Tuesday, May 17, 2016

Bill Walton: A San Diego Hero Who Keeps on Giving

In 1983, I accepted a position as communications director for the San Diego-Imperial Chapter of the March of Dimes. Over the next three years, I would work with numerous celebrities like Jonas Salk, Marion Ross, Hal Linden, Tom Selleck, Dan Fouts, Steve Garvey, TV news anchors, and elected officials, who donated their time to charity causes. But it was during my first week on the job, when I delivered an award to an athlete unable to attend the annual dinner, I met perhaps the most impressive celebrity I would encounter throughout my career. Bill Walton, who played basketball for the San Diego Clippers from 1979-1985 (Bill Walton NBA Bio), was a giant at six-foot-eleven, but his height shrunk in comparison to his heart. I was thrilled when he gave me tickets to attend the game that night. Little did I know, he was the one who always gave, still gives, and will never stop giving.

Charlie Neumann: San Diego Union-Tribune
Walton's astounding career achievements were the result of years of blood, sweat, guts, doctors, and broken bones. He entered the pros as a stand out player with enormous promise, but dozens of injuries starting at Helix High School in La Mesa and continuing for decades throughout his career (and beyond) led to one of the most acclaimed, but erratic bios in NBA history. The professional arc is littered with absences caused by the injuries and surgeries, but propelled by superhuman courage to rebound. Underneath it all, Walton never allowed the setbacks to stop him from giving his all, at the goal line or the donor line.

The recipient of countless awards and accolades, he's often remembered as the UCLA superstar and boisterous, outspoken redhead and Grateful Dead super-fan who wore tie-died shirts before he evolved into the more mature man of legendary fame as an uncompromising competitor and community icon. Never one to seek recognition for his charitable work, Walton's passionate support of other athletes, local charities, and scores of people whose names you've never heard reveal the true man. For so many reasons, it's pure gratification to see the Bill Walton bronze statue unveiled this weekend in Mission Bay. An exuberant figure stands next to a bicycle with arms outstretched. The image is one of sheer joy, a symbol of Walton's love for San Diego and the golden athlete with the big heart. See the U-T story: Bronzed Bill Walton Is San Diego Gold Standard.

The timing of the statue coincides with the March 22nd publication of Walton's memoir, which you can hear him read (Coach Wooden and UCLA days) in that unique, broadcaster voice at: Back From the Dead by Bill Walton. The book reveals a lifetime of struggles and recoveries, from stuttering as a child and young athlete, to the nonstop injuries and hospitalizations, to 2008, when a collapsed spine left him crawling on the floor for three years. In 2012, Walton publicly regretted that he hadn't been able to help Junior Seau, a friend whose shocking, untimely death was linked to a chronic brain injury caused by football concussions. In an interview about Seau, Walton evokes heartfelt sadness and a palpable memory of his own near suicide: Bill Walton Sad He Couldn't Help Seau.

A rare and revered champion, Bill Walton personifies what it means to never give up and never quit giving. The city of San Diego and thousands more, lucky recipients of his generous heart, give thanks to Bill Walton from the bottom of ours.