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UCLA Basketball Legend Bill Walton Talks to Bruins Nation - Part 1

We were lucky enough to spend some time with Bruin legend Bill Walton following the release of his recent biography, Back From the Dead: Searching For the Sound, Shining the Light, and Throwing It Down. In part 1 of our interview, Bill talks about his love for basketball and Coach Wooden and all things UCLA.

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Big Red talks to Bruins Nation and it is glorious.
Big Red talks to Bruins Nation and it is glorious.
Russ Isabella-USA TODAY Sports

"Hello. Mr Walton?"

"No. This is Bill."

So began my phone call with Big Red.

You want to know the easiest job in the world? Interviewing Bill Walton. Basically, you say hello, and then you hit record and just sit back. He does all the rest, and it's just awesome.

The hardest job in the world, though, might be transcribing an interview with Bill Walton, partly because he has a lot to say and it tends to flow in one long continuous wandering stream. It's a beautiful journey, but simply deciding where to insert a comma or a period can be a challenge. Mostly though, it was hard because I found myself relistening to every word rather than typing as I replayed the recording. It was so cool and enjoyable to listen to it all that it was easy to just get swept away and forget that I was supposed to be transcribing it.

In any case, in the aftermath of the release of Bill Walton's hugely successful autobiography Back From the Dead: Searching For the Sound, Shining the Light, and Throwing It Down, I had the distinct honor and pleasure of spending 45 minutes on the phone with one of the greatest Bruin basketball players in history. Some would say Bill is that greatest player, though Bill himself reserves that praise for Kareem. Tomato, tomahto. The Bruins have 1 and 1A. You can decide which is which.

We (meaning mostly Bill) talked about UCLA and John Wooden and Bruin basketball and any number of other things, depending on where Bill's thought process took him. It was a long and strange and wonderful trip. And long enough that this is part 1 of 3. Today's part looks at how Bill got to UCLA and what the school and his basketball days mean to him. Part 2 will look at his book and part 3 will look at the current state of UCLA basketball.

I hope you enjoy it...


Bill: Going to UCLA was an overwhelmingly fantastic opportunity for me. I know you're writing for Bruins Nation so I'll focus on UCLA here. I was John Wooden's easiest recruit. I became his worst nightmare and I drove the poor guy to an early grave at 99.

UCLA was my dream. I fell in love with the Hazzard, Goodrich, Kenny Washington, Fred Slaughter, Jack Hirsch, Freddie Goss. I fell in love with that team with Johnny Wooden and fell in love with the way the Bruins played. That was my dream to go to UCLA and to play like those guys played.  And then Kareem came along and just changed everything and set a standard of excellence. Kareem made college basketball what it is today. Kareem is the just the greatest player I ever played against and I got to see him play in his last game at Pauley Pavilion. That was the first time I was ever in Pauley Pavilion, and I got to go and play. I got to go to school at UCLA and I got to play at UCLA and play for John Wooden. There was never a moment in my life when I wanted to go anywhere else. There was never a moment in my life that I ever regretted my decision to go to UCLA, although, I am most assured that UCLA regretted offering me a scholarship over the years.

BN: I'll bet they've come to rethink that view. I think they're probably pretty happy that you came.

Bill: Well, we were good enough that we could have and should have won all of our games, and that was one of Coach Wooden's mantras: Never measure yourself by what you have done, rather by what you could or should have been able to do. And the collection he had in our senior year, my injuries, team chemistry issues, team personnel issues that just we could not overcome those, and that is a stain and stigma on my soul for the rest of my life. When you're going through that, you're so young you just think, "Oh we'll just keep going and it'll last forever." But the Grateful Dead, they got it right: "When life looks like easy street, there's danger at your door." Nothing's for certain, it can always go wrong. And did it ever. Oh my gosh.

But what it meant for me, Greg, that gave me the opportunity to be on the greatest college basketball program in history with this incredible coach, the greatest athletic director in the history of intercollegiate athletics, J.D. Morgan, and Chancellor Young - 29 years, Ducky Drake - 65 years, and these people they just gave their lives for UCLA. And every department at UCLA is filled with people like that and it's just such a special place. I did not know anything else. That was all I knew.  I just assumed that in growing up in San Diego where it's perfect, where I live today, and going to UCLA where it was perfect, I just thought that's the way the world was. Everybody had this. Everybody had John Wooden. Everybody had a Pauley Pavilion.  Everybody had great public school systems of California in those days and that everyone was willing to sacrifice for the team. When I joined the NBA, I signed the biggest contract in the history of all team sports at that time, and the quality of my life went down. That's how special it was at UCLA.

The fans, the people, the teachers, my classmates, my teammates, and everyone. My wife is from UCLA. I was with Greg Lee last night and his wife is from UCLA. We all went to the Elvis Costello concert in San Diego. And I got to spend a weekend at the Final Four with Jamaal Wilkes last week. That sense of pride, loyalty, and gratitude that I have for what UCLA did for me. Just that relationship I have with all the guys. To be able to be friends and teammates with all these legends. We've lost far too many of them. We lost Walt Hazzard early on.  We lost Dave Meyers just this past year.  And we lost Coach Wooden who was the glue that kept everybody together. And he was just this incredible reader, teacher, and he was only interested in other people's success. It was such an honor, such a privilege. I'm the luckiest guy in the world, Greg.

BN: Well, I think to a degree, all of us Bruins get to share in that. Obviously there is an enormous sense of pride in what, not just what was accomplished, but exactly what you're referring to, what it was about, what was really at the heart of that success. As a guy who was one of many who went to school and lined up for games at Pauley, that was our way of participating in that.

Bill: One of the great things in my life today is for people to come up to me and say, "Bill, I went to UCLA." I get to say, "I did, too!" And what a bond.  Those were the most incredible moments. You know, Jamaal and I, when we got there, we were 17 years old and we were just so excited. And UCLA far exceeded every expectation that I had going in and I had huge hopes. I went there because of the academics, because of the history, because of the culture, because of the legends who had preceded me as basketball players. And to know the history of people like Don Barksdale, Jackie Robinson, Rafer Johnson, Arthur Ashe, Walt Hazzard, and then Kareem and Lucius Allen, Mike Warren, Sidney Wicks, and then little Billy gets to go there. It was just awesome. The professors that we had in class, the classes that we had, just this incredible awesomeness of Pauley Pavilion and the fans, every game sold out. Dick Enberg our broadcaster, J.D. Morgan sitting on the bench. You know he used to sit on the bench during the games just to make sure that every thing went well. And after J.D. retired they changed that rule. The athletic directors can no longer sit on the bench. And he was just such a perfect leader and complement to Coach Wooden who wanted no part of the business aspect. He wanted to be a teacher. He wanted to be a coach.

There's a great story early on when J.D. first got the job and he saw Coach Wooden. When J.D. moved out from the tennis coach to the athletic director and J.D's walking the halls and he sees Coach Wooden huddled over this jam packed desk with bus schedules, practice schedules, equipment orders, and budgets, and meal money, and he said, "What are you doing, Coach?" "I'm trying to figure out if we're going to have enough money to be able to buy the boys a milkshake after the game before we have to race over to Seattle." And J.D just grabbed everything, he took it and threw it out in the hall and turned in the doorway back to Coach Wooden and said, "Coach, that's my job. You're Coach Wooden. You make these young men great basketball players, and more importantly, Coach, make them great human beings."

And that's what Coach loved. He loved practice. He loved development. He loved fitness. He loved learning. He loved teaching. He never stopped learning himself. Always with the quotes. He was always dreaming. His ultimate joy in life came, because, you know, he changed over the years. He was the first great basketball player. When you're the player, that's a totally different deal than coach, and so he changed. His circumstances and his life evolved and he became the guy who was a hundred percent dedicated to making other people better, and there was never a time...well, I fought with him on everything. I fought with him on hair length, facial hair, wardrobe, Nixon, Vietnam, why the cheerleaders couldn't be in my hotel room on the road never crossed our mind, never, that he wasn't there for us. He never missed a practice for any reason other than his own health. And it wasn't like he was out giving speeches or making commercials. He was in his office every day and always available to us all year round. It was such a dream opportunity and something we thought everybody else had, and that was a major shock in my life when I left UCLA and why he wrote that axiom to me on the day I graduated, "Walton, it's the things you learn after you know it all that count."


Stay tuned for parts 2 and 3 of our interview with Bill Walton later this week. You can get his awesome book 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.