For many, many years, talking has not been Bill Walton's problem. He's James Stewart in "Mr. Smith Goes to Washington," only taller, a 6-foot-11 filibuster. An interview with him generally begins with Walton talking for 10 or 15 minutes before you've asked the first question.
Now, walking has been another matter. The former NBA, UCLA and Helix High basketball star has had so many problems with his lower extremities he may have coined a phrase: "The only minor surgery is surgery performed on somebody else." If he didn't, he's certainly used it enough.
On Feb. 25, the ESPN analyst tried to ease himself out of a seat as he was about to exit a plane after a cross-country flight.
"I went to the ground," says Walton, granting his first extensive newspaper interview since the incident. "I had extensive nerve pain. Even into recovery, I was having unbelievable, radiating nerve pain. I'd wake up at 5 in the morning and reach for the Percodan."
Walton says his back and hip had been bothering him. He didn't know what it was. Turns out: "I had bulging discs, a narrowing of the spine and all the muscles, ligaments and tendons in the hip were not functioning."
So Walton was limited to being a rather large couch potato with two eyes, watching his beloved game on television, rather than in person. Talk about pain.
But there's one thing about Walton: When he sets his remarkable mind on doing something, it gets done. Just as he overcame his speech problem as a young man, he set out to ease the pain and make his body right.
There's stretching, yoga, exercising, therapy, acupuncture and, of course, one of his great loves, bicycling.
"My bike is my wheelchair, my gym and my church, all in one," he says. "I thank my bike doctor for keeping my bike working.
"It was not the life I wanted to lead. I'm 55 and just getting started. There are so many things still to do.
"I was not getting better lying down and waiting for the pain to go away. I've gotten so much better. Thank God, it doesn't look like I'm going to have to have spinal surgery. The breakthrough for me was when I actually could bend over and pet my dog."
Walton loves Boston, has forever, and after making an amazing comeback after years of foot problems, he was an important member of the Celtics' 1986 championship team that defeated Houston. I can remember having lunch with Walton at La Costa shortly afterward. He was having a beer, and every time the Celtics or the city of Boston were mentioned, he'd lift his glass, smile and say, "Hear! Hear!" "I'm a Celtic," Walton says. "I'm a lifelong Celtic fan. It's a privilege and an honor to be a Boston Celtic.
The next year Walton suffered another injury and missed most of the season, including most of the 1987 Finals agaisnt the Lakers. "I had dreamed my entire life of playing against Kareem (Abdul-Jabbar) in the Finals. He was my idol, by far the greatest player I'd played against. "But, with a broken foot, I couldn't play and we didn't win. Still, the sense of letting the team down is overwhelming. It was one of the lowest points of my career."