I read Bill Walton‘s autobiography Back from the Dead on Saturday after my long run. It was a good one and does a great job of capturing a complicated life filled with super high peaks and extremely low valleys.
I was into basketball as a pre-teen. I played forward for a little while but really settled into my role as a guard. I played until junior high school when I stopped playing soccer and basketball and focused entirely on tennis, which lasted until high school when I smashed my last wood racquet on the court. After that, I ran track and cross country and really began my love of long distance running.
I dug Bill Walton when he played for the Trail Blazers. My team as a little kid was the Dallas Chaparrals until the ABA blew up. I didn’t really have a team again until I moved to Boston to go to college, so I just liked individual players. When I eventually stopped paying attention to basketball in high school, even though the Dallas Mavericks were now my home town team (and I won a Dallas Mavericks college scholarship for $1,000 for some reason I can’t remember), I lost touch with pretty much all the players. So it was fun to see Walton re-appear in my junior year at MIT on the Boston Celtics, which re-energized my interest in basketball a tiny bit (it didn’t hurt that the Celtics were completely dominant in 1986.)
In Back from the Dead Walton covers his years playing at UCLA, Phoenix, and Boston in great detail. He also talks about his time on the San Diego – and then LA Clippers – which includes some scathing commentary on the craziness and misery that was the team under Donald Sterling in its early years.
The basketball stories, especially some of the detailed history, is fun to read. I’ve always enjoyed sports history from a first person point of view of a player, and Walton doesn’t disappoint. But that’s simply the foundation for the book.
Walton’s basketball brilliance is interspersed with endless injuries. He talks about them in detail – initially the physical struggles, but then the mental struggles as the pain as well as the time recovering and rebuilding grows. He doesn’t complain, but shows a vulnerable side in his description of his struggles. For a period of time, he’s at the top and bottom of the game at almost the same time, fighting through the injuries until they overwhelm his ability to recover and he finally retires.
He then goes through his career as a sportscaster. Mixed throughout is his love for and journeys with the Grateful Dead. And then his spine breaks, ESPN fires him gratuitously (they eventually rehire him under new management, but he skims over this), and a very long recovery begins.
At this point, you can feel Walton’s pain. Sure – the physical pain is there, but the emotional pain is profound. And his writing about it is powerful. And clean. And clear.
He gets through it and ends the book filled with love and joy and the energy that bubbles throughout his early playing days. Overall, the book is a powerful reminder of this complicated thing we call life and how hard it can be, even when you are at the top.