Magic Rainbows Hovering over a Bottomless Abyss
Bill Walton arrived at the San Diego Natural History Museum carrying a large black chair. I watched him walk with it, a little stiffly, past the Moreton Bay fig tree outside. The tree is one of the city's grand natural treasures: more than 100 years old, nearly 100 feet tall, hugely spread, still standing despite a century of weather and air pollution and climbing children. It's so large that it made even Walton, one of basketball's dominating giants, look small.
''Why is he carrying a chair?'' the woman working the museum's front door asked me.
I had no idea. We were standing inside the building, near the skeleton of a dinosaur (Allosaurus fragilis, the sign said), watching him approach. Walton wore jeans and a Grateful Dead T-shirt. He chewed gum. His hair, formerly long, red and curly, was now a sparse white wisp. His stride was deliberate, determined; each step seemed to cost him something.
Walton is another of San Diego's grand natural treasures: a 1970s basketball superstar, celebrated sports broadcaster, proud public hippie and -- to quote the man himself -- ''the most-injured athlete in the history of sports.'' He is now 63, at least in regular human years, but his body has always operated on some other, more severe time scale. His injuries have been relentless; his life story reads like a jock Book of Job. Walton has had 37 orthopedic operations, many of which came at the worst possible moment. The biggest difference between him and any of the other greats you'd care to name -- Michael Jordan, Bill Russell, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Wilt Chamberlain, Shaquille O'Neal, Larry Bird -- is that Walton's brilliant career barely ever happened. Instead of winning the three or four or five or six championships he seemed destined for, Walton became a legendary failure. (He did manage to win two.) His injuries caused him to miss nine and a half of his 14 N.B.A. seasons.
I had come to San Diego to speak with Walton about his life: the magic rainbows interweaving over the bottomless, flaming abyss. He tells that story in his new book, the amazingly subtitled ''Back From the Dead: Searching for the Sound, Shining the Light and Throwing It Down.'' For an athlete's biography, the book is surprisingly fatalistic: It begins with Walton on the brink of suicide and ends with many of his friends dying. It suggests an existence largely shaped by dark matter -- all the things that didn't happen, that never coalesced, that went missing.
And now here he came, walking on his ruined feet. The chair Walton carried did not look, in any normal sense, portable. It was tall, unwieldy, rigid, nonfolding. It looked like a piece of lawn furniture. But no: This turned out to be Bill Walton's personal chair. He carried it with him everywhere, as a snail carries its shell.
In fact, these were the first words he said to me: ''I love my chair.'' And then he said it again: ''I love my chair.'' He said this with the kind of affection that most people reserve for children or pets. This is because Walton's chair and its unusual qualities -- its sturdiness, its high elevation -- are the keys to the health of Walton's spine, and the failure of Walton's spine, not so many years ago, nearly made him kill himself.
Over the course of our time together, Walton repeated his love for his chair often. After which he would add, almost invariably, his favorite refrain: ''I'm the luckiest guy in the world.''
In what possible sense is Bill Walton the luckiest guy in the world?
Perhaps this could be true if we were to interpret luck in an unusually broad way. When we say someone is lucky, we normally mean they are prone to good luck -- we silently strain the bad out of the equation. But luck, as everyone knows, is both good and bad: It streams down on us constantly, indifferently, with its mixed blessings, in the same way that sunlight pours down on us constantly with its visible and invisible light, its vitamin D and its radioactivity. Perhaps Walton really is, in this more inclusive sense, the luckiest of us all -- the one on whom the universe has rained down the largest portion of its good and bad fortune, across the entire spectrum: the miraculous, the disastrous, the decent, the inconvenient, the run-of-the-mill, the slightly off.
Walton was born into a nonsporty family in San Diego. His father was a social worker, his mother a librarian. As a boy, Walton had such a severe stutter that he preferred not to speak. He learned to express himself, instead, through experiences: riding his bike, running around at the beach, reading and then -- transformatively -- playing basketball. He played all day, all over San Diego. Even as a boy, before his height was anything special, Walton was formidable. He sometimes says he peaked at 12.
But the injuries started early, too. At 14, Walton blew out his knee in a pickup game. It was during his recovery from that injury, while he lay in bed for three months, that Walton hit his improbable growth spurt: He got in bed at 6-foot-1 and got out at 6-foot-7½. This is one of the many ways in which Walton's basketball life seems mythological: The injury and the growth, the gift and the curse, were one. Walton's sudden height opened up a whole new realm of command. As a high-school senior, Walton made nearly 80 percent of his shots and averaged 25 rebounds and 12 blocks a game.
He was recruited by John Wooden to join mighty U.C.L.A., taking up the center position of Lew Alcindor (soon to be known as Kareem Abdul-Jabbar), who had recently graduated. By some measures, Walton was just as good at U.C.L.A. as Kareem. His team won 88 games in a row, still a record, including two national championships, and Walton won the college player of the year award all three years he was eligible for it. In the 1973 N.C.A.A. final, Walton made 21 of his 22 official shots on his way to 44 points. Even then, his knees were almost too bad to play on; every game required an elaborate regimen of icing and heating, and often he was in too much pain to practice.
Despite his injuries, Walton was the No. 1 pick in the 1974 N.B.A. draft. He went to one of the worst teams, and the smallest market, in the league: the Portland Trail Blazers. Walton's long red hair flew behind him as he ran, and a scraggly red beard nested on the bottom of his face. (The only thing that Walton cared about in his first N.B.A. contract was control over his grooming.) In his prime, Walton was the human embodiment of the beauty of the sport. Watch the old footage: He looks like a basketball textbook come to life, crouching deep in his defensive stance, arms spread wide, leaping instantly to block a shot, then leaping up again to grab the rebound, then turning and firing a perfect pass up the floor to his guards. On offense, Walton demanded the ball with the enthusiasm of a know-it-all raising his hand in class: Here, here, the answer is here.
But Walton dominated in a social way. His signature gesture, in those years, was to run down the court with both arms high in the air, twirling his hands around each other like an eggbeater. The action seemed almost mystical -- an invocation of the great swirling energy of life -- and it would send Walton's teammates swirling around him until, more often than seemed likely, he would find one of them wide open for a layup. He was never a high scorer, but he was probably the best-passing big man in the history of the game. He blocked shots not out of bounds but directly to his teammates; he became famous for throwing outlet passes to start his team on a fast break before he had even come back down to the floor from getting a rebound. For a couple of magical years, the Blazers were a joyful unit, the epitome of unselfish teamwork, and they radically overachieved because of it, improbably winning the 1977 championship over Dr. J and the star-studded Philadelphia 76ers. In the final game of the series, Walton had 20 points, 23 rebounds, 7 assists and 8 blocked shots.
But just then, at the height of it all, when the defending-champion Blazers looked set for perpetual glory (they started the next season 50-10), Walton was struck by injury again. He tried to return for the playoffs, his foot loaded up with anesthetic, but a crucial bone split as he ran down the court. There were lawsuits, recriminations, burned bridges, bad blood. There were comebacks that ended in further injuries. Walton was 24 when he won the championship; before he even turned 30, doctors told him they had abandoned hope of saving his basketball career -- their new goal was to make sure they wouldn't have to amputate his feet.
At the natural-history museum, Walton and I sat in a sun-drenched conference room up on the fourth floor. Its windows showed a panoramic view of the rugged landscape around San Diego: mountains and mesas that blend craggily into Mexico. Walton sat high in his special chair, his back turned to the view so he wouldn't become distracted. (He finds it hard to contain his love for San Diego.) He told me about all kinds of things: his ongoing battle with stuttering, recent innovations in spinal surgery, the country's urgent need for a carbon tax, his memories of swimming with whales in the Sea of Cortez.
Walton's manner of speaking in private -- deep voice prowling from subject to subject, sarcasm alternating with aw-shucks exclamations of joy -- would be familiar to anyone who has seen him on TV. He is probably best known, in this century, for his work as one of basketball's most distinctive and ubiquitous sports broadcasters, a career he started in the 1990s, after his playing days ended. In a world of buttoned-up commentators, Walton was a free-flowing psychedelic jester. He spoke in passionately ridiculous prose poems, folding in Grateful Dead lyrics and John Wooden aphorisms and silly catchphrases (''Throw it down, big man!'') and naked hyperbole (''the greatest block in the history of Western civilization''). Walton's working thesis seemed to be that all sublime things -- Mozart, the Grand Canyon, Cézanne -- exist in the same dimension, and that basketball belongs there, too. ''Have you ever been to a volcano when it was erupting?'' he asked once during a N.C.A.A. broadcast, apropos of basically nothing.
I spoke with the announcer Jim Gray, who has worked with Walton on TV for decades. ''Bill is a brilliant man,'' he said. ''He has such a fertile mind. He's probably the only person who's ever been able to tie together, in the same sentence, Mother Teresa, Michael Jordan, climate change, the Berlin Wall and -- what's that ballerina's name? Baryshnikov. Before you know it, you're off to Ferdinand Magellan. I'll say to him sometimes: What about the game? He'll say: It doesn't matter, the people can see the game.''
It's hard to know with Walton where the persona ends and the person begins. He is self-conscious, and intensely self-conscious about his self-consciousness. The veins of irony and sincerity and pain and joy run very deep, and they cross and tangle. As a player, Walton was famously maniacal in his pursuit of winning. He was also famously miserable when he was hurt. This was a special agony ofWalton's injuries: the pain wasn't just physical; it was existential. The control that he found in the flow of the game -- his perfect fluency in basketball -- was hard to replicate elsewhere. Pain was isolating.
''I've spent half my adult life in the hospital,'' he told me. ''I've spent half my adult life in hotels. Waiting in line to check in. Waiting in line to rent a car. Waiting in line to go through security. Waiting in line at the terminal for the plane. Waiting for the waitress at the restaurant. I hate waste.''
Included on Walton's list of waste is doing publicity. He made it clear to me that he did not enjoy talking to journalists.
When I asked him why, there were 10 solid seconds of silence.
''You can be honest,'' I said to him, finally, half joking.
This only seemed to upset him.
''Don't ever say that,'' Walton said. ''That tells me that you don't believe anything else I've told you to this point.''
Walton told me many times that if I really wanted to understand who he was, I should look at a section on his website called ''Best of Recently.'' I found the site to be a cluttered wilderness of photos, quotes and psychedelic photo montages -- it looks like many generations of web design piled atop one another. ''Best of Recently'' turned out to be a series of lists of Walton's current enthusiasms and discoveries. It is characteristically eclectic. Under ''New Technology,'' Walton lists bike equipment (Shimano Di2 electronic shifters) and a driving service (''Chauffeurs by Sean''), as well as ''texting,'' ''E-sports,'' and ''solar/rainwater capture.'' The largest category is ''Concerts,'' which is just 30 performers listed without comment of any kind -- Boz Scaggs, John Fogerty, Phish, Boston, Rod Stewart.
Walton does this in conversation too. He'll suddenly just start listing names: Chick Hearn, John Wooden, Jerry Garcia, Bill Russell, Muhammad Ali, Jack Ramsay.
One of the best conversations Walton and I had during our two days together consisted entirely of listing the rivers in Oregon.
''Willamette River,'' I said, speculatively.
''Willamette River,'' he confirmed. And then he added: ''McKenzie River.''
''McKenzie River,'' I said.
''Santiam River,'' he said.
''Columbia River,'' I said.
''Nestucca River,'' he said, gaining momentum. ''Little Nestucca River.''
''Illinois River,'' I said.
''Metolius River,'' he said. ''John Day River. Deschutes River.''
After a while, I realized that this was not just a verbal tic but actually something profound, another way that Walton manages to wrench himself out of everyday reality and into the sacred flow -- these vast lists allow him to create his own company, his own surroundings, no matter where his injured body happens to be. It is proper nouns as virtual reality.
Walton and I spent much of our time together in his car, listening to the Grateful Dead on our way to and from San Diego's most scenic vistas. Walton knew every song that came on. Several times, he got excited because the music seemed to be speaking directly to us. Once, for instance, when we were talking about Larry Bird, the Dead sang the words ''leader of the band,'' and Walton said: ''See, that's exactly what Larry was: the leader of the band.'' It became increasingly clear that the Grateful Dead was an omnipresent scripture rolling through Walton's mind.
On our second morning together, driving downtown, Walton and I hit a particularly good patch of Dead. The jam grew and broke into multiple subjams, which wove themselves back together into something bigger and then bounced around. This made Walton genuinely happy. He turned the volume up, then turned it up some more, until the music was the only thing in the car. Even when we reached our destination, when Walton pulled to the curb and the valet-parking attendant came over to take the keys, Walton couldn't bring himself to leave: The flow was too strong. Interrupting it would have been sacrilege, so he waved the parking attendant away and turned the music up even louder.
When a great athlete gets into a state of flow, there is this special feeling of control -- he becomes free of the normal looming dread that haunts human existence, the knowledge that we are just blown around by the random winds of good and bad luck until we die. Inside the special parameters of flow, he is in charge; everything glows with meaning. This is a feeling Bill Walton knew as well as anyone who ever played. And this is his great tragedy: His ability to get into that flow, through basketball, was ripped away from him again and again by the terrible luck of injuries. He remains in constant pursuit of it.
Walton and I sat there for several minutes, not moving, at the curb, inside the music. Occasionally, he would shout out some ecstatic explication --''That's Phil Lesh on the bass, laying down that flesh-eating low end.'' Or: ''This is from 1968, before the band really even knew what it could do.'' Hearing this song first thing in the morning, Walton decided, was a good omen. We would have a lucky day.
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