There marked a time when Bill Walton’s infectious enthusiasm waned.
The Hall-of-Fame center could not continue his broadcasting career. He could not fulfill his favorite past time by riding on his bike. He could not walk, let alone move.
His spine collapsed on him, and so did his zest for life. So much that Walton had contemplated suicide. But after experiencing a dark moment nearly nine years ago as he remained on the floor of his San Diego home, Walton eventually received a surgery that added another meaning toward his endless fandom of “The Grateful Dead.”
With the 64-year-old Walton estimating his spent nearly half of his life in a hospital through 37 different orthopedic operations, he finally could start moving again. He has since uttered words he hardly envisioned he would say nearly nine years later.
“I’m feeling fantastic,” Walton said in a recent interview with Southern California News Group. “I’m just getting started in life.”
That will include Walton experiencing a flood of emotions when the Lakers (16-32) visit the Portland Trail Blazers (19-27) on Wednesday at Moda Center. There, the Blazers will honor the 40th anniversary of their 1977 NBA championship team that included Walton. This will all take place in front of Walton’s son, Luke, as he patrols the sideline as the Lakers’ coach.
Walton called himself “the luckiest guy in the world” for experiencing an event that will tie so many elements of his life story together. But Walton also feels that way because his improved health has given him a platform to help those who have experienced similar situations.
“My spine had failed; I was sure that my life was over and I would be better off dead,” Walton said. “When people are in that state of mind, then we know from ourselves and personal experience and I learned this firsthand, you have to find your medicine that makes you better, that makes you happy and makes you healthy.”
So, Walton has recently partnered K2 Insurance Services, which offers protection to children competing in youth sports and providers of youth sports camps and leagues. Walton said K2 also uses the savings from lower insurance rates to reinvest into youth sports programs. On the project, Walton has worked with former Oregon athletic director Pat Kilkenny and Bob Kimmel, who holds the operating senior leadership position of K2 Insurance Services. Walton outlined a pretty specific goal the company wants to reach.
“To be able to provide the necessary elements to enable children, families and parents to chase their dreams and build their lives, but also realize the necessity and reality that things sometimes go wrong,” Walton said. “You have to be prepared for that. That’s what we’re doing. Our goal is to be the No. 1 provider of these types of services and programs so that the children can play youth sports to make a better life for themselves and then also have the safety, security and protection if things go wrong.”
Walton experienced plenty of things going wrong. His debilitating injuries cut his 10-year Hall-of-Fame career short. Hence, his thought process on also working with the Challenged Athletes Foundation (CAF), which raises funds to provide equipment and treatment for wounded veterans, the disabled and people who have suffered in accidents.
Those initiatives partly explain why the San Diego Sports Arena (also known as the Valley View Casino Center) unveiled a statue of Walton this fall that showed him on his bike. With Walton describing his bike as “my gym, my wheelchair and my church all in one,” he has leaned on his childhood past time through numerous adventures.
Every morning, Walton will typically exercise in an indoor pool and then in the weight room. After that, Walton will pedal on his bike both for exercise and joy.
“The bike is the ultimate celebration of my life today because it’s everything I believe in and I everything I live for, including science, technology, equipment, gear, team, sacrifice, discipline, commitment and organization,” Walton said. “It’s a plan and a dream. But what my bike really means to me is independence and freedom. It allows me to go places I cannot get to on my own.”
So as part of his charities initiatives, Walton spends a week every fall riding his bike from San Francisco to San Diego, while making stops in Santa Cruz, Big Sur, Pismo Beach, Santa Barbara, Santa Monica and Dana Point. Two of Walton’s sons, Nate and Luke, occasionally spoke at those events.
In addition toward pounding on the drums, playing the piano and collecting plants, Walton spends his quiet moments riding his bike. During that time, Walton has imagined cycling announcer Phil Liggett calling the action. During his NBA career, Walton imagined the same thing with the late Lakers announcer Chick Hearn despite never wearing a purple and gold uniform.
“It’s their professional responsibility of bringing it every day,” Walton said of Hearn and Liggett. “Chick went to the very last day of his life. He was full speed. Phil is the same way. When Chick was calling the game, he didn’t call the game. He called life.”
With Walton again full of life, there has marked one significant thing that has made every day a treasure.
Said Walton: “I love my bike.”