Playing a Heart A decade after surgery severely limited his mobility, Bill Walton is having the time of his life

May 29, 2000
May 29, 2000

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May 29, 2000

Playing a Heart A decade after surgery severely limited his mobility, Bill Walton is having the time of his life

"It was ten years, two months and three days ago," Bill Walton
says of the ankle-fusion surgery that sentenced him, at age 37,
to spend the rest of his life sitting down, "and I was

This is an article from the May 29, 2000 issue Original Layout

He went under the knife on the Ides of March, 1990. "My body
doesn't work anymore," Walton was saying last Thursday, while
seated at home in La Jolla, Calif. "I can't do the things I
always loved. I can't play sports, I can't backpack, I can't body
surf. I can't stand for very long, or move around. I had played
basketball my whole life and had no idea what I would do next. I
really thought it was all over."

What Walton did next should be spoken of in sermons. He became
a kind of Lazarus in reverse. He stopped walking, sat down and
discovered--to his astonishment--that happiness makes house calls.
Life delivers. The 6'11" former center, now sedentary, would
hereafter be asked, "How's the weather down there?" Answer:

He bought a piano and learned to play it. The world's best-known
Deadhead devoted himself to the kind of music that his father,
Ted, had always filled the house with. "He's the most unathletic
man I've ever seen," Walton says. "To this day, I've never shot a
single basket with him. But he sings in the church choir, loves
art and loves classical music." Now, oddly enough, so does

He began to read voraciously--the legacy of his librarian mother,
Gloria. "My parents gave me the perfect life," Walton now
realizes, "opportunities to stimulate my mind." So he turned to
"the greatest invention ever"--the Internet--and a new sort of
surfing. He began to garden obsessively. He got to know his four
children, Adam, 24, Nathan, 22, Luke, 20, and Christopher, 18.
Then a real miracle happened: This former stutterer was asked to
become--of all things--a broadcaster of basketball games. "English
is my fourth language," marvels Walton, "after Stumbling,
Stammering and Bumbling."

He now does a total of 55 pro and college games a year for NBC
and Fox. He does another 55 Clippers games in Los Angeles. He can
sit all day on airplanes and at courtside. "I would do a game
every day if they'd let me," says Walton, whose broadcast style
is bombastic, provocative, mischievous. "My life is a game. And a

That joy springs largely from his former coach at UCLA, John
Wooden, "an incredibly positive guy, 89 years old, with no
cynicism, no bitterness, no jealousy, no anger," says Walton.
"Just a man at peace with himself and the world. He always told
us: 'A life not lived for others is not a life.'"

Walton's favorite on-air descriptives--as viewers of the NBA
playoffs know--are terrible, horrendous and miserable, all of
which he applies to his own abilities. ("I failed myself
miserably," he says of not coming down hard enough on 76ers goon
Matt Geiger in the Philadelphia-Indiana series.) Wooden is his
second-strongest critic. "Bill," the Wizard has told him, "I
don't ever want to hear another word about overachievers! There's
no such thing--we're all underachievers!" And: "Bill, no one can
'give 110%!' Don't you know anything about mathematics?"

Walton lives for these little homilies. "My house is a shrine to
UCLA and Coach Wooden," he says. "I have a few Grateful Dead
memorabilia pieces, and Neil Young and John Lennon and Bob Dylan.
But mostly I have pictures of Coach Wooden. He's leering at me
from every angle--in some of the pictures, he has a look of
approval. But in some of the pictures, he has that look he gave
me when he bailed me out of jail over [my protesting] the Vietnam

"Coach has a quotation for everything," says Walton. "We used to
laugh at them in practice. We thought they were just ludicrous.
Later, you realize they apply to everything." As he speaks,
Walton is sitting at his desk, and on that desk is one of those

Walton knew it all in 1990. Then he started learning. Despair
gave way to a joyous second act--a second life--that was
inconceivable 10 years ago. Ah, but he was so much older then.
He's younger than that now.