Danny Ainge and Pat Riley both Married Girls from Bill Walton's High School

One of Walton’s greatest joys is talking about his idyllic childhood in La Mesa.

“Once you’ve been touched by La Mesa, your life is never the same again,” he said.

Walton is as geeked as anyone for La Mesa’s centennial celebration. The state of California recognized La Mesa’s incorporation 100 years ago today, and the city plans centennial events through the year and into early 2013.

“The key to your life is your foundation, and I am who I am because of the city of La Mesa and everything that they gave me,” he said. “My education, my values, my sense of team and the personal attributes I have developed all come from the spirit of La Mesa.”

Although he now lives with his wife, Lori, near Balboa Park, his mother still lives in the home where Walton was raised near Maryland Avenue Elementary School. He attended that school and Blessed Sacrament, then La Mesa Junior High before hitting Helix High School.

He said he remembers learning to swim at the La Mesa Community Pool

“It was such a privilege to grow up in Southern California, particularly in La Mesa in the 1950s and ’60s,” Walton said. “There was hope, joy, optimism, a celebration of life. The dream that anything is possible. And on top of all of that, we had no fog. It was sunny and 80 degrees every day. And I thought the whole world was like that!”

He can wax poetic on a variety of topics that interest him, from the Challenged Athletes Foundation to cycling to his favorite football team (the San Diego Chargers, of course) but when his hometown is the subject, the accolades are endless.

“I am so lucky to have grown up in La Mesa,” Walton said. “It’s such a beautiful place. Hills, valleys, sunny warm weather with beautiful breezes. All the beautiful streets in downtown La Mesa. Mount Helix, all the parks, the rec center... Our playground was Lake Murray. When it was hot, we could go through the back canyon and jump in the lake. This is before they had the road around it...

“How beautiful La Mesa is. It’s better than perfect. But it’s really the people who make it so nice. The level of encouragement I got, the support from everyone. Why can’t every place be like La Mesa?”

Walton recalls being a gangly youngster peeking through the fence at Sunset Park, the park that was built in 1962 and the place where the Chargers had their in-season practice facility in the mid- to late-1960s. He can still name every player on several Chargers squads of that era. He said getting to meet many of those Chargers later in life remains one of his personal highlights.

“They were nicer in person than I ever dreamed about,” he said.

Walton also recalls playing pickup games with members of the San Diego Rockets, and particularly remembers Elvin Hayes, who joined the NBA with the Rockets in 1968, and who on at least one occasion called teenager Billy at home to ask him to find a way to get the Helix High basketball gymnasium opened for the team to practice.

Walton heaped praise on current Mayor Art Madrid and called the downtown Village “a thing of beauty.”

He also said he remains quite tickled that former Los Angeles Lakers Coach Pat Riley and Walton’s one-time Boston Celtics teammate Danny Ainge “both married Helix girls.”

“What are the chances?” Walton asked rhetorically, then laughed. “Whenever I see Pat and Danny, we talk about that and I tease them about how they had to come to La Mesa to find the girls of their dreams. Ah, La Mesa, the center of the universe.”

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