Special to Page 2
At UCLA in the 1970s, Bill Walton led his team to an 86-4 record over three seasons and was named college player of the year three times. He averaged 20.3 points and 15.7 rebounds per game, and in 1973 he played maybe the single greatest college game ever, going 21-for-22 in an NCAA title win over Memphis State.
It's a mighty impressive record, but if you ask him, the Big Redhead will tell you that his all-time greatest accomplishment was landing a spot on NBC's lead NBA announcing team, alongside Marv Albert and Steve "Snapper" Jones.
What's so great about that? That's what Page 2's Eric Neel wanted to know, so he caught up to Walton at the end of the big man's "Love it Live" tour and peppered him with 10 Burning Questions about announcing, playing, listening to The Grateful Dead, maintaining the Wooden legacy and keeping the basketball faith.
1. You had a unique look then, with your long red hair and beard, the headband and knee pads. Were you conscious of having a particular style?
Eventually I tired of the long hair, though. Now, I must admit, on this "Love it Live" tour, I've shaved every day.
Say it isn't so.
Walton: It's true. But you have to understand, my beard is so nasty. I mean, it's the only beard in the history of Western civilization that makes Bob Dylan's beard look good.
What would the guys in the Dead say if they knew you were shaving every day?
Walton: Well, we've made some changes on this tour. We're no longer sleeping in the parking lots and swimming in the fountains. We've been staying in hotels most of the way, though I will say some hotels have declined to take us because we're just having too much fun.
Walton: It's awesome. I was sad when it came to a close, it was so much fun. It was so fun to be in the arena as a fan, with the fans. Growing up, I used to watch these great players, and I'd say to myself, "That's what I want to do with my life. And to be able to do it as a player, and now to do it as a fan, it's great. I love to cheer, and yell, and joke and to celebrate the best basketball in the world. And to see these new players, to see how good they are -- guys like Paul Pierce and Jason Kidd and, of course, Shaq and Kobe, who are just off the charts. It's a real pleasure.
Now we've got a Final with tradition and history versus nothing. One of the strongest franchises in league history going against one of the perennial doormats. It's great. But the NBA has always been about the opportunity to make something of your life. You look at the stories of the people who make up the league, these are all guys who've come from nowhere. This is not about inheritance, this is not about somebody's dad giving you something. This is about guys going out into the streets and into the gym saying, "I'm gonna make something of myself."
John Wideman, in his last book, "Hoop Roots," talks about basketball as a democratic game ...
Walton: Absolutely. Where else but the NBA could people like Bill Russell, Spencer Haywood, Ricky Barry, Dennis Rodman and Allen Iverson come in and be allowed to be who they are? I credit David Stern because he knows that it's the personalities, the character and the soul of the people that make the league special.
3. You've long had a reputation for being a progressive thinker ...
Walton: I'm mainstream. Always have been.
Do you feel a special affinity for the young players who get a lot of criticism these days?
Life is about growth. People are not perfect when they're 21 years old.
Did it make you angry over the years, did you look back with disappointment or frustration about the fact your career was cut short?
Walton: No. You cannot go through life like that. You just try your best with what you have.
4. Was it difficult for you to make the transition from being the center of the whole Blazer phenomenon to being a sixth man in Boston in 1985?
Walton: No, not at all, because I really couldn't play anymore. I might be the most injured athlete in the history of sports. I've had 31 operations. An endless string of stress fractures. I played the best basketball I ever played in my life with the Trail Blazers. When that bone in my foot split apart in the spring of 1978 ... I mean, after that, I spent the rest of my life chasing down that feeling we had in Portland. I have always wanted to be part of something special, and when I got to Boston ... actually, when I bought, begged and pleaded my way onto the Celtics ... it was already a championship team. I was just glad to be able to sit there and cheer and to be Larry Bird's valet, to be sure that his shoes were fine and his uniform was folded neatly.
5. Who was your toughest opponent on the court, college or pro?
Who would you put on the All-Walton team?
Walton: In 2002, my first team all-league was Shaquille O'Neal in the middle, Tracy McGrady and Kobe Bryant at the guards, and my forwards were Tim Duncan and Chris Webber.
What about all-time?
Walton: Bill Russell was my favorite player of all-time. His book ... my mom was the librarian in our town, and she wasnıt into sports at all, but one day she brought home Bill Russell's "Go Up For Glory" when I was, like, 12 years old. It changed my whole life. I read it over and over. The best forwards ever were Bird and Kevin McHale. McHale was the second-best low-post player I ever played against, after Kareem. Bird was the best player I ever played with.
The guards would be Magic and Jordan.
6. You've had some great teachers in your life, tell me what you've learned from some of them ... how about John Wooden?
Walton: He taught us how to learn. He taught us how to create a life for ourselves. He led by example. He taught us that a life not lived for others is not a life.
Walton: Coach Ramsay was the smartest coach. He was so far ahead of his time, in terms of analyzing the opposition, in terms of calling plays, and in terms of maintaining physical fitness with yoga and nutrition and stretching. He was always ahead of the pace of the action. He dictated rather than reacted. Jack Ramsay was Bobby Fischer, he was Gary Kasparov.
You've described the Grateful Dead as some of your teachers. What have you learned from them?
Walton: "We used to play for silver, now we play for life."
A lot of the Dead's music is improvisation. What is the connection between the music and basketball for you?
Walton: It's all the same. It's the creativity, it's the electricity, it's the speed, it's the teamwork, it's the going back and forth, it's the intrasquad competition to see who can take it the furthest. If a Maurice Lucas or a Lionel Hollins or a Jamaal Wilkes or a Larry Bird made a great play, then my responsibility was to go right back out and match it, to say, it's my turn and I'm coming.
It's the same with The Dead -- everybody's flying in different directions, trying to make it happen, and then there's always that leader, whether it be Jerry Garcia or Maurice Lucas, ready to bring it back and say, "Bam, we're right here, right back on it."
Sounds similar to the way jazz musicians talk about pushing each other ...
Walton: Right, exactly. You live for that. That's what makes it so fun to be on a team. You're sitting at your house, thinking up this wild, crazy stuff as to how it's going to go, and the other guys are sitting at their houses doing the same thing. And when it works, you think, "Are we the luckiest people on Earth, or what? We get to do this?! We get to play ball today?! How great is that?!"
7. Take me back. What are your earliest basketball memories? What did you first love about the game?
Walton: I grew up in San Diego in a non-athletic environment. My parents were not interested in sports. Their loves were art, literature and music. I gravitated towards sports because of my older brother Bruce and the first coach I ever had, who, like John Wooden, made it fun and really emphasized the joy of playing the team game. I was eight years old, and he was the volunteer coach at the Catholic elementary school I went to. And he is still the volunteer coach there, by the way, 42 years later.
Were you big then?
Walton: No, I was a skinny, scrawny guy. I stuttered horrendously, couldn't speak at all. I was a very shy, reserved player and a very shy, reserved person. I found a safe place in life in basketball.
8. If you hadn't been an athlete, what profession would you like to have tried?
Walton: Rock 'n' roll musician. Piano or drums.
Have you ever thought about coaching?
Walton: I think about everything all the time. I don't sleep much. I'm on the go. My mind is racing. My wife says my mind is like the rolling dials on a slot machine. So, yeah, I think about everything. But I made a decision to go into broadcasting, and I love my job.
I read somewhere recently that you said you felt that joining the lead NBC announcing team was one of your greatest accomplishments ...
Walton: It was the greatest accomplishment.
Walton: Well, for someone with my problems and limitations, with the obstacles I've had to overcome ... you know, basketball was easy, but to get to the No. 1 team in broadcasting ... I mean, I'm 6-foot-11, I've got red hair, freckles, I'm a goofy, nerdy-looking guy, I've got a speech impediment -- I stutter and stammer all the time -- and I'm a "Deadhead." When I started in this business 12 years ago, I couldn't get a job. They'd look at me and say, "No way, Walton. Don't call us back and don't come around here any more."
It was that explicit?
Walton: Absolutely. And now, to be on the No. 1 team, it is without question the greatest accomplishment of my life.
When you call a game, what are you trying to communicate to the average fan?
Are you conscious of being controversial or provocative on the air?
Walton: No, no. Iım just trying to be who I am.
9. Painful memory time: Do the UCLA losses to Notre Dame and North Carolina State stay with you in any way?
Walton: Oh, you mean, Jan. 19, 1974? A 12-point lead and the ball in Notre Dame, no 3-point shot, no 24-shot clock, and we give it away? The one day Digger Phelps worked in his life? Digger Phelps and those referees still sitting on the verandas of South Bend, Indiana, toasting themselves? March 23, 1974? An 11-point lead with five minutes to go in regulation? A seven-point lead with a minute-and-a-half to go in the second overtime? Losing not only a game but a championship game to Tommy Burleson?! No, I don't think about it.
10. Thinking about the Finals, and especially about the Nets, who are going for the first time ... how would you advise them to prepare for what's next?
Walton: Don't be happy to be there. Go for the victory. Nobody I've ever known who was worth a darn as a player or a person was happy when they lost the Finals. I've been on both sides. You learn more when you lose, but I'd rather win every time, of course. At 49, I can say something I never would have said when I was a player, that I'm a better person because of my failures and disgraces.
But if you're Jason Kidd on Wednesday, you can't be thinking in those terms ...
Walton: No, no. Iım talking about later in life. There's time for that. There's a lot more time for that than there is for what he has to do right now. Right now, you know, it's not about the refs or anything else, it's about hitting first, getting on the run and never looking back.
How can the Nets beat the Lakers? What plan do they need to develop?
Walton: They need to listen to The Dead's "I Need a Miracle." That's the secret ingredient.