspired love-fest.

It's well worth the read, for various nuggets like this:

  • Bill used to write inspirational nuggets from John Wooden on young Luke's lunch bag. And I don't know if it was a phraseology thing or what, but he makes it sound like he might still occasionally provide Luke a sack lunch with messaging on it. Which is probably not true, but would be amazing.
  • The Lakers chartered a plane Sunday morning to bring all kinds of Laker friends and family to Orlando for Game 5. Bill, with back trouble, could not make it.
  • Bill apologizes to Luke for the number of voicemails he has left him.

Near the end of each of their letters, though, they get to what almost any two athletes will get to eventually: A little trash-talking.

Luke finishes his letter like this:

Winning an NBA title also prevents you from throwing any smack my way. I'm in the club now. And I don't want to hear anything about NCAA championships, let's keep the conversation on NBA titles.

When things calm down (and will they ever after you win a championship?), I'm coming to San Diego to visit you. I want to see how you're doing and just catch up. Plus, I want to see Grandma Glo.

I'm going to enjoy this championship but I also know that you'll be there to remind me that while I'm basking in the team's success this summer, guys around the league will be working on their game. I'm sure you'll also remind me that defending an NBA title is twice as hard.

Right now, though, I want to keep it light and fun. Although, I'm sure we'll jaw about whose team is better, this year's Lakers team or the '77 Blazers, your first NBA title team.

Lakers in six, Dad.

Who's stopping Kobe?

Bill Walton's reply (after all kinds of talk about love and pride):

When you get to be my age, trash talking is about all that's left. I fully admit, Luke, that your team is really, really good. Kobe is supreme. Pau, Lamar and Andrew are all top of the line. And Phil Jackson is brilliant.

Right next to your smile on my spirit and soul are the immortal words of Jack Ramsay, who recently said on the 30th anniversary of the 1977 World Champion Blazers in putting that team's abilities in historical context:

"I like our team. We'll take our chances. Anywhere. Anytime. Against anybody."

Blazers in four, Luke. Never forget why you are named after Maurice Lucas.

I'm roughly a year late to this article.

But it's something really worth knowing about.

John Wooden, in basketball circles, walks on water. He's simply as unimpeachable as one can be.

(A couple of times I have crossed paths with him, and felt compelled to ask him questions, but stop short of "hello," befuddled, not knowing, exactly, how one is meant to approach an oracle.)

It is not without merit. Not only did he win a fantastic number of games, but he even managed to do so as Mr. Straight-Laced, while leading (among others) Mr. Counter-Cultural, Bill Walton.

And I know they had their battles, but Walton loves the guy! That implies a certain pleasing flexibility.

But was that flexibility really there? If you look at the evidence, it's entirely possible that Coach Wooden was about as controlling as any coach has ever been. Was he one of those coaches who stripped all the fun right out of the game?

Is it really reasonable to be against dunks?

In December 2006, on Slate, Tommy Craggs examined how Wooden is revered:

Wooden, now 96, was indisputably a great coach. His teams, always fit and energetic, won a fat load of games and championships. (Though it bears noting that UCLA benefited not only from the services of the best talent of the day, but also from the largesse of an especially oily booster named Sam Gilbert, a moneylender, as it were, whom Coach Christ forgot to cast out of the temple). But it's time we retire this notion of Wooden as basketball's wise old man and see his legacy for what it is: a triumph of rigidity, bureaucracy, paternalism, and anal retentiveness. The sorts of things, in other words, that James Naismith would hate about his game today.

Last month, Wooden was inducted, along with Naismith, into the inaugural class of the National Collegiate Basketball Hall of Fame. Joined forever in hoops iconography and at least superficially alike -- both men of the cloth, both nonsmokers and noncussers -- in reality the two couldn't make an odder pair. Wooden was a relentless taskmaster who counted discipline among the game's most important tenets. He had a hand in everything, from his players' grooming habits down to the wool content of their socks (50 percent). In one incredible passage in his coaching textbook, Practical Modern Basketball, Wooden details the Bruins' eating routine: "The meal usually consists of a ten-to-twelve-ounce steak broiled medium or an equivalent portion of lean roast beef, a small baked potato, a green vegetable, three pieces of celery, four small slices of melba toast, some honey, hot tea, and a dish of fruit cocktail. Occasionally, I let the player eat as he thinks best."

But Naismith, as art critic Dave Hickey has noted, was wonderfully Jeffersonian. He set down only five guiding principles-discipline not among them-to govern his game, which he was delighted to point out did not need a coach. The beauty of Naismith's invention is that it foresaw, even insisted upon, its own evolution-why else put the hoop in the air? And why else include, in those earthbound days, a goaltending rule? He once wrote: "Each generation that has played basketball has passed on some new developments to the next. The technique and expertness with which the game is now played are indeed wonderful to me."

Basketball's innate progressive spirit is what makes Wooden's sainthood so galling. Hoophead reactionaries, those joyless old prigs who despair that their game doesn't look more like a Gil Thorp panel, have always found in Wooden a sort of patron saint. Not, say, the late Red Auerbach, a man who won as much in the NBA as Wooden did in the college game. Auerbach, no bleeding heart himself, at least recognized the plates shifting under his feet, and is now credited with ushering the pro game into the modern era.

But Wooden has never budged.

Really encourage you to read the whole article. Interesting stuff. 

Finals Comeback 101

June, 12, 2007

Beloved small city teams down 0-2 in the NBA Finals to the super dominant team that everyone knows will win should all study the 1977 Blazers. ESPN's Eric Neel explains why, in an article that (I don't say this lightly) is my new answer to the question "why do you like sports?":

Maybe it was the us-against-the-world love affair that gave them their edge in the postseason. Maybe neglect and disrespect from the rest of the country, and often their opponents, fueled their resolve ("The Sixers were talking sweep, they gave us no respect," Lucas says). Whatever it was, down 0-2 to the 76ers in the Finals, the Blazers didn't flinch. "Dr. Jack called a meeting," Walton recalls. "He said we had nothing to worry about, that we hadn't played anywhere near where we could. He said he wasn't changing a thing. He just wanted us to be who we were and to remember what we do and why. Run, attack, fast break." And so they turned up the volume at home, with the Maniacs doing their thing in the stands, and the passing game and pressure defense doing its thing on the floor. And that was all it took.

As they'd done back in November, they took it to the headliners, left them standing still and all twisted in knots, winning the next four games by an average of 15-plus points (including a 32-point win in Game 4). Walton was dominant in the clinching Game 6, going for 20 points, 23 rebounds, seven assists and eight blocked shots.

You hear words like euphoria and magic tossed around too casually in sports. We have a tendency to glorify moments for the sake of glory itself, to dress things up. But if you look back at images from the Trail Blazers' celebration -- Walton with his jersey off striding through the delirious crowd, some 200,000 turned out in the streets of Portland for the championship victory parade, Ramsay and his players hugging in the locker room under a shower of champagne -- you see something genuine, some pure bit of joy and surprise, some magical euphoria, frankly.

"Things felt so perfect," Walton says. "It was the best feeling I ever had in my life." It wasn't just what they'd done, but how they'd done it. They had come from nowhere to stand at the top of the heap. They had come together to accomplish something no one had thought possible. "That's the look you see on our faces," Davis says. "Satisfaction. Pride. We had an opportunity to do something special -- we knew that from very early on in the season -- and we did it. I can't tell you what that feels like. It's just so ... sweet."

I love how Dr. Jack Ramsay (who is, incidentally, in the very Cleveland hotel where I now sit) filled that team with confidence. Amazing stuff.

One other historical footnote about the mood of that series turning -- the players and coaches told me that a key factor was Maurice Lucas' coming to his teammates aid and slugging Darryl Dawkins near the end of Game 2. (It was a different time, such things did not result in suspensions.) It sent the message, loud and clear, that the Blazers were not scared. I don't love that part of the story, and I don't advocate it for the Cavaliers or anybody else. But if you want to know how Portland turned that series around, that's certainly part of it.  

Red Hot and Rollin' Film

June, 12, 2007

There's this book out there, Red Hot and Rollin', which is a pretty magnificent anthology of writings about Portland's NBA title thirty years ago. Matt Love put it together. Something pretty special for Blazer fans.

Tucked into the book, however, is some entirely unique video footage. UPDATE: Here you go ... some of the footage I'm talking about. ESPN Video

(You can see some more video of that season right now on ESPN Video, as well as a ton of other great 1977-centric material. Eric Neel talked to the team recently, here's an excerpt from the new book Red Hot and Rollin', and another one)

The video is very personal and very intimate, but also very ... well, how should I put this.

When I was watching the whole thing for the first time, I wrote this in my notes: "cinematographic style = stoner's delight."

What am I getting at there is:

  • It was the seventies, in Oregon.
  • There is atonal polyrhythmic music, and a general lack of narrative structure, at almost all times throughout the video.
  • It's generally "trippy."
  • Not that you'd want to, but you could, I'd bet, edit about 65% of this out without losing any story. You'd lose plenty of the feeling of what it was like to be there, but you would not lose any story.

Despite all that, I learned more about what it was like to be around those Blazers from this DVD than from everything else I had ever read or seen combined. It was oddly thrilling. Some of my favorite moments:

  • Corky Calhoun lolling about in the pool proud as heck that he got his real estate license in California.
  • Bill Walton, superstar athlete, riding his bike with author Larry Colton who is neither in the same physical condition nor does he have nearly as high-end a bike. As they approach the Oregon coast, Colton, struggling to keep up, says "I'll call you Lewis if you call me Clark." Walton responds: "I'll call you late for breakfast," and speeds off.
  • Johnny Davis tells the camera that he likes to keep his shoes as long as he can, because it is his belief that after a while, they get so they know where they are going.
  • Another great Walton moment: he often talks about how proud he is to have overcome his stutter. In this video, you can really see it, as he addresses the crowd at a basketball camp and is clearly nervous. Makes you see Walton as more of a human, involved in the kinds of struggles we all face, instead of some icon.

The film was produced by Don Zavin, who, sadly, died a few years ago. He is credited with not only hatching the idea for the film, but also having a tremendous passion for basketball that drove the project.

I recently spoke to the co-director and camera operator, Mike McLeod.

Talk to me about the style of this film.
We tried to get the real person, in an interesting location. Cinema verite was still alive back then. The idea, really, was to get lots of footage and let it play. The film ultimately ends up doing that to a fault. To my way of thinking, some segments needed voiceover and that sort of thing.

As it is, it is so unlike any other sports media you'll ever see.
It was such a different time, too. That's part of it. Those players were such a part of the town. I don't think you can say that about a lot of athletes today. This team just seemed older, and more together. Very thoughtful. There was no grandstanding or any of that.

I wrote in my notes that the style of the piece is "stoner's delight."
Yes. It was the seventies. We're talking about the stoner era. (Marijuana was around, and everybody did it, but nobody wanted to talk about it.) Hippies were massively evident. And Walton was a hippie. He had tie-dyed everything.

Of course, in the film, it doesn't help that there are these long, long voids where nothing really happens. Those needed to be coverd by voice-over in my opinion, or in some cases edited. The original plan was to have the author, Larry Colton, do a voice over where he explained the book he was working on (it eventually became "Fast Break," which is also the name of the film in question). That would be a way to get a lot more information about the players. But it never happened.

The movie was edited under duress -- there were money shortages and even a lawsuit -- and the films were even locked up for a period. There was a lot of water under the bridge, at that point. It was finished the way it was in part, I believe, because of a lack of money. I didn't have anything to do with it after it was shot, but I have often considered re-editing the footage a different way.

What would be some of the specific changes you'd make?
Well, it has been a long time. But off the top of my head, I remember a sequence with Lloyd Neal doing his knee rehab. It was amazing to watch what he went through with that injury. It cleary frightened the s--- out of him. He worked is tail off in the hopes that he could keep his job. There's footage of extreme close up of him working out. With the help of voice over, in that moment you could have built up the history ... what his chances were of making the team, especially when he was old enough that he knew he wouldn't get another chance somewhere else. And in those days the teams didn't pay squat. 100 grand or so, maybe. They were paid well, but they weren't paid like kings. They all knew they needed to do something to make money after basketball.

Also, in the end, I felt a big story was left untold. There was an important race thing. Here was white Portland in love with this team, and half of them were black. We shot a lot of footage at public events, and here were these giant black guys, and all these white people just didn't know what to do with them. We went to some event at Governor Robert Straub's house in Salem. There were 150 people or so at a barbecue, overlooking the valley. But as the barbecue unfolded, the black players ended up being by themselves. It was really stark.

But then, there's this shot of Lucas that didn't even make the film (it's in an archive somewhere). He's by himself, looking out over the valley. He's in the middle of this party, but he's totally isolated. But then a six or seven year old white boy with a ball comes up and hands him the ball. To me that said everything. It was a beautiful moment, talking about how sports can help us bridge that divide.

Sounds like it was a pretty powerful experience.
In fact, it was. We had one crew member killed during the making of this film. A sound guy and grip, Patrick Stookey. He was one of my best friends. He had been a weekend sports anchor, on channel eight. But he had quit the station a couple of years before, and was a free spirit.

That's terrible. What happened?
We were on the Warm Springs Indian Reservation, where Walton had hosted his camp. We were leaving, in our cars, when we spotted a swimming hole. We stopped on the side of the road, and you could see some people down there swimming, if you looked down over the edge of a

Stookey and a bunch of guys got out of the car. Walton was in the car.

The road looped around. There was a way you could drive around by the bottom of the cliff. I drove around. But Stookey sized it up, from up above, and decided to jump in. He was just the kind of guy who would do that kind of thing. He hit a rock that was under the water, and he broke his head open.

Some people were yelling. Somebody shouted. I jumped in, and pulled him out. But you could tell right away that he was gone.

Somebody called an ambulance and all that. But it was no use.

If you notice, that film starts with an illustration of a butterfly. Stookey is behind that.

He always loved butterflies. That was just Stookey's thing.

At his funeral, in a Catholic church somewhere in Yakima or Spokane, the sunlight was peeking into the ceremony. And then ... a butterfly ... appeared out of nowhere. It fluttered around the casket for a moment or so, and then it came over to all of us, the pallbearers, and it affected us all. Then it fluttered away and was gone.