By his count, Bill Walton has undergone 36 orthopedic surgeries at various points on his 6-foot-11 frame. But if you know Walton, then you’re aware that he’s never needed an operation on his enthusiasm for life — until 14 months ago, when his pain had reached the point where he seriously wondered if he could go on.
Walton, one of the all-time-great basketball players, a man whose intelligence and enthusiasm enabled him to roll over every pothole in his past and find success in most every endeavor he’s undertaken, admits the incredible pain brought about by a bad back took him to the brink, where he contemplated taking his own life.
"I’m getting back into the game of life," Walton, throwing both of his long arms in the air, was saying as we sat outside his San Diego home. "I have a new life now. It got to the point where my life wasn’t worth living. I was standing on the edge of the bridge, figuring it was better to jump than to go back to where I was."
Suicide? Bill Walton? This is a man who wanted to be a great basketball player and became one. This is a man who, as a youngster, had a speech impediment and beat it — to the point where, for 19 years, he became one of the most prominent basketball broadcasters, an Emmy winner. This is a man who knew how to play with pain — until this.
"You can’t understand until you’ve been where I’ve been," said Walton, adding that he’s finished with broadcasting and is exploring new business opportunities.
Simply wow. Not sure how I can react to that but even appreciate him that much more. The Big Red is battling away in a new phase in his life which he is dedicating to help others who are experienced the same excruciating physical issues he has been dealing with over the years.
Walton also had a very interesting detail to share with Canepa re. our 88 game winning streak:
In our little talk, he also revealed something I didn’t know. In 1974, when UCLA was riding the longest winning streak in college basketball history, he and the Bruins played at Washington State. Late in the game, Walton was low-bridged by a Cougar and fell hard to the floor.
"A despicable act of intentional violence and dirty play," is how he put it. "I broke two bones in my spine that night, and things were never the same for me again."
Walton missed three games, but came back, wearing a corset, when UCLA traveled to Notre Dame and had its 88-game winning streak snapped.
"We hadn’t lost since 1969, to Monte Vista, when I was at Helix (High)," he said. "We may have beaten Notre Dame if I hadn’t played. I probably hurt us."
Didn't know that detail. Perhaps other BNers who were around at the time can shed more light on that Washington State game if they can remember. The column is a must read and is probably the most news worthy piece I have read on Walton in years.
I hope the Big Red is not shy reaching out to the extended Bruin family here and other places if he needs help in getting the word out on his new endeavor (thebetterwayback.org). We will always be here for one of the greatest Bruin legends of all time.
This story is also a reminder that, for all his divisive work as a broadcaster, Walton is one of the most thoughtful and considerate players the league has ever seen. Taking his struggle with pain and using it to help fellow patients is exactly the kind of thing he's done throughout his career, whether in his political activism or his work with the Stuttering Foundation (for which he was a personal inspiration to me when I stuttered badly as a child), Walton has always been someone who's used his fame to speak out for what he believes in.
So yes, it's noteworthy that Walton contemplated suicide. But the lesson to take from Walton's life isn't that we should focus on that event, but take it as a chance to help others and turn a negative into a positive.
I'd add that Bill Walton as usual applying all the lessons he learned from Coach. GO BRUINS.