Bill Walton Returns to Rip City

The Portland Trail Blazers' all-time greatest Center, Bill Walton, returned to Rip City today and offered a tour de force performance to a small group of local media assembled at the Rose Garden.  Equal parts philosopher, lyricist and showman, Walton combined the best attributes of John Wooden, Bob Dylan and Stephon Marbury over the course of 40 minutes.  He praised Maurice Lucas: calling him the greatest Blazer of all time and joking that Mt. St. Helens should be re-named Mt. St. Maurice.  He told a brutal story about riding his bike and getting hit by a teenager's stateboard, which incapacitated him for weeks.  He seemed genuinely happy to be back, speaking fondly of the airport reception he received from a fan who told her daughter that Walton had been part of the city's greatest team.

More than anything, Walton came off sounding very mortal, a man plagued by dozens of surgeries and daily pain and by bad memories of abruptly leaving a city and organization he loved in a huff of accusations and acrimony about his medical treatment almost 30 years ago.  He painted this trip to Portland as a way to pull himself out of both the physical pain and the regret. He was looking to play in "one more game" and proud to be back as part of the "Trail Blazer family."

Walton was also careful to name-check "Make it Better" -- the Blazers' community service slogan -- numerous times as he promoted the Blazers' Hoops & Hearts fundraiser/auction that he is attending tomorrow. Walton is also in town for the Governors' Gold Awards, where he will be a part of a group that includes Bill Schonely, Harry Glickman, and Maurice Lucas that is accepting an award on behalf of the 1977 Championship team. 

His presser was -- at different times, sometimes within the same sentence -- funny, melancholy, reflective, regretful, conciliatory, thankful, and more. 

I encourage you to grab the mp3 of the press conference and give it a listen: Bill Walton Press Conference Audio

(Updated: higher quality audio linked above courtesy of Casey Holdahl.)

One interesting footnote (see what I did there?): Even Bill Walton wears Jordans.

Click through for the full transcript!

-- Ben (benjamin.golliver@gmail.com)

Here's the entire transcript. Questions are paraphrased.

When's the last time you've been to Portland?

I can't remember. That's how sad my life has become. At the airport today I got off the plane, it's been an emotional rollercoaster for me today in the last 250 days after spinal fusion surgery, this is my second trip, I had a trip 9 days ago. This is my first official public trip. As was the case before, when I got off the airplane 35 years ago, there was Blazermaniacs waiting for autographs.  A lady with her daughter came up to me and she said, got right in my face, as I was standing off to the side waiting, she said, "I was there. I was there. " She looked at her daughter, a gentle goddess, a teenage beauty from Oregon here, and she took her daughter and said, "This man was part of something really special." I'm just so thrilled to be here to try to Make it Better, to try to make amends for the mistakes and the errors of the past. I can only hope that this media availability is better than the first one that I had 35 years ago. To be here for the Governors Gold Award, to be here on behalf of the Portland Trail Blazers, to be here to see all my old friends, to be here for the tip off of the 40th anniversary of the franchise that really gave me everything. Not only did they give me my professional start but they gave me hope. They gave me the chance to be part of something very special. They gave me the chance to have my dreams come true. The people in the state of Oregon have always been nicer to me, kinder to me, and more generous to me than I have deserved. They have given me an endless of string of chances that I truly hope that they are willing to give me one more, as I start over, one more time, day 250 from my spinal fusion, Bill Walton 15.0.

I'm also hear to ask that the great people in the State of Oregon give the Special Olympians the chance that the Blazermaniacs and the Oregonians gave to me so many times over. Because when I think of Oregon and the magnificent nature of every part of this state, the people, the history, Lewis and Clark, Maurice Lucas, the really special people, Phil Knight, all the guys that have made this wonderful... Powell's books... the people who have made this place so special. The people who are involved in Special Olympics, they really need that one chance that has been given so many times to me. And I'm just asking that everyone ask that they open not just their hearts but their wallets as well. It's an incredible sense of feeling that someone else is making a sacrifice to help you. That has been my life. And now its my turn to be that person, to make it happen for others.

What is it that you regret?

I regret that I was not a better person, a better player, I regret that I got hurt. I regret the circumstances under which I left the Portland Trail Blazer family. I just wish you could do a lot of things over. But I can't. I'm here to apologize, try to make amends, try to start over. To try to make it better.

Did you ever feel that from other people?

No. It could have been and it should have been so perfect. This is where I ultimately played my best basketball. It was such an unbelievable team. The youngest team in the history of the NBA ever to win a championship. And I know this year's squad is the second youngest team in the NBA. We're very, very excited. Jack Ramsey made me the best player I ever was. The Blazermaniacs drove me to levels and heights I could never get to by myself. The love they gave me I could return. It's just something that will forever a stain and stigma on my soul. I can't wash it off. But I can come back here 35 years later and try to make a difference. Try to make it better. Try to light the candle.

Was the distance health related or because of other feelings?

I've had a tough go. I've had a tough go. 250 days ago I had my 36th orthopedic operation. I now have 5 4 inch bolts in my spine, I've got 2 titanium rods, I've got a big cage around everything. I have special new technological spacers in between my vertebrae. But I'm back in the game of life. I can never thank the Trail Blazers enough for giving me this remarkable opportunity.

Is it easier to make this return to Portland now compared to a few years ago?

I think what's happened with the Portland Trail Blazers is a classic example of how it should be done. The fans spoke by staying home. The team was for sale, and nobody would buy it. The brilliant people who run this organization and who are responsible for it being here, they realize that mistakes had been made. And they changed things. And now you can't buy a ticket, sponsors are lined up outside the door, Paul has taken the team off the market, ‘I'm keeping this. This is special.' You come to that fork in the road and you make that decision and one more time the Trail Blazers made the right decision and it's made all of us so incredibly proud. When you see the people that have come through this remarkable organization, the class acts, Maurice Lucas, the greatest Trail Blazer of them all, Terry Porter, Jerome Kersey, Clyde Drexler, Bobby Gross, his wife still works for the team, Cheri White, Bill Schonely. It is just a remarkable testament to the incredible spirit of what it means to be a Portland Trail Blazer. I couldn't be more proud to be here today. And while the road for me these last two and a half years has been very bumpy, and mostly downhill, on the plane ride coming up here today I had tears of joy streaming down my cheeks. When you come down into the Willamette Valley and you see Mt. Hood and the Columbia Gorge, and you see Lewis and Clark carrying the championship banner right down the river, it's just unbelievable. 

Aren’t people more than ready to forgive you?

All I ever wanted in life was more. I wanted more of what we had here. The life that we all had. Johnny, Lionel, Dave, Larry, Lloyd, Corky, Herm, Robin, Coach Ramsay, Ron Culp. We had the youngest team to ever win a championship. We were on our ways to who knows how many more. And we didn’t get it done. We wanted more. There is nothing more addicting than to be a member of the Championship Portland Trail Blazer team. And I couldn’t deliver. That’s something I so desperately wanted that to be my life. But I came to a fork in the road then, as I am today. As I hope this press conference goes better than the one 35 years ago, I hope the fork I choose today is a better one.

Do you want to get back into broadcasting?

That’s my goal.

How did the 1977 Championship team come back and win 4 straight in the Finals?

It flowed like Multnomah Falls. It exploded like Mt. Hood. We came because of the unbelievable brilliance of Maurice Lucas, who was the greatest teammate that I ever had. Who was at his best, when his best was needed. So tough. So fierce. So tenacious in terms of his leadership. We came back because of the intelligence, the decision-making, the patience, the poise and the confidence of Jack Ramsay, who told us when we were down out and out, everybody was just trash talking, just telling us we're done, this series is over, Jack Ramsay says, ‘guys we're just getting started. We're not changing a thing, we just haven't played Blazers basketball.'

We flew home, got home, and there was 20,000 fans waiting at the Portland airport for us. There was no security in those days. There was no metal detectors you had to walk throw, people just showed up. Bill Schonely announced the flight coming in and Blazermaniacs turned out in force, they lined the highway, lined the streets, left flowers and brownies and music on my front porch. The Blazermaniacs turned it around for us. We never would have achieved what we did without their undying love. Their ability to inspire us and make us better than we were ever capable of getting by ourselves. These Blazermaniacs are still here today. They've tasted it and they want more and they know they're really close. But for it to happen, for this year's squad, the talent is there but to win, to win it all, you have to have the best players, you have to have the best coach, you have to have development along the way of all the team, to have remarkable team chemistry where the goals of the group are more important than individual agendas. The best players, they have to be so dynamic and so explosive. That's why they're thinking of changing the volcano out there from Mt. St. Helens to Mt. St. Maurice.

Is Greg Oden the Center to push the team over the top?

I’m a big Greg Oden fan.  And it’s not just the center, it’s not just one player. It’s everybody. A huge Greg Oden fan. A very smart guy. He’s worked very hard. He’s in top condition now. Hopefully he’ll be healthy. That’s something I could never do myself in the NBA. Greg has shown a great improvement at staying out of foul trouble. In the exhibitions this year he’s leading the team in scoring, shooting almost 60 percent from the floor, getting over 10 rebounds a game, he’s controlling the game. Very nice to see.

It won’t just be Greg. It will be Brandon, it will be LaMarcus Aldridge, it will be Nate McMillan, it will be Steve Blake and Andre Miller, Rudy Fernandez. It won’t happen unless each and every one of those guys puts their individual agendas aside. It can’t be about contracts, contracts are important and they will get paid, but it can’t be about playing time, it can’t be about stats or numbers. To beat the Lakers, to beat San Antonio, to beat Boston, to beat Cleveland, to win a title, you’re going to have to play as a team, you’re going to have to have your stars be the best players. You’re going to have to have your coach make all the right decisions. The fans, they’ll do their job. Paul will spend the money. The arena is here. Everything is in place. Now it’s up to the players and the coach. 

Any parallels between Greg Oden and anybody in your day?

He’s really good. Greg Oden is one of those players who is capable of being a historical level figure. He’s been slowed by injury. One of the biggest misconceptions about injured players is that it’s just about hard work. If it was just hard work, Larry Bird, Magic Johnson, Joe Montana, Mitch Kupchak, Bernard King, they’d all still be playing. There’s a tremendous amount of luck involved. Greg needs a string of good look. Hopefully that’s there right now. He’s tremendously popular with his teammates. He’s a very solid, deep-thinking concerned citizen. When the Trail Blazers say it’s time to Make It Better in the world, that’s what Greg Oden is all about. The stage is set. We’re extremely hopeful that it’s all going to work. Because it’s nice when good things happen to good people. 

Where does your health stand right now?

I'm here. I'm here. I was at the gym this morning before I got on the plane and I'm going to be here tonight. And we're hoping that I'll still be here tomorrow.

I'm the luckiest guy on Earth. For more reasons than you can ever imagine, I did not think I would ever be standing here today.

Your back was so bad you couldn't get out of bed?

I wish I got have gotten into bed. I wish I could have gotten into bed.

What was the extent of your situation?

I was lying on the floor, a pitiful, helpless ball of flesh. I couldn't walk, think, talk, sit, stand, sleep or do anything. I had relentless, unrelenting, excruciating and debilitating nerve pain from my chest to my knees. I had an 8 and ½ hour surgery. Four different incisions. Not only am I proud to be here today, I'm unbelievably lucky to be here today.

So now, at 56 years of age, I have two fused ankles, knees, hands and wrists that don't work. At least 11 bolts in my body. And it was all so great. It was all just coming. And six weeks ago on Labor Day weekend I was just telling my wife for the previous 2 or 3 days how I was feeling so much better. I had turned back from standing on the edge. For the first time, this would have been at the seven month mark of my surgery and recovery, I was just telling my wife Lori how much better I was feeling, how I was finally going to see something because I went from thinking I was going to die, to wanting to die, to being afraid that I was going to live, to now seeing rainbows, calliopes, clowns, and dreams of a better tomorrow.

And so when I made this big turn at the 7 month mark, I'm telling Lori, I can feel it's going to happen, it's working, and I'm out on my bike in the afternoon. I go to the gym every morning at 4:30 and I'm there for 2 and ½ hours, and then I'm in my own gym for another 1 ½ hours, then I go out on my bike in the afternoon. It's a glorious day in my hometown of San Diego, I'm out there kissing the sky, riding with my friends, we're talking and laughing, and planning tomorrow's ride, we're going up the coast tomorrow, going to just have another fantastic day, Labor Day weekend, there will be no cars out and it will just be us. And I come around the last turn, to the house I've lived in for the last 30 years in my hometown of San Diego, standing on the side of the road are the neighborhood teenagers, I give them a nice wide berth, ‘hi, how you doing? Great to see you.' As I come by, a teenage boy to impress the girls, he jumps on his skateboard and comes right at me. Puts on a fancy move but then loses control, kicks off his skateboard and runs off. His skateboard comes flying into me, I fight it off with my front wheel, now the skateboard is underneath me, it's under my tire, into my chain, into my pedals, and bam I crash down on my side, 10 feet from my front door, in the worst bicycle accident of my life. For a guy whose nickname - Crash-in the cycling world. I'm lying on the street and I can't get up. For the last six weeks, I've been unable to walk, unable to sleep, unable to ride my bike, unable to get up and down out of a chair. And yesterday I was at a luncheon with the great Tony Hawk and I'm sitting there with him and I told him the story, ‘Tony , I know forgiveness will set you free. But the quandary I'm facing is I want to know whether I should go next door to this teenage boy's house and strange him or if I should come over there and punch you in the nose.' So that's how my health is. 

Damned Luck.

As George Mikan told me when I first joined the NBA, we had a game and he was there, ‘Bill, you know it’s funny, the harder I worked, the luckier I got.’

What’s pulled you through all of this?

I think the hardest part is the way it devastates your family because there was one day, and you’ll see that with the Special Olympian family tonight at the Governer’s Ball, it really came true to me. I spent my life in a doctor’s office and hospitals. There was a time in the rollercoaster ride in the last 2 and ½ years that I was doing great. A year ago at this time I was able to ride my bike 100 miles a day, I would have signed up, I would have signed up on the spot to be this healthy the rest of my life. I was fine.

I just forgot what I was going to say…

Oh, so I’m in the doctor’s office saying goodbye, I’m not coming back here. This was more than a year ago. As I’m leaving I look around and everybody there, body casts, erector sets, and they’re all in tears, ‘Bill, how’d you get better? How’d you do it without surgery?” I looked at the patients and their family members and the family members were worse. And this year when I had my operation on February 8, and I’m trying to come back and trying to fight back, and getting all the calls, and all the support, and all the love, and you’re so down and you’re so low that you turn your back on your friends because you just don’t think you’re going to make it. They’re trying so hard to give it to you. And then Maurice Lucas had his bladder surgery and he’s two months behind me. And I’m at the bottom and I’m calling him to try to feel better because that’s how bad it was for Maurice. Those of you who have the great fortune and privilege to know Maurice, you know the power in his voice, you know the incredible force of his persona, you know the incredible spirit of his remarkable human being. To hear the weakness, to hear the pain, to hear the suffering in your best friend, and the namesake of your child, that is a devastating and horrific feeling. But my friends have pulled me through. And I’m back in the game and I’m back on the team. And I couldn’t be happier.

Do you foresee as you improve taking a more active role with this organization?

I’m a Trail Blazer for life. The Trail Blazers have always treated me better than I’ve deserved. I wish I could reciprocate. This is a flagship franchise and the people here are so very, very special. It’s a true testament to what this franchise is all about. So many of the guys say, ‘hey, this is where I’m going to live. This is where I’m going to make my life from now on.’ You’re always part of the Trail Blazer family, once you’ve played for them. It’s a privilege, it’s an honor, we’re the lucky ones, we’re so fortunate. At the end of the day, when you’re old like I am, sitting back, and thinking, ‘I’m a member of the Trail Blazer family,’ it doesn’t get any better than that.” 

What’s your favorite team and favorite coach?

I have learned over my 56 years to never compare, contrast, rank or rate coaches, children, championships, concerts. Savor the moment. This morning when I’m standing outside the Mission Valley YMCA at 4:28 AM waiting for them to open that door at 4:30, talking to another one of the guys who is in the battle, I told him I’m going up to Portland, today is #250 since my spinal fusion surgery, it’s my second plane trip, going up there to see Maurice, see Bobby, see Bill Schonely, see all the guys, it’s going to be fantastic. I never thought I’d make it but day 250 and I’m on my way. He looked at me and said, ‘don’t count the days. Make the days count.’

I’m just going to savor every moment of this fantastic weekend. The Trail Blazers have been so kind, so generous, to help me come back and have my dreams come true. To be able to spend time here, go to practice tomorrow, go to practice on Sunday, go to the banquets tonight and tomorrow night, to be a part of the tipoff, and the Make it Better campaign, and all the different things we’re going to be participating in, go back to the old neighborhoods, go to the Multnomah Athletic Club and take a nice soak in the Jacuzzi there. I’m going to enjoy this, believe me.

Today is the 16th so exactly 2 weeks ago today, I’m in the weight room in my back yard, in my garage, the same weight room where in February of 1990 where I was still thinking I could play basketball, still working out, still feeling good all the time, I hadn’t played in 3 years, I was having operating every 3 months so I could get back, and I’m pushing that bar, ‘Jabbar! Shaq! Ewing! Hakeem! David Robinson!’ and I’m coming to get them.  I’m just dreaming, sweat pouring off me, I’ve got Jerry Garcia, Bob Dylan and Neil Young just blasting on the stereo and I’m on fire, and it’s just perfect, and what could be better? I know I’m going to be back in the game soon. I finally had enough, closing down the weight room, turning off the music, closing the garage door, walking back across the yard to the house and halfway across I had to go down to my hands and knees because I couldn’t walk anymore, because I couldn’t take another step, I had to crawl across the back yard, I had to go to the phone and call my friend and ask him to please find crutches because I couldn’t walk anymore.  Six weeks later I had my ankle fused.   Two weeks ago today I’m in that same weight room and blasting, ‘I’m going to Oregon, I’m going up here to the Governor’s gold award dinner, I’m going to the Special Olympics fundraiser,I’m going to the Blazer tip off dinner,’ I’m just pumping. I’m finally feeling the rhythm. Yeah, it’s going to happen. All the things that are about to go down, just flashing through the smoking crater. It’s just unbelievable how it’s all starting to come together. I’m listening to Jerry Garcia does Bob Dylan, it’s an unbelievable CD, and ‘The Visions of Johanna’ comes on. “And it just like the wind to play tricks when you’re trying to be so quiet. And these  visions of Johanna kept me up past the dawn.” For the first time in 2 ½ years tears of joy are streaming down my face. I’m the luckiest man on earth to be here in the Bill Schonely Media Room.

What was your question? I'm sorry.

What was the event?

It was a speech, a corporate speech.

I used to call the Coach from the airport every day, from the airport every day. We’d talk about so many fun things. What it was like for him to grow up before they invented electricity. What it was like to grow up on the family farm with Abe Lincoln. What it was like when Lewis and Clark came by and his dad wouldn’t let him go on the trip.

He just turned 99 on Wednesday. I got him on the phone. This morning I left a message for him. I said, ‘hey Coach, I’m at the airport.’

I never thought I would be making those phone calls.

Do you still dream basketball?

Yes, I do. I’m just so happy that I can dream about better tomorrows. I would love to play one more game. But then I’d want to play another one, and another one. But I’ll take one. I’ll take one.

Without the dream, without the hope, what do we really have. That’s why the Blazermaniacs are just so unbelievable, because they give you that hope. That lady at the airport, there’s nothing like that. When they come up to you and say, “I was there. I was there.’ Oh my  gosh. 

 

 

Maurice Lucas said that the team in 1978 was better than the championship team.

Oh, much better. Because we understood what the coach was trying to say. When I came up here 35 years ago, Coach Wooden called up Harry Glickman and said, ‘watch out, this guy Walton is the slowest learner I ever had.’

I remember, and I don’t know if anyone else remembers… I think it was on the 25th anniversary of something. You know how they have the half court shot if you make it you win a car? They had Maurice Lucas shoot it, and he made it! There was no way! I was broadcasting the game! It was just…it has been… you talk about a long, strange trip… that was one of the greatest days ever. Maurice has never made a half court shot and he made it in front of everybody with a suit and tie on! Come on! The harmonic convergence just so perfect.

Will you stay for Sunday’s game?

No. I will be on the airplane going home Sunday night. I’ll be here until Sunday night. I’m just hoping that Bill Schonely will be calling it on the radio again. Bill Schonely, you talk about Maurice Lucas being the greatest Blazer of them all, but Bill Schonely is the most important Trail Blazer ever. He’s the bridge. He’s the bridge between the players and the fans. Without Bill Schonely there is no Portland Trail Blazers. I’m so glad he’s doing so well. He’s been down that road before himself.  He’s faced it all. You talk about a patient man. Everybody who had to put up with me for all those years, oh gosh.

What are some of the places here in town you’d like to visit?

I’m going to get around. The Blazers were so kind and generous to get me a very nice car. Everything any person could ever dream of, the Blazers have jumped on. They’ve gone above and beyond. I’m going to go back to the old neighborhoods. I’ve got some friends and relatives in town I’m going to see. Some of those friends are here in this room right now. I’m going to see all the old houses, Wallace Park, go down the parade route, go down to the old Paramount Theatre, where I first met the Grateful Dead personally. Multnomah Athletic Club, Nature’s Food and Tool, up and down the Willamette River, hope to get out to the gorge a little bit. It’s a very special place in my life. You folks are incredibly fortunate to live in such a majestic, beautiful and wonderful place. I’m just really sad that I don’t get to spend more of my life here.

 

-- Ben (benjamin.golliver@gmail.com)

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