In a wide-ranging interview, former NBA star Bill Walton discusses his broadcasting career and influences, his health and, of course, the Grateful Dead, among other topics.
When I last interviewed Bill Walton, a 45-minute conversation in the final week of 2012, the ESPN and Pac-12 Networks broadcaster talked about how his mind had filled with thoughts of suicide prior to 2009 when his chronic back pain became unbearable.
"When you are in unrelenting, excruciating and debilitating pain that never goes away for years on end, your life is over," Walton said at the time. "You go through the stages of thinking you are going to die to wanting to die to the worst possible stage of all which is: I'm going to live and this is what I'm stuck with. But I got better and it is amazing what they have been able to do for me. I can think. I can sleep. I can move. I can ride my bike. I can dream."
The 62-year-old, a member of the Basketball Hall of Fame, has been pain-free for the past six years as a result of eight-and-a-half-hour spinal surgery in February 2009 by Dr. Steven Garfin, the chairman of the Department of Orthopaedic Surgery at UC San Diego. The procedure involved four incisions, four four-inch bolts, two titanium rods and a cage to hold the spine together. Prior to that, Walton’s life was mostly darkness, unable to walk or move, a prisoner of his San Diego house.
“We are six years and eight days from that life-changing day,” Walton said last week. “Everything is relative. I am 62 years old. I have had 37 orthopaedic operations but I am pain-free, and I take no medication. It is a miracle what has happened to me in my life. I am as happy as I can be, healthy as I can be. I have a great and growing family [Walton has four children and three grandchildren and met his second wife, Lori, at a party organized by the Grateful Dead], and business is tremendous.”
Broadcasting is better with him in it and his ESPN work with the endlessly patient Dave Pasch (see thoughts from him in item No. 2 below) has become a late-night treat for those of us on the East Coast and prime-time fun for West Coast basketball fans. Sure, Walton has polarizing, often ridiculous opinions, and there’s no doubt he plays crazy for intentional notice, but he’s a distinctive, fun voice in college basketball. Interviewing him is an amusing challenge given he travels to places that often have nothing to do with the query. Below, a conversation with the world’s tallest Deadhead:
How would you describe your chemistry with Dave Pasch?
Stop, you know who.
Dave is brilliant. He is a GENIUS. He is why the show works. Yes, you must have a great producer and a great director, and we have that with Tim Sullivan and Preben Martin (director). But you have to have that lead guy and that is Dave Pasch. I apologize to him every day and I will do it again: I apologize for ruining his career.
Have you ever heard from ESPN management for some of the things you’ve said on air?
All the time (laughs).
Really? So what do they say?
You better ask Tim Sullivan. I’m the luckiest guy in the world.
Seriously, has your speech been censored at all?
No (laughs). First of all, let’s put it into context. I was just up at Berkeley doing a game. It was for the Pac-12 Networks. There had been a controversy at Berkeley—not a controversy as far as I am concerned—but Berkeley had hired Bill Maher to be their winter commencement speaker. Some of the students were irate and demanded the school rescind the invitation to Bill Maher. At one point, the whole thing came to a head and landed on the desk of Chancellor Nicholas Dirks. He looked at this problem, this challenge and what he said was education is not about making people comfortable. Berkeley and the University of California, we are the free speech campus to the world and this is the 50th anniversary of Mario Savio in Sproul Plaza. So Bill Maher will be our Winter Speaker. I stood tall and proud as a Californian, as a graduate of the University of California, and as an American. Thank you, Nicholas Dirks.
You recently called Michael Jordan “an average athlete.” Do you want to explain this further?
How much time do we spend going back and explaining something that we said, something that we believe? I love live television and I speak from the heart about what I know. I am always about moving forward. But Michael Jordan, who is one of the seven greatest basketball players ever. Michael Jordan, who is the personification of excellence in everything that he does on and off the court with the exception of the Charlotte Bobcats, and he promises me he is remedying that. Michael Jordan epitomizes one of John Wooden’s most oft-used maxim: “Basketball is not a game of size and strength, it’s a game of skill, timing and positioning.” Michael Jordan was not the biggest, not the strongest, not the fastest and not the highest jumper, but every single night Michael Jordan comes out and delivers peak performance on command. None of it has to do with his athletic ability or with his physical gifts or talents. Michael Jordan’s brilliance is about his brain, his heart, his fundamentals, his footwork, his physical fitness and his commitment to the team. I am a huge Michael Jordan fan and when he was playing, we built our lives around him when he was on TV. We grew up in a household without a television set. Then I was a dad and when our boys were young, I would insist that we have dinner in front of the television set from the opening tip to the closing horn when Michael Jordan was playing. What Michael Jordan has been able to do in terms of going up against the ultimate winners of the genetic lottery and just taking it to them and throwing it down in their face, that guy is one of the most incredible basketball players. And I love it because none of it has to do with being the biggest, strongest, fastest, highest-jumping guy.
When is the last time you competed on a basketball court?
Twenty-eight years ago. The last time I was able to play was on the Celtics team in 1986-87.
Forget about playing in the NBA. Do you miss just being on the court, shooting around?
No. Because I know I cannot play. You play basketball with your legs. I was born with structural congenital defects in my feet. I had no idea—I just thought everyone’s feet hurt all the time and only the lucky people could talk. Basketball was the easiest thing in the world for me. But learning how to speak in the greatest accomplishment in my life. What Marty Glickman did for me 34 years ago more than anything else in my entire life, that has changed everything. A lot of incredible things have gone down in my life, from my parents to Chick Hearn to John Wooden to the Grateful Dead to Bob Dylan to Neil Young to Muhammad Ali to Bill Russell to Martin Luther King to Bobby Kennedy to Sargent Shriver, all these incredible forces in my life. But none have had the impact of learning how to speak has. What happens is as your body fails, you have to be able to use your mind and what you can do.
And your body really failed you as we previously talked about.
You learn life’s greatest lessons when you are lying on that floor like I was for all those years. You learn life’s greatest lessons when you think you are going to die, you want to die, and then you find yourself saying, “Oh, my gosh, I am going to live and this is what I am stuck with forever.” It was Dr. Steve Garfin in conjunction with this remarkable medical technology and company NuVasive which 12 years ago was a dream of a bunch of visionary entrepreneurs who thought they could do better. So they have changed the world, they have saved my life. One of the coolest things about my life is that I am still in the business of sports. When I was a player I had no interest in the business. I was just playing and doing the games and having a great time. You lie there on the ground long enough as I did and your life changes and I am a totally different person today then I was years ago and hopefully a better person.
You are writing a memoir, correct?
I am still working on it. Simon and Schuster is the publisher. I am in the final editing stages and the plan is to have it be released about a year from now.
Have you enjoyed the process of writing and thinking about your life?
You learn a lot, which is what I love to do. I come from a non-athletic family where academics and education and learning and knowledge and interesting things—that was my life. I played for John Wooden, which was all about the mental aspects of life. John Wooden was an English teacher. I played for Lenny Wilkens, Jack Ramsay, K.C. Jones, Red Auerbach, Paul Silas, Don Cheney, Gene Shue, all these guys who lived and played cerebral lives. Now, just think of the broadcasting influences in my life: growing up with Chick Hearn as the voice in my ear. Then Dick Enberg, our college broadcaster. Then having Brent Musburger so much a huge part of our lives. To have Brent Musburger still in my house, what a thrill for me. To have Dick Enberg who lives just down the way in San Diego, what a thrill. When I made the decision to go into broadcasting, people like Charlie Jones and Pat O’Brien and Ralph Lawler were so helpful and encouraging. Then the guys—Greg Gumbel and Tom Hammond and Bob Costas—they shaped me. All of their stuff is about the mind. That’s what I love about Phil Jackson and Gregg Popovich and Jerry Sloan. I can still do some things. I go to the pool. I go the weight room. I can ride the bike and I love my bike. I am moving, I’m still going and I have an incredible world where I have this new sense of knowledge. I start my day with ESPN.com. Then I go to First Take. Then Keith Olbermann at the end of the working day, and then Neil Everett at night who brings it all together.
You should work for ESPN PR, Bill.
Well, I was able to go to the college football national championship game in Dallas. I was with all my buddies and I got to see so many of my old friends in the media world who are in the East. I saw so many friends but the one I want to talk about here is Stephen A. Smith because Stephen A. and I were in the trenches. I got fired. Stephen A. got fired. At the same time. Now we are back and we would not be back if not for John Skipper. There has never been a great player, team, company, organization or whatever without a great leader and John Skipper, that guy, not only is he a visionary and passionate but he is a super cool dude, too. You just never think that people like that will ever make it to the top. We are so lucky.
What is the last concert you attended?
The Grateful Dead did not do New Years Eve this year with the exception of Phil [Lesh] and friends back in New York. I did not go to that. But let’s talk about what is happening right now in music. You have Bob Dylan, with a brand new album called Shadows in the Night. It is off-the-charts fantastic. Start with [song] No. 3, “Stay With Me.” and finish with No. 10, “That Lucky Old Son.” The interview that Dylan did with AARP Magazine and the speech that he gave at the MusiCares Grammy Dinner was just over the top. And now Bob just announced some new tour dates. That is incredible, though too many truck stops for me. Then you have the Grateful Dead coming up July 3, 4 and 5 in Chicago, which is just going to be fantastic. Right now I am on the road for Pac-12 and for ESPN a lot. But we [Lori] try to go to as many concerts as we can. We love the music and love the vibe and atmosphere and the culture and families. It’s like going to a game. We go to be healed, we go to be inspired, we go to learn new things.
Will you be in Chicago for the Dead show?
I am going to be there. I am a fan and I am going to be there. I am going to do everything I can to get as close to the front row as I can.
Why did Chick Hearn have such a big impact on you?
Chick was my guy. I love him. You are in New York but everyone in Southern California, from Santa Barbara to Las Vegas to Hawaii, the whole Laker Nation, Chick is the reason we are who we are and why we love basketball, why we love the team, why we love life. He was just perfect. He was so fun. It made no difference whether it was a Laker game or Bowling for Dollars or a car commercial, if Chick was doing it, we were watching. He was so full of life, so full of passion, so full of joy. Chick suffered the worst of the worst, lost both of his children and to be at those funerals and the sadness and the loss. But then Chick’s ability to pick it up and get it going again. Which is why what Magic did at Chick’s funeral was just so incredible. Magic got up there and said, “Remember what Chick did for us. He made us happy. He made us laugh. Let’s take it upon ourselves to carry [that] forward.”
Who is the best player in the NBA right now?
I would have to think about that answer. LeBron is incredible. But lets put that in the context of the whole Michael Jordan thing. I am old enough to remember knowing people who said Bob Cousy was the greatest player ever. I knew people who said Bob Kurland and George Mikan were the greatest players ever. Things change over time and hopefully we do as well. I go to the coolest cities in the country. I go to Los Angeles, San Francisco, Seattle and [the] states of Oregon, Utah and Colorado. I was just in Seattle and what is happening in Seattle is incredible. Everywhere you go there is a giant 50-foot crane building new buildings. Our economy in the West is on fire. I get to go to all these places, these incubators, these college campuses, with the smartest guys. As we move to the future, I want to be part of this. A future of science and technology and facts and making the world better the way those things saved my life with my spine.
So there are all these great players, with Michael being one of them. But no one has been able to achieve that level of brilliance that Michael had, and Michael built on Bill Russell, my favorite player ever on and off the court, and Wilt, Oscar, Kareem, the greatest player I played against, Larry Bird, and Magic Johnson. It is impossible to talk in historical terms about current players because they are still playing. I love LeBron He represents everything that is cool. He is a team guy, he’s incredibly skilled, he works super hard and he is a very cool dude. I mean, how great was Kobe Bryant? He was absolutely fantastic. To say who the best is now, you would have to say LeBron. The guy has been in the finals the last four years. But I love the Spurs and no one ever talks about them.
One of the things we are seeing from you is a foray into social media. You are using Vine, tweeting more. Seems like you are taking to social media?
John Wooden was right: I am the slowest learner ever. I am super-lucky in that I have the most wonderful wife in the world. Not only is she beautiful, not only is she super cool, not only is she fun, not only does she love music as well, not only is she great at everything she does. She really enjoys technology, as I do as well. She has been saying, “Come on, Bill. Wake up to find out that you are the eyes of the world.” Here is the song for Lori that applies to this. The song is “Don’t Ease Me In” [by the Dead], and the lyric goes: She brings me coffee. She brings me tea. She brings me bout every damn thing but the jailhouse keys. I was there when Bob Dylan broke that out on the tour this past time through California and we just stood there and the world changed that day. I have been waiting for this album and it delivered. Then he gave the interview and then the speech and then he cleared up some of the misconceptions from the speech and it was just fantastic.
How much of a desire do you have to do the NBA on a regular basis?
I am happy with the job I have and I am not looking for another job. I have a lot of things going in the business world which I am extremely happy with. I love the NBA, a huge fan. But I am happy with the job I have and hope to keep my job.
You have met a lot of interesting people in your life. Is there someone that you would like to meet that you have yet to meet?
The world is full of incredible people and I recently went to Arizona State University where the president is trying to make the world a better place. I run into that everywhere I go. I have had all these incredible people in my life from my parents and I talked about them during this interview. I have learned that those kind of people—people like Chick Hearn, Coach Wooden, people like Jerry Garcia and Bob Dylan. There are people like that everywhere. Our job is to search for and to find and to learn from those master teachers. That is one of the great things about my job. I get to go to these college campuses where people are working on so many incredible things. That’s what I love about the media because the media tells the story. That is what I love about my job, to tell the story of what is going on. This is about people and chasing the dream and building lives.
When I was a boy growing up, to have all these voices—Chick, Dick Enberg, Brent Musburger, Charlie Jones, Pat O’Brien—I would listen to these guys and say, “If they can say that, if they can do that, if they can dream that and they can think that, look what I can do with my life, little Billy with red hair, big nose, freckles and goofy, nerdy-looking face and his horrendous speech impediment.” Now here I am. I am in the chair. What an incredible opportunity, privilege, but also with opportunity and privilege comes responsibility and duty and an obligation to move it forward. It’s like going to the gym to play basketball with Larry Bird and Maurice Lucas and Greg Lee and Jamaal Wilkes. I am the luckiest guy in the world. Who would have ever thought?
The Noise Report
SI.com examines some of the week's top media stories.
1. One of the biggest sporting events of 2015 is set for May 2 at the MGM Grand in Las Vegas when Floyd Mayweather and Manny Pacquiao finally meet in the ring. The fight will be a joint pay-per-view between Showtime (where Mayweather is under contract) and HBO (where Pacquiao fights), the first time the two rival networks have collaborated for a fight since Lennox Lewis' heavyweight title defense against Mike Tyson in 2002. According to SI.com’s Chris Mannix, the broadcast team for the fight will be Jim Lampley (play by play), Al Bernstein and Roy Jones (analysts), with Max Kellerman and Jim Gray reporting from the locker rooms. (My television sources back Mannix up on this; Showtime and HBO have yet to announce the staffing.)
The fight will undoubtedly beat the pay-per-view buy record of 2.45 million for Mayweather's 2007 junior middleweight championship fight against Oscar De La Hoya.
“We believed this day would come, we worked hard to make it happen, and we’re thrilled that it is here,” said Showtime Sports executive vice president and GM Stephen Espinoza. As for the price of the fight, both Espinoza and HBO Sports President Ken Hershman declined to say what consumers will be paying for the PPV purchase.
1a. What will occur on May 2 along with the mega-fight? The Kentucky Derby, the NBA playoffs, the NHL playoffs, Day 3 of the NFL draft and regular season Major League Baseball.
2. Walton’s partner, the excellent and versatile Dave Pasch, said there are three things he keeps in the back of his mind when crazy stuff comes out of his analyst’s mouth. Explained Pasch: “Number one, ignore it. Number two, reel him back in to get him back to the game. Number three, play along. I have to make that decision and balance that out over the course of the game.”
Pasch, who has worked with analysts from Hubie Brown to Doris Burke to Chris Spielman, said he likes that he often has no idea where Walton will go. (Walton intentionally does not tell Pasch what he plans to talk about prior to the game and encourages Pasch to spar with him.) The two first worked together on an NBA game in 2006.
“It’s fun, it’s challenging, it’s unique,” Pasch said. “People of all generations are intrigued by him and polarized by him, and I think it rare to find that. I think people at ESPN realize they have something special with Bill Walton given Bill’s unique personality.”
Pasch said the two broadcasters have grown closer this year, which is good given the University of Washington crew outfit Walton wore to call one game (“He looked like Andre The Giant in a onesie,” Pasch said). Walton and the broadcasting crew recently visited Pasch at his home in Arizona for dinner, and Pasch had dinner at Walton’s place in San Diego last November.
“We have become friends definitely off the air,” Pasch said. “I saw the Dylan room—he has bobbleheads everywhere. I even ventured to the teepee he has, which is a real teepee. I saw a bunch of strange huts and outdoor showers in his backyard. It’s like a jungle there. Literally.”
2a. Duke’s win over North Carolina last Wednesday drew 4,136,000 viewers for ESPN, the most-viewed and highest-rated college basketball game of the season and ESPN’s 11th-most viewed men’s college basketball game alltime.
3. Liam McHugh will be sticking around NBC Sports through the end of the decade. The host of NBC’s NHL and Notre Dame football coverage has extended his contract with the network through 2020. Look for McHugh to have roles at the 2016 and 2018 Olympics in addition to his current gigs.
3a. ESPN has extended the contract of investigative television reporter John Barr, a frequent contributor to Outside The Lines.
3b. NBC golf analysts Dan Hicks and Johnny Miller begin their 16th year as the play-by-play announcer and lead analyst on the network’s golf coverage, a record for the longest-tenured tandem in an 18th hole tower for any network, according to the company.
“That is a milestone that I'm really proud of,” Hicks said. “I think the longevity factor speaks to a couple of things. No. 1, our employer is NBC and NBC Golf and [producer] Tommy Roy and [NBC Sports Chairman] Mark Lazarus have liked us enough to keep us around. But I think more importantly is I think there's a natural chemistry there that has continued to evolve through the years.”
4. Sports pieces of note:
• From this week's SI magazine: Lee Jenkins profiles James Harden.
• Danielle Matheson on why pro wrestling belongs to her, and by extension, to anyone who loves the escapism.
• SI’s Chris Ballard examined how the Warriors have achieved success.
• Wall Street Journal reporter Jared Diamond on a former NFL defensive tackle who now trains his Neapolitan mastiff to win dog shows.
• Author J.R. Moehringer spent months with Alex Rodriguez for this profile.
• Well done by Fox Sports’ CJ Nitkowski on what it's like to sign a minor league deal with an invite to an MLB camp.
• Here is the Gary Smith story that partly inspired the film McFarland, USA.
• Nice tribute to the late Steve Montador by Buffalo News sports writer Mike Harrington.
• Meet a woman who has been part of every Daytona 500.
• Denver Post writers Benjamin Hochman and Nick Groke on Denver-based mixed martial artist Cat Zingano, who is challenging Ronda Rousey for her title.
Non-sports pieces of note:
• Oliver Sacks on living with terminal cancer.
• Via The Atlantic: What ISIS really wants.
• The Washington Post’s Neely Tucker examined Harper Lee’s new manuscript, and found a mess.
• Via the New Yorker: How an industrial designer became Apple’s greatest product.
• Via Erica Armstrong Dunbar: George Washington, slave catcher.
• The Economist obit on Italy's chocolate king.
• Maclean’s Magazine had an incredible Storify from Norm MacDonald on Eddie Murphy and the Saturday Night Live 40th Anniversary show.
• The Atlantic's Ta-Nehisi Coates pays tribute to David Carr.
5. Says Fox NFL reporter Pam Oliver: Sideline reporters should not be celebrities. One of the ironies of Oliver’s statement is that her employer actively encourages its on-air people to cross over into celebrity culture far more than any other sports network.
5a. Oliver’s comments were part of a panel at Northwestern University titled, “The Female Voice in Sports Media.” USA Today columnist Christine Brennan, CNN’s Rachel Nichols and ESPN’s Cassidy Hubbarth were the other panelists. The video is here.
5b. Jeff Pearlman interviewed ESPN MLB reporter Pedro Gomez.
5c. The NFL Network said it set a record for its Saturday coverage of the NFL Scouting Combine with an average of 529,000 viewers tuning in; the show peaked at 731,000 viewers at noon ET. That’s up 91 percent over last year for the same day. (Last year’s Combine ran from Saturday to Tuesday and the Saturday coverage drew 277,000 viewers.) Host Rich Eisen will again run a 40-yard dash (Eisen’s run will benefit the NFL Play 60 relationship with St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital) in a segment that will air Monday at 1 p.m. ET.
5d. ESPN has hired yet another Washington Post sports columnist: Jason Reid is now working for the company in radio and digital.
5e. The New York Times profiled the Twitter stylings of former college basketball coach Tom Penders.
5f. Ryan Clark, the 13-year NFL safety and Super Bowl champion, announced last week on ESPN’s NFL Live that he has retired from football and joined ESPN as an NFL analyst. Clark will appear on NFL Live, SportsCenter and ESPN Radio shows as part of a multi-year agreement. The move comes as little surprise as Clark has made plenty of guest appearances over the years at ESPN. How Clark created broadcast contacts and opportunities as an active player is a blueprint for transitioning from playing to broadcasting.
5g. The Hollywood Reporter examined the entertainment brand of LeBron James.
5h. Sunday marks the 35th anniversary of the U.S’s 4-3 win over the Soviet Union in ice hockey at the 1980 Lake Placid Olympics. Via Szymon Szemberg, here is the official report from that game.
5i. Here’s the New York Times front page on the win.
5j. This was E.M. Swift’s story for Sports Illustrated on the Americans winning gold in 1980.