Walton played for the Portland Trail Blazers from 1974-1979 and help lead the franchise to its only World Championship in 1977. You can find Walton at BillWalton.com, on Twitter, on Facebook, and commentating for the Pac-12 Network and ESPN.
Almost without exception, celebrity autobiographies suffer from a lack of depth perception. Assuming that readers are interested in who they are as much as what they do, stars and starlets regale us with interminable chapters about the voting process of the Screen Actors Guild or their quest to save rare Peruvian tree sloths...no doubt integral to their lives but of marginal interest to others. Subjects people actually care about (revolving around the profession for which the author is famous) get shunted to the side or skipped over entirely in favor of pet causes and musings.
If Bill Walton doesn't avoid this pitfall in his 2016 offering Bill Walton: Back from the Dead, at least he inverts it. Instead of drilling deep into trivialities, the former NBA superstar offers a broad, surface view of significant events and people from his childhood to the present day. It's a spectacular life viewed through a glass-bottomed boat. The progression is crystal clear. The author shines plenty of sunlight through the floor; the reader never has to guess what he's talking about or how he feels about it. But there's also a lack of intimacy, a lingering suspicion that the critical figures and times on display are carved cutouts posed to resemble reality rather than reveal it. The diorama is fascinating but you never get the sense that you're really among the wildlife.
The approach threatens to drift into superficiality when Walton tackles themes that require subtlety and depth: politics, interpersonal relationships, even Walton's own struggles with depression. The major storyline of the book's first nine chapters is his dance with UCLA Coach John Wooden, considered by many the greatest basketball mind of all time but starting to lose touch with his players and the times in Walton's era. The proud, tragic saga of a great coach and great player striving to find union when one is just rising (and knows nothing) and the other just fading (and relates less well than he did) begs to be teased out. Instead Walton describes the situation, offers a couple of thin and humorous anecdotes, then quickly transitions into praising the man Wooden had been in his prime and the father figure he became in his elderly years...all complexity abandoned.
Hearing the entirety of the Vietnam conflict described through a student rally which seemed pretty cool to the author is disconcerting. Walton refers to his views on the war and claims they were right, but never delves into what they were (besides "against it"), how they mattered in the bigger picture, or what the bigger picture was. Walton's treatment of family members and friends reveals deep affection that never finds its third dimension. At one point he introduces a friend, describes that friend's function in his life, then tells us two pages later that the man died...an attempt at tribute morphed into an example of how bad things were going for Bill at the time. Either way, the narrative reduced a person's existence to two paragraphs centered on the author...nearly cringe-worthy.
In all cases Walton's swing is sound and the intent clear, but he tries to hit medicine balls with a toothpick. The mass and gravity of certain subjects demand special treatment. When they don't get it, the topic drops with a thud. Those echo through the pages of this story.
(Consumers of Walton's television commentary will know that his pronouncements are accompanied by large doses of hyperbole...largely absent from his book. Ironically it would have helped leaven attempts at sincerity that fall flat.)
However...and this is a HUGE "however"...that malady is confined to the deepest and most intimate subjects of the tome. When the seabed rises close to the bottom of the boat in topics like musical tastes, living in Southern California, and basketball, Walton's broad beams of energy and passion reverberate off the floor, bouncing back to the reader in an experience that's far beyond the norm for such discussions.
If you're reading Bill Walton's autobiography chances are you're interested in basketball. Nobody makes you long for the beauty of the game, respect its power, and see through to its deeper meaning like Walton does. Gone are the slick veneer and the curiously-chosen viewpoints. The reader is fully present in a revelatory transformation that changes a life and, through that life, entire communities. At no time is basketball a job for Walton. Paychecks don't matter. Basketball is life, a living, breathing relationship between the guys in the locker room, displayed for all to see, with success as the ultimate barometer of technique and commitment.
For Walton a concert is not just a concert, a bike ride is not just a bike ride, gyms and swimming pools are not just buildings. The author has a gift for showing how things most people take for granted are vitally important, intended to give life and hope. The engine powering that million-megawatt realization is his heart. In simple moments it shows through clearly.
Trail Blazers fans will enjoy Walton recounting his transition into the NBA and the glorious championship season he experienced in Portland. Aside from the weather, he says wonderful things about the city, its people, his teammates, and Jack Ramsay. Trail Blazers forward Maurice Lucas--a lifelong friend for whom Bill's son Luke is named--gets special adoration. Of all Walton's anecdotes, the ones about Lucas are the funniest and most touching...the closest he comes to his trademark cavalier hyperbole conveying affection.
Maurice was a combination of Eddie Murphy and Jamie Foxx. It was hilariously funny. There is nothing like being on a team. And I've never known anyone better at pulling the team together than Maurice Lucas.
Maurice was also very into the business aspects of professional basketball. In those early days of the shoe company battles for supremacy Maurice was playing all sides of the game. At one point he had three different shoe deals--all at the same time. Nike, Puma, and adidas.
Maurice would send the ball boy who took care of our locker room out into the arena before the game to find out which one of the company reps was there that night. And then Maurice would dress accordingly.
Walton's Portland days are peppered with plenty of oddball stories on and off the court. Most know about his bike-riding proclivities and his run-in with the feds over suspicions of being in league with the Symbionese Liberation Army, but Walton apparently insisted on spending one summer working as a professional lumberjack...an aspiration in which the Blazers ended up assisting him. (Imagine how that would fly today!) Where most autobiographies force the reader to view the past through the milky film of nostalgia, Walton lets the audience marvel in the crisp slap of a different era, as amazed as they that he got through it all.
Not that everything is sunshine and roses. Walton is unstinting with criticism when he senses injustice or selfishness afoot. He spends paragraphs filleting UCLA teammate Tommy Curtis, whom he describes as a, "self-centered, overdribbling, statistically-oriented, loudmouthed, foul-mouthed fool...a shoot-first gunner with an individual agenda that revolved around nonsense". Walton all but blames Curtis for the team's decline and fall in 1974 and kicks him out of the narrative unceremoniously after that fateful chapter.
If Curtis receives Walton's most biting criticism, his most emotional and tear-stained is reserved for the Trail Blazers medical staff who not only failed to diagnose his chronic foot problems but told him they were all in his head. Following the company line, Portland fans echoed those opinions at the time...a source of grief for the young Walton which still stings. Meanwhile Blazers management--whom Walton treats with reserve if not disdain--constantly urged him to play through the pain, to last one more quarter, to win one more game.
Halfway through the book Walton takes his readers into a locker room where needles full of pain-killers were jabbed into his foot, then continues to describe the heart-wrenching breakdown of his body and its attendant consequences (loss of purpose, loss of mobility, depression, and his leg bone literally sliding off his foot) for the rest of the pages. In this area seriousness and Walton's capacity to narrate meet, as nobody else knows the pain of his bodily betrayal like he does. Autobiography finds rare purity as Walton becomes both subject and artist, brokenness and the search for justification mixing on his palette.
Walton's NBA saga continues through San Diego and L.A. with the Clippers (whose management he lambastes without reservation, former owner Donald Sterling in particular), ending with the Boston Celtics. Emerging from the pond-scum bath of Sterling bouncing checks then suing anyone who claimed he owed them, Walton's tenure with the Celts seems like nirvana by comparison. It was his great professional redemption and he describes Boston, and Larry Bird in particular, with great fondness. As the story winds on Walton gives readers a peek into his emergence as a broadcaster, then plunges them into a cycle of despair and new hope as he undergoes innumerable surgeries and finds fulfillment in charity work.
Walton's carefully-nurtured thesis can be summed as: life is supposed to be glorious, beautiful, and packed with communal discovery but reality seldom lives up to that ideal. Again and again he tries to build John Wooden's pyramid of success, only to watch the foundation crumble around him. Wooden's final admission that he left the most important component out of the pyramid--love--provides the guiding light that steers Walton onward in his later years and gives him hope despite the pain.
For the basketball aficionado, applying that lesson to the NBA is Walton's masterstroke. He expresses varied opinions on the people he encountered in the NBA but never praises or criticizes the league as a whole. One suspects that this is not oversight but an underlying conviction that the NBA is a machine, caring less about criticism, praise, or ideals than about propagating itself. That beautiful basketball and transcendent moments emerge from the machine justifies its existence, but those are side effects. The same machine will also grind up its members without caring if they approach it incautiously. This serves as a reality check to players and idealistic fans alike. It also drives home Walton's point that goodness must come from noble individuals defining systems rather than supposedly noble systems demanding that individuals conform. The NBA isn't glorious because of statistical measures, dollar signs, or front office decisions, but because it provides the stage from which the greatness of Kareem, Wilt, Jordan, and Bird can be viewed and appreciated.
When the Grateful Dead want to cut a 40-minute track and the record company insists on a 3:30 pop hit to pay the bills, the band is all that matters. Music is the art and the people who create it our spiritual mentors. Everything else is just noise and idolatry. Whether you're on the court, on stage, or in the streets, fighting for a lie is ridiculous but fighting for truth and beauty is worth any cost. Training, study, and preparation exist to teach us the difference.
So runs the story of an unconventional champion.
Bill Walton: Back from the Dead is mandatory reading for Trail Blazers, Celtics, and perhaps Clippers fans and highly recommended for NBA fans in general. It should also be required reading for training and sports medicine professionals, not because of its specific descriptions but because it puts the reader in the shoes of the injured athlete, describing the combination of fear and drive that they face. The pairing of identity and physical health in Walton's narrative is particularly striking. High-level athletes aren't like the rest of us and Walton embodies that distinction.
For everyone else the book is an entertaining enough read to consider picking up. Like Portland's lone championship season it doesn't take long to digest, but some of the stories will linger long after the last page has been turned.