Plenty of fortunate and determined people in life manage to rise to the ceiling, some reach the ceiling, and some go right through the ceiling. And then there is Bill Walton, who stared at the ceiling for three long, harsh, immobile years -- nothing but a ceiling, in all of its flatness and coldness.
You can't do that unless you're lying on your back, and that was the position Walton helplessly assumed when his spine simply refused to support him anymore. His back just up and quit on him. When he wasn't staring at the ceiling, he was on his stomach, eyeballing the floor. One or the other, stretched out and stressed out. It was a cruel twist for a Hall of Famer long known for the worst feet in sports history. By his count he endured 37 orthopedic surgeries -- thirtygoddamnseven! -- all those needles and scalpels and crutches and MRIs and empty promises of a cure, and still managed to walk and even resume his basketball career for a short time.
But his back? Surgery No. 38 was the worst, by far. How in the hell, after all he went through medically, after being robbed of basketball immortality, after becoming a poster boy for career-ending injuries, does his back suddenly decide to become the biggest pain in the ass?
How dare his back keep him off … his feet?
But it did, up until five years ago. It caused Walton lots of pain and plunged him into a dark place, and it kept him staring at the ceiling or the carpet for endless days, months and years. It also crossed his mind more than once that this position was slowly preparing him for his coffin.
"I thought I was going to die," he said the other day. "And if I wasn't going to die naturally, I didn't think I wanted to live anymore, not in that condition. My life was over. It was that bad."
Imagine that: Walton, who loved to squeeze every ounce of breath in his now-61 years, who lived for basketball both on the court and behind the microphone, someone with his infectious enthusiasm and zest who wasn't born with an off button, wanting to call it quits? Wouldn't that counter everything he stood for, everything he taught his four boys, everything that John Wooden, the legendary UCLA coach and Walton's mentor, was totally against? Wasn't his personal pledge, created by so many foot surgeries that ripped off his NBA career, to embrace life to the fullest, even when life doesn't always embrace you back?
"It was that bad," Walton repeated.
It was, then. And so, what did a man who spent his days and nights horizontally think about when laying in total isolation in his bedroom?
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Walton was the leader and centerpiece of college basketball's last great dynasty, the Wooden-coached Bruins of the early-1970s who ruled the sport with an iron fist and canvas sneakers. Because the sports world is a different place now, we will never see a team or a player like Walton again in the college game. Yes, Ralph Sampson did match Walton by winning three straight national player of the year awards. And other teams, most recently Florida coached by Billy Donovan, won back-to-back titles, as Walton did at UCLA.
But Walton stayed four years, helping the Bruins to a 88-game winning streak. He once made 21 of 22 shots in an NCAA title game, against Memphis State, one of the greatest performances in history. The rules and circumstances have changed. A great player today will now cash NBA checks after one year, and it's a challenge for a team to go undefeated for one season in college basketball, let alone two. Winning 88 straight is unfathomable, if not impossible, because of the constant superstar player turnover with the one-and-done syndrome. There aren't anymore "superteams" in the game, or true dynasties -- and this will be evident over the next few weeks during the NCAA tournament.
"The end of our UCLA experience was not what I'd hoped for," said Walton, about a winning streak that was ended by Notre Dame in 1974 and a championship streak ended by North Carolina State. "It was a dream come true, but the end of the dream became a nightmare. Lessons were learned. To be able to get back going again when the ball bounces the other way is the greatest challenge, and that has happened far too often to me."
In January 1974, toward the end of those amazing 88-straight wins, he was undercut by a Washington State player and fell hard. He broke two bones in his spine. He missed three games, then returned, but the injury was a precursor to what would follow next for Walton: Plenty of foot surgeries and then, decades later, an injured back that would return after being dormant all those years and nearly push him over the edge.
One day late in 2007, he felt a jolt of pain and could barely move. At the time, Walton was a busy broadcaster, doing college and NBA games, successfully transitioning to a different career in basketball. But that came to a temporary end. Whenever Walton awoke each morning, he'd slowly move to the floor in his bedroom and stay there until the evening, when he'd climb back into bed and do the same thing all over again the next day. Walton even ate his meals on his stomach.
His son Luke, who recently retired from a 10-year NBA career and is coaching in the D-League, would visit and find his father in the same spot each time.
"As kids, we've seen him injured a lot, but he was still always moving around, even on crutches, constantly busy and doing stuff," Luke said. "It was sad because he couldn't do any of that with the back. Standing on his feet and even going out of the house wasn't an option. You never want to see anyone in that type of pain, especially your dad, someone you love and look up to. It was a tough time for him and for all of us."
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Just by virtue of being taken first overall in the '74 NBA draft by the Trail Blazers, Walton almost instantly transformed a small hippie town into the little darlings that could. Portland was smitten by a seven-foot, stuttering, counterculturist and authority-tweaker who wore his hair in a ponytail after having to keep it short in college. (At UCLA, Wooden famously told Walton "we'll miss you" after Walton defiantly refused to cut his hair as an incoming freshman. Walton gave it more thought, then rode his bike to a nearby barber. A dynasty was spared.) But injuries came quick and harsh: A broken foot, wrist and leg conspired to delay his impact until 1976-77, when he managed to play 67 games. Walton never played the full slate of 82 in his 10-year pro career.
That '77 season was magical, though: The Blazers, embracing the balanced system pushed by coach Jack Ramsay, reached the NBA Finals and then outlasted the star-powered yet undisciplined 76ers, a victory for team over individualism. Traveling by bike to the downtown parade in Portland, Walton flipped the kickstand and left the bike unattended nearby. When it turned up missing, he announced to the crowd at the celebration that the bike was his favorite and he'd very much like it back. Within moments, the bike magically reappeared.
The very next season was even better, at least in the beginning: Portland was 50-10, and then Walton felt a pop in his foot, and his NBA career and life changed forever.
After all the surgeries, he missed three of the next four years, so you can understand why Walton has empathy for what the NBA has gone through lately, this season with Derrick Rose, Kobe Bryant, Rajon Rondo, Al Horford, etc., etc., all missing chunks of games with major injuries. Then there's Greg Oden, too often compared to Walton and not because they both were celebrated big men selected first overall by the Blazers.
"I've been there," Walton said, quietly. "It hurts me to see that, to see them go through, to an extent, what I went through, to know these talented young men must deal with factors beyond their control, and also to see how it has affected a game that I love so much."
The basketball gods sympathized with Walton enough to bless him with a second chance, to allow him to play 80 games and be a valuable reserve for the powerful and championship-winning '86 Celtics. But additional surgeries followed, even well after Walton retired in '87, to the point where his ankle had to be fused.
Ask anyone who's ever had a back injury and prepare to hear grim tales of helplessness, despair and pain. Ask Walton about his bout with the back and you get that, times six.
"Learning how to speak was the greatest accomplishment in my life and your worst nightmare," said Walton, who overcame his severe stutter to become a lively and sometimes controversial broadcaster over two decades. "But the hardest thing I've ever done in my life is trying to get better from my spine failure and collapse."
He tried acupuncture, saw dozens of doctors, sought plenty of medicine, but nothing worked. His wife, Lori, bless her heart, constantly encouraged him, bathed him, cared for him and told him how wonderful life would be again whenever he returned to his feet. When the days turned into months and then years, Walton wasn't so sure. He began to lose hope.
"For a while, I had no idea what life was like without back pain," he said.
And then in 2009 he found Dr. Steve Garfin, a specialist based near Walton's home in San Diego. An eight-hour spinal-fusion surgery followed. Two titanium rods and four four-inch bolts were inserted in his back. He couldn't walk to the hospital and couldn't walk out. He stayed hospitalized for a week, and then couldn't move freely for a year after surgery.
"A miracle," is how Walton describes his recovery. He is pain free. "I have the chance to do something with my life again, and the rest is up to me. I can put my energies to projects I'm working on, a book that's almost complete and my broadcasting duties (Walton does Pac-12 games for ESPN). I'm fully aware of how many people sacrificed for me to have this chance, and so I have a duty and obligation to do something."
One of those obligations is speaking to those with similar back pain, conversations that Walton finds therapeutic for everyone, although the tales are familiarly haunting.
"I spend hours almost every day, on the phone or Internet, with people who want to kill themselves," he said. "People are ready to commit suicide. I'm deeply affected by their stories about their condition. I know how it just destroys everything in your life."
He is introspective these days, for good reason. A few years ago, Maurice Lucas -- "the best teammate I ever had," Walton said -- died at 58 after a long fight with bladder cancer. Ramsay, 89, has battled a lengthy illness. Walton now has three grandchildren and two more coming. Life happens.
"To be able to continue witnessing the greatness of life makes me the luckiest man on Earth," he said. "I'm still here, still climbing back up, building my life and chasing my dreams. It's a miracle."
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This renewed life allows Walton to share his opinions on the game he loves, something he was never shy about, before or after back surgery.
On the NBA age limit, which is currently one year following high school graduation: "You should be 21. This is a man's league. Rules and policies are all about helping everybody and keeping the product healthy. You need to be 21 to do plenty of other things in life, and I believe you must be 21 to join the NBA."
On paying college athletes: "The two important issues are unionization and the Ed O'Bannon lawsuit concerning licensing rights. These have to be addressed. You just can't push it aside. Smart people have to get together and figure it out. People in authority just can't hold back the progress of others. College sports have become an enormous business with a staggering amount of money."
On Phil Jackson and the Knicks: "I'm excited about Phil and what he will be to the future of basketball in New York. His ability to make people better as basketball players and human beings is tremendous."
On the trend of superstar players aligning themselves for the sake of championships: "I'm all for it. Those guys in Miami took less money. Their goal was a championship, as it should be with everyone. And it never would've happened without Pat Riley. There never has been a great team, company or organization without a great thinker at the top. That's Phil's challenge."
Walton gets around amazingly well for a man with 37-plus-one surgeries in his rear view, although there's a noticeable hitch in his gait and his sitting position isn't necessarily like your sitting position. He is upright, after all, and that's what counts. He is busy. Again. His most recent trip took him to Las Vegas where Luke (who played at Arizona) was inducted into the Pac-12 Hall of Honor, and now father and son are forever linked in basketball history.
Walton and broadcast partner Dave Pasch might form the oddest tandem in the industry, with Pasch playing the straight man while Walton often drifts from the action to wax poetic about Neil Young or whatever else enters his sometimes-psychedelic galaxy.
"He's as happy as he's ever been," said Luke. "You know, during all that time with his back, he always preached to us that we all have lived blessed lives. Feeling sorry is not the way he thinks and not the way he wants us to think. Obviously as a son, you saw that he could've had one of the most amazing careers in the history of the game. But when you talk to him, he says basketball has given him so much. He's amazingly positive about everything, especially about life. He loves life and is so fun to be around."
Even when he was incapacitated, the man stayed active. Walton had enough spring in his feet to chase his passion and catch roughly 600 or so Grateful Dead concerts. His love for the Free Love sounds of the '60s is legendary, but his faith in the Dead is epic, and next to his wife and children, nothing is more addictive or cherished.
Walton discovered how much he missed while laying on his back and stomach when he attended "a celebration of life," which was really a concert thrown by Crosby, Stills and Nash -- "the ministers" according to Walton. The trio opened with a song that hit especially close to home with Walton. It caused him to choke up a bit and think about where he was and where he's going, a journey that, in the words of the Dead, has been a long, strange trip. The lyrics grabbed him simultaneously by the throat and the heart:
The sky is clearing and the night has gone out,
The sun, he come, the world is all full of light,
Rejoice, rejoice, we have no choice but to carry on.