By Bill Walton
Page 2 columnist
In addition to all his other qualifications -- NCAA champion, NBA champion, MVP, Hall of Famer, award-winning talking head -- and his tie-dyed sense of fun, Bill Walton is a Web guy. One of the first things he asked for upon joining ESPN as lead NBA analyst this summer was a place on ESPN.com, to ramble and reflect on hoops, life and music. So here he is, The Freewheelin' Bill Walton, in the first of many regular appearances on Page 2. Whether you love it, or think it's TERR-ible (we hope not), Bill will be grateful for your feedback.
I knew this offseason would be much different from last. A year ago, I spent six months in the hospital rehabbing from my 31st operation, a left ankle fusion. (Those six months of incapacitation changed my life, allowing me to start over one more time.)
The summer of '02 was to be much faster-paced. The NBA Finals left a lot to be desired from a competitive standpoint but because of their proximity to my home in San Diego I was able to occasionally dash home to see one of my former rivals (and eventual teammate), Phil Smith, University of San Francisco class of 1974. Phil was in the closing stages of a losing battle with cancer. I spent as much time as possible with Phil and his family and came away feeling that he was one of the toughest guys that I have ever come across. The pain and devastation of that raging disease, and the debilitating effects of coping with it, reminded me time and time again how fragile and tenuous life is. This summer held so many reminders for me that this life is something we should never take for granted and should be savored at every opportunity.
Shortly after the Finals, I attended the first awards dinner of the Retired Players Association at Mickey Mantle's in New York. We shared memories of Phil and were maybe a little happier to see each other than usual. Oscar Robertson, Dave Bing and I were presented with Lifetime Contribution Awards. Mel Davis did a tremendous job of bringing together so many of the retired players and coaches from the New York metropolitan area: Willis Reed, Walt Frazier, Earl Monroe, Tiny Archibald, Lou Carnesecca, Don Chaney, Frank (and Scott) Layden, Mike Bantom among many others. A true highlight for me was the involvement of my presenter, David Halberstam. Oscar's presenter was Zelda Spoelstra, an official in the NBA front since the beginning days of the league in the late 1940s. David and Zelda both represent the greatest elements of the human spirit, demonstrated by their willingness to stand up to the biggest bullies on the block.
Next we headed off to Puerto Rico for the NBA Players Convention where we wrapped up the business of the season and planned for things to come. Endless duties and responsibilities, of course, but we were able to squeeze in some celebration, revelry and fun, particularly the now-customary boat trip (with Lucious Allen, Maurice Lucas and Jamaal Wilkes) to the remote islands and beaches of this garden paradise in the Caribbean.
While on the road, we were able to take in the World Cup final in Yokohama, Japan, on TV. Ronaldo and Brazil reminded me once again of what really wins at the highest level of sporting competition: speed, skill, quickness, teamwork and mental acuity. Those are the tenets at the foundation of the basketball beliefs given to me by John Wooden. I marvel at how often they are the difference between the winners and the losers who often ignore them.
Finally, we touched down back home in San Diego! As we have come to do over the years, every time that big jet airliner touches down at the end of another long season, when those wheels make contact at Lindbergh Field, my wife, Lori, and I always let out a big cheer.
Glory, gory and grief
Soon after we got back, some friends encouraged us to go see a new play called "Love, Janis". We don't get out much anymore but this wonderful evening was well worth the risk. The play has two characters, backed by a rock and roll band, and tells the story of the life of Janis Joplin through letters she wrote home to her mother and sister. It was a rollicking trip down memory lane particularly since we went with Ramrod and Frances Shurtliff, two members of the Grateful Dead family who knew and lived with Janis during those days in the late 1960s. Ramrod and Frances verified the authenticity of the tale that they lived through themselves.
It wasn't all arts for me this summer though. My health finally allowed me to get physical and I certainly took advantage of it. Swimming, biking, kayaking and playing music. Things were never better. My outdoor activities were interrupted briefly by a trip to the Mohegan Sun casino in Uncasville, Conn., for a corporate event. I was blown away by the enormity and quality of the facility there. I'm glad for all of the Native Americans in this country who seem to have struck quite a vein of success with casinos and hotels. I hope and pray that they'll take all of our money and buy the country back.
Even though we generally go to bed around 9 o'clock, on summer Mondays we make an exception. Our favorite local act, the Electric Waste Band, plays on Mondays at 10 p.m. just down the street in lovely and quaint Ocean Beach. Their repertoire includes a lot of the Dead and Dylan. One night caused great concern because the regular guitar player, Tyler, was unavailable. Rockin' Bob Harvey and Jose Cerrano filled in and delivered spectacular performances. We danced the night away knowing that the Electric Waste Band was safely wrapped up in their crazy fingers.
As the summer days and nights rolled on, I spent a lot of time at the very beach where I have spent virtually my entire life in San Diego. One glorious day I thought to myself, once again, that things had never been better. After a morning of riding my bike, playing the piano, working in the garden, checking in with Coach Wooden on the telephone and visiting with my parents who still live in the same house where I grew up, I filled the afternoon with kayaking at the South Mission Beach Sports Park. While I was breaking through the waves, this little teenaged surfer jumped on the wave that I was breaching and rode down the face of it, driving the nose of his surfboard right into the side of my leg.
I never want to see my own bones again. My left leg exploded as the muscles, tendons and ligaments took the brunt of the blow. I saw tissue floating away in the ocean. I used my arms as splints to keep parts of my leg from disappearing into the Pacific Ocean. A friend dragged me to the beach and we were met by lifeguards bearing a stretcher with ambulances on the way. Unfortunately, I was back in the hospital undergoing my 32nd operation. It set me back -- three weeks of bed rest and a month on crutches. Another reminder of how fragile it all is.
Anaphylactic shock and sensibility
I managed to fit in a few visits to the San Diego Hall of Champions, our local sports museum in beautiful Balboa Park. We enjoyed skateboarder Tony Hawk's presentation as part of the monthly speakers series as well as the unveiling of the new historical exhibits focusing on football and baseball in San Diego. But the highlight for me was the program by Dick Enberg on the time he spent over the years with San Diego native and hero Ted Williams.
Still on crutches from the Mission Beach fiasco, I had a doctor's appointment for the gaping hole in my leg (which ultimately linked all the other scars from my ankle to my knee). The checkup was positive and I went home to relax and read in our back patio. As I crutched my way out there, I felt something on my ear but thought little of it. Just as I settled into my chair, however, I became acutely aware that I had been stung yet again by a bee. I am deathly allergic to bees. Unfortunately, I could not get my new bee sting kit to function properly, forcing me to dial 911. As they wheeled me into the emergency room in a state of near unconsciousness, already deeply into anaphylactic shock, the nurses at Mercy Hospital smiled and said "Well, it's Tuesday afternoon. We were expecting you, Bill."
Fortunately, the bee sting experiences for me are only 24-hour nightmares. I was able to get back into some of my other summer activities rather quickly. For the last four years or so they have included some local political activism as I join my neighbors in protesting the expansion of the San Diego Zoo. There are few things more satisfying in life than the ability of communities to come together and fight for the quality of life that we have all come to expect in our great state of California.
The weather took a turn for the worse in August as a thick marine layer gave us many foggy, cloudy days. One day I decided, "Enough with the clouds, I'm going to Borrego Springs." I took my bike over there and anticipated a great time in the heat of the desert. But for the first time in my life I saw one of the most beautiful desert landscapes in the world enveloped in what appeared to be a toxic cloud. There was no visibility whatsoever. I was amazed at the sense of change in our world that I felt. There are so many demands on our resources that even a remote place like Borrego Springs has been touched by the pollution that so many of us encounter on a regular basis in the bigger, more populated areas.
During the offseason I had the chance to read an extraordinary book, "Huey Long" by T. Harry Williams. I knew next to nothing about this fascinating American political figure before I read this book but it was a book that changed my life. When it was published in the late 1960s, it won a Pulitzer prize for history and biography. Well deserved.
Time out of mind
Because of my leg injury, Lori and I were unable to attend the "Other Ones" concert in Alpine Valley, Wis. But when I finally got back up on my feet, I desperately needed a big-time music fix. We jumped on an airplane and went on tour with Bob Dylan for a week. We took our bikes and went from Park City, Utah to Grand Junction, Colo., and then on to Aspen, biking, hiking, lunching and enjoying ourselves every minute along the way. The shows reminded us that, after 40 years on the road, Bob Dylan just keeps on getting better and better.
So many places on the Dylan tour stood out geographically. The Heber Valley, the Dinosaur National Monument in Eastern Utah and then the Colorado National Monument on the southern edge of Grand Junction. So spectacular, so inviting. I can't wait to get back.
After the Dylan tour, back home to San Diego where I had one of the saddest days of my life. As I put together my ESPN NBA schedule, I realized that I would not be able to fit in any work on the Los Angeles Clippers telecasts. It pained me greatly to have to call my friend Ralph Lawler to tell him that our 12-year run was over. But there is only so much time and hard decisions have to be made. Still, there is nothing like a Clipper telecast.
After speaking with Ralph, I turned on the television and saw something even sadder than the end of my time with the Clippers: the U.S. team's performance in the World Championships in Indianapolis. (George Karl has had a really good year … Has he asked for a raise yet?) But I did get something positive out of it. I am in proud possession of videotapes of the three USA losses (to Argentina, Yugoslavia and Spain) in that tournament. Those tapes will be highly prized at the next charity auction that George Karl emcees.
As we wound up our summer at the Basketball Hall of Fame, I had one of the most emotional roller coaster rides of my life. The new building in Springfield represents the incredible growth of our sport. But seeing all my friends and sharing more good times with them was even more special. So many of the members of this class had an impact on my life. The evening opened with Lute Olson's taped message. (It was appropriate that Lute was not there. He was available the last two years when the voters passed him by, but this year he was in Italy attending the wedding of his son.) When Lute started talking about the passing of his wife Bobbi, something we lived through as parents of a son on the team, there was not a dry eye in the house. Lori has learned to bring along a package of Kleenex for nights like this.
As the night wound down and I knew it was nearly time for the season to start anew, I was dining at the Fort restaurant in Springfield with a few friends. An fan whose name I didn't get handed me a gift of life, love and sharing, all things exemplified by Magic, Bird, Brown and Lute. It was a bootleg CD of Bob Dylan's return to Newport, R.I., this summer. The packaging and design are first rate, with a cover shot of Bob in the white suit, cowboy hat and fake beard that he wore at those shows. The song list is also phenomenal: "Mr. Tambourine Man," "Positively Fourth Street," "Subterranean Homesick Blues," "Desolation Row," "Tangled Up in Blue," "Leopard Skin Pillbox Hat," "Like A Rolling Stone" and so many other great ones.
Ominously missing was "Masters of War" -- a regular on the tour all summer long. And as I walked out into the night realizing that it was all over now, baby blue, I stood tall knowing that I am a patriot for peace.
Bill Walton joins ESPN this season as an NBA analyst. His Freewheelin' diaries will appear regularly on Page 2.