Bruin legend Bill Walton speaks reverently about the role of books and writers and ideas in his life, so it is apropos that Walton himself is now an accomplished author. In part 2 of our interview (ICYMI, part one went up Monday) Big Red talks about writing his awesome autobiography Back From the Dead: Searching For the Sound, Shining the Light, and Throwing It Down. and how music and politics and bicycles and family and disabling injuries are among the many things that contributed to his life experiences and led to his own amazing book. If you don't have a copy yet, links to get the book are at the bottom of the article. That photo above is my copy, appropriately sitting on my Pauley Pavilion chairs. Write it down, Big Man!
BN: I'd like to talk about your book. I could talk to you about UCLA and listen to stories about Wooden and those guys and share our experiences and we could do that for years and years, but you've written a fantastic book and it deserves a mention, too.
Bill: Back From the Dead. It's a New York Times best seller. I never thought.
BN: Well, I would have thought for sure. Stephen [Walton's press agent from Simon & Schuster] was kind enough to send me an advance copy so I got to read it back in December and I've got the new hard copy here. It's a fantastic story. As I think anybody who knows you or has heard you talk on basketball, it's kind of what we've always wanted. It's you and an open mic and 300 pages of space to fill. What made you want to write a book, and why now? Is this something you've been considering for a while?
Bill: Let me just say that you say 300 pages. When I turned the book in to Simon & Schuster, they said it was too long. I said, "What do you mean it's too long? I'm 63 years old. I‘ve done a lot of things. I left home when I was 17 to chase my dream."
They said, "Bill, it's too long."
I said, "How long it is? First of all, how long is it supposed to be?"
"Bill, we want 120,000 words."
And I said, "Well, I didn't count them. How many words did I turn in?"
"You turned in 285,000."
My parents...I couldn't wait to get away from my parents. I wanted to be out there chasing my dream. I wanted to go to UCLA. I wanted to go on tour with The Grateful Dead. I wanted to go backpacking and biking and see the world and go, go, go. I got to do that. But one of the reasons I wanted to get away from my parents is because they were so strict. And then I encounter John Wooden right away and he was just over the top strict and all he did was say no, except on the basketball court. And then when I got teamed up with Simon & Schuster, I thought my parents were strict. I thought John Wooden was strict. These guys were just as bad. It was a battle. It was a struggle, but we're here and they have just been incredible in terms of the promotion and the delivery and all getting this kind of stuff done. It's absolutely remarkable, the power of these kinds of big media companies like Simon & Schuster, the NBA, ESPN, Westwood One Radio who have been very kind and generous and gracious in driving this and now we have a New York Times best seller, so I've just been very, very happy.
It's been an overwhelming, staggering, awe-inspiring experience for me the last couple weeks because of the response and the book signings and the huge crowds and the letters and emails that I get from people who have read the book. I wrote it at the encouragement of other people in my life. I grew up in a world of books. We did not have a television. I'm not a TV watcher. I watch some. I watch ESPN as I'm a sports fan. I watch the Tour de France. I watch big events. I love big events. I love politics. I love news. But the world that I grew up in, it was a world of music, radio, and books. The books that I love are nonfiction, history, biography, exploration, adventure.
When I was growing up, my mom was a librarian and she would always bring home these fantastic books about people and places and things and events and I would just for hours read them like crazy. And then I got to go and live a life like that and I've had a blessed life. All these remarkable teachers and heroes, and heroes that became my friends: Bill Russell, Mohammed Ali, Jerry Garcia, Bob Dylan, Neil Young, John Fogerty, Carlos Santana, The Rolling Stones, The Eagles, Bruce Springsteen, Elvis Costello we saw last night. Just an absolutely phenomenal life and so I wanted to be able to share the moments, the epiphonic moments when you're at the fork in the road and you don't know which way you're gonna go and you don't know how it's gonna play out and all those moments that have shaped me. I am a completely different person today than I was when I started at UCLA 46 years ago. And I'm happy with those changes and I'm proud of those changes.
The single event that happened in my life that changed me more than anything was learning how to speak. I was a lifetime stutterer and I could not say a word until I was 28. Basketball, athletics, academics...those were the easiest parts of my life. My challenges have been orthopedic health and my speech impediment. After 37 orthopedic operations, I'm stabilized now. Both my ankles are fused. I ground those into dust. I tore up my knee when I was 14 and that was replaced 3 years ago next week, a week from today. I'm one week shy of three years. I'm seven years and two months into my spine reconstruction/repair/replacement. I have no pain, I take no medication, and I can just go full speed ahead. I have learned how to speak a little bit. It's my greatest accomplishment in life, and everybody else's worst nightmare.
BN: You wrote that in the book. I found that very funny. I'll speak for all of us that we're very grateful that it worked out that way.
Bill: Coach Wooden liked me a lot better when I could not speak. He used to say, "Marty Glickman taught Bill how to speak, but Marty's now passed on and we gotta find the person who can get Bill to stop talking."
BN: I'm not sure that person's out there and that's a good thing.
Bill: This book tour has been an eye opening experience. I didn't think that I was going to like it. But I have enjoyed it immensely. I love talking - I don't like talking about myself, I'm not a self-promoter - I like talking to people who are smart and who are moving the world forward and I like learning their stories. That's one of the reasons I enjoy the Conference of Champions broadcasts on ESPN and the Pac-12 Networks so much. I get to learn about all of these guys who were chasing their dream, building their lives, and the struggles that they've faced, their relations with their schools and their coaches and their classmates, and then they're growing and they're gone. I love being a dad and working with these young college students and people who are just going for it all and they just have no idea. It was just the other day, I was driving this young high school girl to a college interview. It was here in San Diego and she's applying for college here in San Diego. It was just me and her in the car and when we got there she was scared to get out. I used to love that drive to school, the same way that I was always terrified that I was going to be stuck in a place with John Wooden, the way that I was when he was driving me home after I got arrested at the peace rally at UCLA. But to be able to be in that position now at 63. I'm healthy. I never thought that would happen. I'm happy in love. I never thought that would happen. I married a UCLA girl and I'm just the luckiest guy in the world.
BN: You mentioned briefly that you were at the Final Four, and what a finish to that Championship Game. College basketball has changed a lot since your day. Good? Bad? What would you do? Would you have been a one-and done these days? Are these changes good for the game?
Bill: What I would like to see is a better youth culture in the sport of basketball focused on skill development, physical fitness, and developing what John Wooden was so focused on which was development of the entire body, the entire person. Human development, physical fitness, skill development, that's what I loved. I loved preparation. I loved dreams and he plan of how we're going to move the team forward. Then I would also change one rule in the NBA and that would be to play in the NBA, you have to be 21 years old. You want to work in finance, you want to work in marketing, you want to work in sales, you want to work in event production, you want to work in anything like that you can apply at any age. If you want to come and apply for a job in the NBA, you have to be 21 to play. This is an adult workplace.
You know, I'm proud of the NBA. The NBA gets the most diverse workforce in the entire world. And what David Stern, the most important man in the history of basketball, thought is he could use basketball to drive the world to a better place. That's the same thing that Obama is doing. It's the same thing that my other political heroes are doing in today's world. In years past, it was Bobby Kennedy, Martin Luther King, and Sargent Shriver, but Bobby Kennedy and Martin Luther King were gunned down in front of our eyes when I was in high school. Sargent Shriver, he was able to do it. But if you have Obama and Joe Biden, John Kerry, Jerry Brown, those are the guys who I live under. And we got these great political writers and social commentators like Paul Krugman, Timothy Egan, Robert Reich, he's a member of the faculty at Berkeley now and he's in the Conference of Champions.
For me, I'm 63, I'm just getting started. Half of my adult life has been taken up by being in the hospital all those years, being on airplanes, and waiting in rental car lines, waiting in hotel check-in lines. There's a lot of things I want to do. That's how I close the book with all the different things in the last two pages. I've been at this for a really long time and there's a lot of things I want to do including ride my bike and go on tour and go to museums and read more books. I just finished reading David Axelrod's Believer, a fantastic book. I've just started up with Eric Larson, In the Garden...
BN: In The Garden of Beasts. That's a fantastic book.
Bill: Yeah, I'm reading that right now. I love books. For me, being able to put a book out that people have responded to in a very positive manner, because I know the way that books have changed my life, and I'm getting a very positive personal response from a lot of guys. I just got a letter the other day from Swen, Swen Nader. He read the book. I got the most fantastic letter from Swen. Swen and I, we've been paired together for a long time, 46 years. And Andy Hill, great teammate and mentor. Coach Wooden assigned Andy Hill to be my mentor when I first showed up. My older brother was going there to UCLA.
BN: Yeah, he played football, right?
Bill: Right. He was a year ahead of me. He was an All-American football player, an academic All-American, so I would just show up. UCLA, they were the most professional in recruiting. And I just kept telling them I'm gonna come, you don't have to worry about me. But they called every Monday night at 6:15, Denny Crum and John Wooden. They told me everything that was gong on. Then I would just show up at UCLA and then I would find a place to sleep in the dorms and I'd just walk into the cafeteria, I was still in high school, in the dorm cafeterias. And Andy was always there to steer me in the right direction. And these relationships, we're sad for the health challenges that Greg Lee and Hollyfield and Dave Meyers, Dave had the ultimate failure of his health. And Larry lost his leg shortly after he left UCLA and recently has had a stroke and he's in a wheelchair. Greg has had 16 years of just a nightmare experience. It's so tough. And I've had my own challenges, but I'm back up and I'm doing it one more time.
Stay tuned for part 3 of our interview with Bill Walton later this week where Bill speaks (gently) about the current state of UCLA basketball, and you can read Bill's memories from his own UCLA days with Coach Wooden in Part 1 here. You can get Bill's awesome autobiography Back From the Dead: Searching For the Sound, Shining the Light, and Throwing It Down in all major bookstores and online at Amazon here in print and here on audio - and don't you really want to hear Bill reading his story himself? It's really the only way to go.