Walton's Inside Game
October 28, 2001
Bill Walton, his family and friends are sitting beneath a flapping Grateful Dead banner in the tropical-forest backyard of his San Diego home discussing the day's news. "Oh . . . I . . . love . . . reading . . . the . . . newspaper," Walton says in the same insufferably pompous-sounding voice he uses as a TV basketball analyst.
He is quizzing his sons on what they read in the newspapers that day. One mentions an article about the friendship between Albert Einstein and the Indian poet-mystic Rabindranath Tagore. Tagore wrote of Einstein, "My salutation is to him who knows me imperfect and loves me."
Walton nods. Ah . . . yes. . . . That . . . reminds . . . me . . . of . . . something . . . Jerry . . . Garcia . . . once . . . said. . . . "
Here's what most people know about Walton. He is 48 years old, just shy of seven feet tall and was recently named one of the 50 greatest N.B.A. players in history. For the past 11 years, he has worked as an N.B.A. television analyst whose absolutist proclamations on the game, delivered in that voice, often make fans furious and confused.
What people don't know about Walton is that he works very hard at perfecting his pompous-sounding speech because every time he opens his mouth he is terrified that no words will come out. He has had a debilitating stutter all his life.
And most people also don't know that Walton's four giant sons all are, or have been, college basketball players (Adam, 25, Louisiana State; Nate, 23, Princeton; Luke, 21, Arizona; Chris, 19, San Diego State) and that every summer Walton and his sons meet at his sprawling compound for a few weeks of bonding that is both touching and bizarre.
At U.C.L.A., where he played from 1970 to 1974 and led the bruins to 88 consecutive wins and two national championships and was named the college player of the year for three straight seasons, Walton was also well known for his radical politics. He took part in a protest of the Vietnam War that resulted in the takeover of a campus administration building; he claimed that Jerry Rubin was as great an American hero as George Washington, that no one over 35 should be president and that blacks had been oppressed by white Americans for so long that they had every right to shoot them.
Sitting with his family, Walton dreams out loud. "Today's the anniversary of Woodstock," he says. "Thirty-two years ago. Those were great days. Listening to Dylan and the Dead. Hope. Peace. Love. Happiness. Everything was possible."
His second wife, Lori, comes out of the house and joins the brood. She has just returned from her massage-therapy class. "Let's hear it for Lori, boys," Walton says. "She got an A on her test."
"Yea for Lori," his sons say, with a condescension that seems to be a Walton family trait.
Then Walton turns to her and says, "By the way, did you get the leak in the sink fixed?"
"Not yet," she says. "Tomorrow." Lori is in her mid-30's, a tiny, beautiful woman of Japanese ancestry. "She's an American," Walton says to me when I ask about her family. "That's all you need to know." He won't tell me her age, either, or when -- or if -- they were married.
"We met at a party at my house 11 years ago," he says. "She went to U.C.L.A., and she's a Deadhead, what more do you need to know?" He points to the living room. "We met right there."
"We shoulda met by the washer and dryer," Lori says.
"Now, we're here to celebrate Luke's leaving for college in a few days," Walton says to those assembled around the table. "What advice do you have for him?"
Nate starts telling a story about the sexual entanglements N.B.A. rookies can be lured into that ends with an anecdote about oral sex. Walton looks aghast. "Nate! Not at dinner!" Walton can occasionally be prudish around his sons. When the movie "Before Night Falls" is mentioned, he says to Lori, "Write down that title." But when he is told that the movie is about a gay writer living in Cuba, he looks pained. "Aw, they're just like you and me," he says. He is told that the writer's sexuality is pivotal to the plot. Still, all he will say is, "Tolerance and acceptance." In unison, Nate and Luke call out, "Tolerance and acceptance. Bill's motto for the summer."
Walton changes the subject. "Lori," he says, "I'd like you to maximize your time with Luke for the next few days." Then Walton says, "Now boys, I want to discuss some negligence around the pool -- towels not picked up." The boys role their eyes and say in unison, "Yes, Bill."
Most of the houses in Walton's neighborhood are Mediterranean Revival with neat, treeless lawns. His house is obscured by tropical foliage, as if its owner were in the witness-protection program. Inside, it is a shrine to the early 70's. The walls are covered with faded photos of the Grateful Dead -- performing at outdoor concerts, posing with Walton -- and posters announcing some long forgotten Dead concert.
The following morning, the tinkling of a piano can be heard in the living room, and then a voice. "Aargh! Come on!" Walton is hunched over the piano. "Don't listen," he says. "I'm not very good." Recently, Walton had the bones in his left ankle fused so he could walk without the pain that plagued him for much of his career. He can no longer hike in the mountains or shoot baskets with his sons. Now, the man who once said, "Movement is freedom," is reduced to practicing piano, gardening, reading the newspaper and watching his boys play basketball in his backyard.
"It's nothing to feel sorry for me about," he says. "I've had a wonderful life." Yet Walton lives in an idealized past that seems to have little to do with reality. He likes to talk about his perfect childhood growing up in San Diego. "My dad gave us a trusting environment of freedom to create our life," he says. "I still live there."
But it was also an environment of harsh discipline. Ted Walton refused to let his children use profanity and beat them with a strap for such transgressions as bed-wetting. And because he never played sports, his son looked elsewhere for role models. "Oh, I had wonderful teachers," Walton says. He is talking mostly of John Wooden, his coach at U.C.L.A. "My life is a shrine to John Wooden," Walton once said. He used to write little Woodenisms on his boys' lunch bags. "Be quick, but don't hurry." "Failing to prepare is preparing to fail." Walton takes comfort in those trite epigrams because they remind him of a time when life was perfect, before U.C.L.A.'s 88-game winning streak came to an end.
"Jan. 19, 1974, at Notre Dame," Walton says. "Nothing in my life has ever been right after that. Our perfect world was destroyed. I spent the rest of my life trying to get it back. It's hard to accept that perfection is not always going to be there. We believed it would." Then Walton cries out, "Aargh!"
Walton tries not to dwell on that loss, just as he glosses over any pain in his past, like his divorce from his first wife, Susie. His lips quiver when he says: "I . . . I . . . I'm divorced. That's all I'll say."
Late in the afternoon, Nate is swimming naked in the pool, as all the Walton boys do. He calls out to me from the pool: "Have you talked to my mom yet? Bill never mentions her, like she doesn't exist. But she played a more significant part in our lives than he did."
Susie Walton lives in a modest house in Del Mar, a pristine community that looks over the Pacific. A handsome woman at 50, she teaches parenting classes. For two hours, Susie talks about her 19 years with Walton. Her tone veers from affection to anger, punctuated at times by expletives and at other times by a hearty, infectious laugh.
She met Walton in his sophomore year when her boyfriend persuaded her to let Walton live with her and her girlfriend. "He told me not to touch his records," she says. "That's not a good thing to tell me, so we played them. I thought he was a geek, but he had a great heart, so I went out with him. I wasn't a Deadhead or politically active, but I had always dated athletes."
She says that despite Wooden's reputation as a disciplinarian, he deferred to his star. "Wooden let Bill smoke pot but not the other players," she says, although Wooden denies it. "It's funny, but Bill never said Wooden was this wonderful guy then. Now he puts him on a pedestal. Bill is still searching for certitude in assertive father figures."
In 1974, Walton signed a $2.5 million N.B.A. contract. He and Susie were living in Portland, Ore., when the radical activists Jack and Micki Scott, whom Walton knew of from his U.C.L.A. days, appeared at their home. Jack Scott, whom Walton once described as "the most beautiful human being I have ever met," told them that he had been carting Patty Hearst across the country and that "the heat was on from the F.B.I."
"Pretty soon, the F.B.I. was all over us, too," Susie says. "When I called a girlfriend to tell her I was pregnant, the F.B.I. was at her door 10 minutes later." Shortly after that, Walton asked Scott to leave.
Walton refuses to talk about Scott today other than to say, "Jack Scott is a friend of mine," curiously using the present tense to describe a man who died in February 2000 and whose funeral Walton was "too busy" to attend.
"Bill won't talk about Jack now," Susie says, "just like he won't talk about me, because we're no longer in his life. Bill's closed himself up. He's trying to hold on to the past.
"After Bill's foot operation that ended his career in '86, he couldn't handle reality without basketball. He started going to Grateful Dead concerts, where he picked up this 22-year-old girl. He expected me to accept it."
Susie says that their bitter divorce affected her boys for years. Now the boys "have learned to play Bill's game," she says. "If not, he calls them bad citizens. When Nate left Princeton for half a year, Bill called him a dropout. Nate said, 'At least I didn't cheat on my wife."' Like all her sons, Nate is extremely protective of his mother. When Nate went out to lunch with a male reporter once, and that reporter said his mother was a "sexy woman," Nate reached across the table and punched him hard on the arm. "You can't talk about my mom like that," he said.
Susie says: "When Adam left L.S.U., Bill told him drugs and sports don't mix. This from a guy who's smoked pot since he was 20. What planet is this guy from? Adam once said to me: 'Mom, I have to love him, he's my father. But why do you?"' Susie is quiet for a moment, then says: "I loved being married to Bill. Sure, he was dorky, but I had the most fun times."
Late in the afternoon, Walton, Adam, Nate and a friend are eating lunch at a restaurant in the barrio. Walton orders a margarita, and iced tea for his sons. Then he loses himself in the W.N.B.A. game on over the bar. Nate nods toward his father. "Bill won't let us drink," he says.
Adam adds: "Bill's got these rules on the refrigerator. No sex, no drugs, no drinking -- all the things we do."
Nate says: "One night, Luke was passed out by the pool after a party. Bill walks by and says, 'That's not alcohol in your glass, is it Luke?' Luke looks up and says, 'No, Bill, it's lemonade."' Nate shakes his head. "The way Bill is now is his corporate identity."
When I ask Walton how he reconciles his politics with working for a corporation like NBC, he says, "Life is a compromise, isn't it?" Then he changes the subject to the cast coming off his foot. "I'm ready to grow my beard, my ponytail, get a headband and make a comeback like Michael Jordan." Then, of Jordan, he says: "It's beyond my comprehension how anyone could retire from the game voluntarily. I would have played until I couldn't walk."
Bob Costas, the sportscaster, says of Walton: "Bill's passion for the game is legitimate, not a shtick. The game is an expression of an ideal to him. He was a hippie in the 70's, but he's really square in his beliefs."
Greg Gumbel, who has also worked with Walton, says, "He's so opinionated because he has little tolerance for guys who play the game without the desire he had."
"Because of his stutter, Bill's on-air talk sounds like he's delivering a proclamation, not an ad lib," Costas says. "But he has to work so hard to control his stutter. I've seen him practicing in front of a mirror, over and over, before he goes on air."
Gumbel says: "As ornery as his opinions get, I love to work with the guy. He keeps you on your toes by saying things just to get a rise out of you."
A lot of Walton's extreme opinions are actually sarcastic ones. During one game, the woefully inept shooter Chris Dudley made a hook shot, and Walton intoned, "You can never really hope to stop a shooter like Dudley -- you can only hope to contain him."
Walton has complained for years that the N.B.A. game is all ego, players dribbling around, looking to force a shot that might get them on a highlight reel. The N.B.A.'s instituting the zone defense this season is "the best thing to happen since Mark Cuban bought into the league," Walton says. "It'll force teams to get more players involved in the flow." Then, as he often does, Walton waxes poetic about the game. "Basketball is rock music," he says, "a crescendo, a celebration of life." Walton's devotion to the game was recently rewarded by NBC Sports, which made him one of this season's lead analysts, along with Steve Jones and Marv Albert, for the top N.B.A. game each week.
Back at the house, Walton goes to practice his piano while his sons go outside to play one of their fierce two-on-two basketball games. Nate and Bruk Vandeweghe, who has lived with the family for 20 years, team up against Chris and a friend. Luke, limping from an ankle sprain he suffered in one of the boys' recent games, sits in a chair and mimics his father broadcasting the game that is filled with rough play and profanity.
Nate fakes under the basket and tosses in a hook shot. "Nice utilization of the body," Luke intones. Chris immediately hits a long jumper. "But Chris will not go away," Luke says.
Chris drives toward the basket and tosses a pass behind his back that goes out of bounds. "A good look," Luke says, "but a little too fancy."
Nate and Chris dive for a loose ball and bang heads. Chris screams a profanity at Nate, and Nate curses back. As play resumes, Walton hobbles out on his crutches to watch. "What are you doing here?" Nate says. The boys' game is deflated. They continue to play, but without their previous fury; no more curses, just a lot of uncontested jump shots until the game expires.
After the game, Vandeweghe sits by the pool and talks about his life with the Waltons. He acts as their unofficial manservant, serving drinks, giving the boys massages on the living-room table and running errands. "This house is in a time warp," he says. "Like a monastery. Still, there's a lot going on here you don't know." He smiles. "Bill wants everyone to have a good time. At his parties, there are three girls to every guy. Bill lets you do anything with girls as long as you don't talk about it in front of Lori. She's subservient, like a geisha. She serves her purpose for Bill. She's thrilled to be with a star." He says that the Waltons' divorce was hard on Susie. "She was like my second mom. She can't lie. Bill can't talk about her because he knows she's right."
At that moment, Nate, furious, comes out of the house toward Vandeweghe. "Same old garbage!" he snaps. "I told Bill I was gonna see Mom, and he says he wants to talk to me for five minutes, and it goes on and on, nowhere."
The following morning, Walton sits outside and says that his greatest accomplishment was not basketball but his victory over stuttering. "I work with the most fluid speakers in the world. Imagine! Here I am, a stutterer."
It's hard to overstate the effect his stuttering has had on his life. It forced him to seek perfection in the world of basketball, where he moved gracefully. He could never find that grace in the world of human relations. If Walton is "dorky," as Susie says, it is especially so in the halting way he approaches relationships, which paralyze him.
Walton prepares for his games as a broadcaster as he did as a player, with the hope of perfection. "But some days I can't talk," he says. "Words come out wrong, and I have to go back to the basics." Those basics were taught him by the famed sportscaster Marty Glickman when Walton was 28. Glickman explained that speech was "not a birthright" but a skill, like basketball, that could be developed through hard work.
Walton wrote out Glickman's precepts in a speech he delivers often to other stutterers for the National Stuttering Foundation. In that speech, he says that he never knew a time when he did not stutter. "I took refuge in things that I did well as a youngster. . . . Basketball was my religion, the gym my church . . . a convenient way of avoiding developing my human-relations skills."
Then he met Glickman, who taught him the following: "Slow your thoughts down. Chew sugarless gum to strengthen the muscles in your jaw. Read out loud. Identify the sounds that cause you the most trouble. Become a teacher to anyone, on any subject. Start with young kids with a topic that you know. When you stumble, stop, then start again."
Walton puts down his printed speech. "I've had a wonderful life," he says. "I thought my life was over 11 years ago. Now I love broadcasting, the possibility of a perfect game. You never know where great performances are going to come from." Then he says -- either seriously or joking, it's hard to tell -- It's like the Grateful Dead playing in a snowstorm in some nowhere town, you know what I mean?"
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