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Joy is a key indicator of a healthy spirituality. Joy, in its classic sense, is not a synonym for happiness, but instead refers to zest for life. You can have an underlying zest for life whether you are happy or whether you are sad. — Pierre Teilhard de Chardin

Since Bill Walton passed on Monday at the chronological age of 71, his spiritual age being somewhere between then and immortal, many stories have been told and almost all of them begin with some variant of, "Everybody has a Bill Walton story. This is mine." So many people pass through their lives without touching anyone else’s. Between technology and the pandemic and a national zeitgeist that has traded commonwealth for angry solipsism, there are more of those people among us than ever before. So, in keeping with the trend of the day, and in tribute to the life of someone who went out of his way to touch as many other lives as possible during his time among us, this is my Bill Walton story. 

Two of them, actually.

In 2008, we both attended the memorial service for the son of a mutual friend. At the reception afterwards, he sat at our table. He asked me what I had been working on. At the time, my book, Idiot America, was an idea struggling to become a concept. I tried to explain it to him. His face was wide open, as if to subsume everything I was saying. Finally, I gave him the pitch that I’d been using somewhat desperately to editors and to anyone who asked: "It’s a book about the consequences of believing nonsense."

He paused, briefly, and then took out a small notebook from an inside pocket. "The consequence of believing nonsense," he said. "I like that." For the first time, my formless notion of what the book would be began to take shape in my own mind because I had found someone who understood even better than I did what the project would try to say. I had found my first audience, and it was Bill Walton, because he asked me and waited for the answer.

On that same afternoon, my wife and I fell into conversation with Bill and his wife, Lori. My brother-in-law happened to be headed to San Diego for a job interview. My brother-in-law is 6-foot-10, which makes him perhaps the second-tallest Grateful Dead fan in history. Bill and Lori almost immediately offered to put him up during his stay, even though, at the time, Bill was living with chronic back pain. And, if you’re keeping score at home, that is by my calculations at least three more lives touched by Bill Walton’s wide-ranging spirit, and that’s not even counting all the people who read the book that first took shape because he saw it to be worthwhile even before its author did.

The dunk was illegal in college basketball between 1967 and 1976, which almost precisely tracked the careers of Bill Walton and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar at UCLA. (There was that two-year interregnum in which the Bruins won the NCAA championship anyway.) The ban was prompted—clearly and unfairly—by the fact that the then-Lew Alcindor was virtually unguardable. In retrospect, however, the rule, while stupid, did give us Kareem’s skyhook, one of basketball’s most indelible images. It also gave us the glorious, multi-faceted excellence of a healthy Bill Walton’s game.

In 1973, I was sitting in the television lounge of the 11th floor of McCormick Hall at Marquette University. Sitting next to me was Maurice Lucas, who was my next-door neighbor down the hall, and who later would become Walton’s running buddy in the season-and-a-half when the Portland Trail Blazers were virtually unbeatable. We watched as Walton unleashed his entire arsenal on poor Larry Kenon and Memphis State. Jump shots, out of perfect form and softly off the backboard. Post moves like dance steps to a music only he could hear. He made defenders inconsequential. He made them disappear. He hit a preposterous 21 of 22 field goals and scored 44 points. At one point, I looked over at Lucas and he was right there in St. Louis, defending this brilliant array in his mind.

A year later, Luke and Marquette made the Final Four. They played Kansas. The other game had UCLA and North Carolina State. It remains the best college basketball game I ever saw. The Bruins had won seven NCAA championships in a row, which nobody is ever going to do again. Here, though, they blew a big lead in regulation and, more spectacularly, a seven-point lead in the second overtime. Walton played all 50 minutes and put up 29 points and 18 rebounds, but my lasting image is of his turning off one of those glossy post moves only to find David Thompson chilling up by the rim, waiting for him.

Truth be told, a lot of us were rooting for Marquette to get UCLA in the final game rather than NC State, which would be playing in front of a hometown rave-up in Greensboro. There was something unstrung about the Bruins at that point. They had passed the one crucial step beyond John Wooden’s control. The two teams that won the most games in the 1970s were UCLA and Marquette. But, somehow, they never played each other during that span. That Bill Walton and Al McGuire never competed in the same arena makes me wonder if the universe was asleep at the switch. But, much later, in the 1990s at some Final Four, I was talking to Lucas when I spotted Walton at the other end of the hallway. I told Lucas to stay where he was and ran to get Bill. I practically dragged him down the hall and, when he and Lucas saw each other, there was an explosion of affection that almost brought the walls down. I backed off. This was taking place in a different reality, and it was not a place for me.

When Father Teilhard wrote about how a zest for life can grow joy no matter if you were happy or sad, this is what he had in mind. There was pain in Bill Walton’s life. He grew up with a terrible stutter, and there were a lot of stories about how chilly he was that were the legacy of his reluctance to speak in public. His body—specifically, his feet—persisted in betraying him, and there were a lot of stories that blamed his alternative lifestyle for his "brittleness," and even more about how he might have been faking it. And there was the whole episode with the Scotts, and what was left of the Symbionese Liberation Army, and the abduction of Patty Hearst, that drew the FBI into his life. There were a lot of stories about how he was a subversive, and this was back in a time of history in which the FBI was not shy about framing people through the press. For all the stories since his passing about how media-friendly Walton was, there was a time in which the press was far friendlier to the G-men than they were to him. He beat all that pain. He overcame it all. Ultimately, his zest for life proved indomitable.

Boston turned out to be his balm, which is not something that can be said about this city and many other people. It healed his relationship with basketball. It healed his relationship with the press and the public. It healed him and it made him well enough to open himself up, fully and finally, to the rest of his fellow humans. Part of it was just that his feet worked with him for the first time in a decade. Part of it was the remarkable cast of tough-minded wiseacres that was waiting for him at practice. Nothing was sacred; Kevin McHale was merciless on the whole Patty Hearst business. Larry Bird was Larry Bird, a Hall of Fame talker of smack, who found in his childhood idol a target-rich environment. And nobody in Boston was happier than Bill Walton. He settled in Cambridge, of course, and he quickly became a bicycling god in and around the People’s Republic, but he turned up everywhere in town. I don’t even want to guess how many lives he touched here.

And his game was still his game, and he won the Sixth Man Award in 1986. More important, he was a vital part of one of the greatest NBA championship teams of all time. His feet held together and his basketball genius reasserted itself in a supporting role. Putting him on a basketball court with Bird was almost unfair. They communicated on a different level simply because nobody else was there. The scales were finally in balance. The celestial spheres were aligned. The universe was in tune. I can see him now, riding his bicycle along the Charles as the sun went spreading orange across the water at the end of the day. He could be happy, down by the riverside.

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