"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 devastated."
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: Beautiful.
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 Walton.
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 joy."
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 War."
"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 quotations: IT'S WHAT YOU LEARN AFTER YOU KNOW IT ALL THAT COUNTS.