How Basketball Great Bill Walton Thrived In A Life Of Limitations Bill Walton has written a memoir: "Back from the Dead." NPR's Scott Simon speaks with him about his childhood, basketball career and The Grateful Dead.
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How Basketball Great Bill Walton Thrived In A Life Of Limitations

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How Basketball Great Bill Walton Thrived In A Life Of Limitations

How Basketball Great Bill Walton Thrived In A Life Of Limitations

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SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

The man who's been called the world's tallest flower child has written a memoir. Bill Walton, the basketball great. His book, "Back From The Dead: Searching For The Sound, Shining The Light And Throwing It Down," traces Bill Walton's happy childhood, sensational high school and college sports careers where all of his teams won titles and end of the NBA where he brought home a championship for the Portland Trail Blazers and another one nine years later with the Boston Celtics, all while being a conspicuous groupie for the Grateful Dead. Bill Walton, who may be the only person to be inducted into the basketball, sports broadcasting and Grateful Dead Hall of Fame joins us from New York. Thanks so much for being with us.

BILL WALTON: Scott, thanks for having me.

SIMON: I got to tell you, I was a little - I knew you didn't come from an outstanding athletic family, but I was a little amused to read how un-athletic your parents were.

WALTON: I never shot a basket with my dad. I have the greatest parents ever, but they had no interest, Scott, in athletics or sports either as participants or as spectators. But our life was books. My mom, a librarian, my dad who went to Berkeley. My dad who fought in World War II, came home from World War II and he spent the rest of his life trying to convince people to get along. So I had this incredibly positive, supportive, educational experience not based on sports at all. That came through our coach at the elementary school that we all went to.

SIMON: We should explain this is San Diego.

WALTON: San Diego, where I grew up and still live to this very day, the greatest city on Earth. But I'm a lifelong stutterer, Scott. I could not speak at all. Academics and athletics have always been the easiest part of my life. My challenges in a life that has been defined by meteoric rises and climbs to the top, the top of the highest mountains, and then these catastrophic health crises that would just take me down.

I was born with structural congenital defects in my feet, I tore up my knee for the first time when I was 14. And then when I was 21, Scott, I was playing for UCLA and I was high above the basket making a play on the ball. We hadn't lost a game in five years. And the guy on the other team, in a despicable act of violence and dirty play, he comes across the court and takes my legs out from underneath me and flips me over. And I land flat on my back. I broke my spine that day. And I live with these orthopedic challenges and problems and pain and limitations.

SIMON: Of course, you won two national championships at UCLA.

WALTON: Should have been more. John Wooden would always say, Scott, he said every day never measure yourself by what you have done but rather by what you could or should have been able to do. And Coach Wooden, another one of his mantras - he had a mantra for every situation like - he was like Bob Dylan and the Grateful Dead and Neil Young. I mean, these guys, they were...

SIMON: A lot of people wouldn't necessarily see John Wooden, you know, in the same category as the Grateful Dead or John Lennon. But you do.

WALTON: John Wooden, Jerry Garcia and Larry Bird are the same person.

SIMON: I'll say. I opened your book, "Back From The Dead," thinking that was a reference to the Grateful Dead. And so it may be. But I closed the book thinking "Back From The Dead" really talks about your spinal problems and the health challenges you've had.

WALTON: So I've lived with these forever. And then, with the lifestyle that I had of being super tall, being on the road 200 nights a year, which basically means 280 to 300 days a year, and living in a world built for preschool children where you can't stand up anywhere, you can't sit in the furniture, you can't use any of the normal chairs, desk, cars, airplanes, you name it. None of it fits.

And so here I was on that road, chasing the dream, trying to be part of something special. And then in February of 2008, my spine finally collapsed. I was flying 600,000 miles a year every year. And I got off the plane one day at home in San Diego and I could no longer move. And everything fell apart. And I spent the next years - a long - this is the longest stretch of my life.

SIMON: You couldn't get off the floor essentially.

WALTON: I couldn't move, I couldn't think, I couldn't eat, I couldn't drink, I couldn't sleep. I couldn't do anything. The radiating nerve pain - and anybody who's ever had that knows exactly what I'm talking about. And people who are on that ground and can't move, they have three things in their life, Scott. They have, within arms reach, we all keep a bottle of pills, a bottle of whiskey and a gun. And we don't know what we're going to reach for because nothing works.

And then I had my spine surgery seven years, six weeks and four days ago. And now I am back from the dead and I am back to life. And so I live by these constant songs that are playing through my mind and my heart, my spirit and my soul all the time. And the things that come to mind right now. I'm going to just throw out four different lyrics from the Grateful Dead, but I could pick a billion of them, from Neil and from Bob and from Jimmy and from Bruce and Mick and Keith and all the guys and Glenn Frey and Joe Walsh and Don Henley and all these people who sing the songs to me, about me and for me.

So let's just throw this out right here from the Grateful Dead. When you get confused, listen to the music play. We used to play for silver. Now we play for life. Once in a while, you get shown the light in the strangest of places if you look at it right. It all rolls into one, but nothing comes for free.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "STELLA BLUE")

GRATEFUL DEAD: (Singing) It all rolls into one and nothing comes for free.

SIMON: Bill Walton - his book, "Back From The Dead: Searching For The Sound, Shining The Light And Throwing It Down." Thanks so much for being with us.

WALTON: Best of luck. Here's to a full and pain-free life for you, Scott.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "STELLA BLUE")

GRATEFUL DEAD: (Singing) And when you hear that song...

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