You are currently viewing We’ll miss Bill Walton the player, the broadcaster and the father who knew best

We’ll miss Bill Walton the player, the broadcaster and the father who knew best

By TOM SHANAHAN

The first time I met the late-great Bill Walton — other than the confines of player-reporter exchange in an NBA locker room — was at cozy Walton Garden.

Walton Garden consisted of a glass backboard hanging over the home’s two-car garage in the shadow of the San Diego Zoo. The concrete court was obscured from the street by 7-foot-high hedges parallel to the street. The other out of bounds, so to speak, was the house’s wall with a side door.

This was no fancy court a father built to groom his kids. The lighting was nothing more than fixtures on the house and the garage. This was backyard basketball — other than concession to the glass backboard.

I visited Walton Garden in 1994 to write a story for the San Diego Union-Tribune on Bill and his four basketball-playing sons: Adam, 12th grade, Nate, 10th, Luke, 8th; and Chris 6th.

Time spent with Bill Walton’s undefinable personality becomes engrained in anyone, and media members are recounting their tales following unexpected news of Walton’s death from colon cancer. He died Monday at age 71.

He was a two-time NCAA champion at UCLA and two-time NBA champion with the Portland Trailblazers and Boston Celtics. Then, he took his legacy to another level as a broadcaster the past 20-plus years. He was a national treasure.

My story, though, is a little different — highlighting Bill the father — than the others flooding the Internet and cable shows.

On that warm winter night, Union-Tribune photographer Jim Baird and I came around the corner of the hedges, and there was Bill standing ramrod straight with his back to the house. His ankles were fused by then so there was no joining the action.

Before him were Adam, Nate and Luke taking shots and randomly matching up for one-on-one challenges. Bill called the play by play in rapid fire fashion. All that was missing was a microphone in his hand. Not that it was needed. Bill’s voice was clearly audible.

All of the sudden Chris emerged from the house to take the court. He grabbed a pass from one of his brothers and nailed his first shot from deep.

“And Chris Walton comes into the game on fire,” Walton announced dramatically.

But this driveway court scene wasn’t about an over-zealous youth league father drilling his sons on the sport that made dad famous and rich. He wasn’t correcting fundamentals or demanding certain drills repeated.

Bill’s only corrective instruction was to remind his sons to be courteous. When the boys got a little squirrely, making it hard for more me to ask questions or Baird to get quality photos, Bill said, “Come on, boys. These guys are working.”

This was Bill Walton perfecting his new career as a broadcaster, thanks to famed broadcaster Marty Glickman curing him of his life-long speech impediment. He had started with CBS in 1990 and later worked at ESPN covering the NBA and college basketball.

The Walton Gang picked up basketball on their own. They didn’t need dad pushing them. Adam played at LSU, Nate at Princeton, Luke at Arizona and Chris at San Diego State. Dad never insisted they play for his beloved UCLA. Luke went on to play in the NBA, winning two titles with the Los Angeles Lakers, and served as a head coach with the Lakers and Sacramento Kings.

Bill’s first wife, Susie Guth, whom he met at UCLA, said Bill was adamant the boys didn’t feel they needed to follow him into basketball. Susie said when Adam was still a toddler and they lived in Portland during Bill’s days with Trailblazers, a family friend brought over a Nerf basketball set. Bill came home, saw it and quickly put it away.

“I thought that was a bit much,” said Susie, although her anecdote emphatically made Bill’s stance clear.

After all, Bill knew what awaited his sons. More than once Adam, who had to clear the path for his brothers while playing at Torrey Pines High in San Diego, heard fans shout, “You’re no Bill Walton.”

Who was (besides Kareem Abdul-Jabbar or Bill Russell)?

But when the boys, with their size, naturally gravitated to basketball, Susie was eager to support them as a sports mom. She had her own family history. When I wrote a story about mom’s role, she told me she grew up loving sports in the pre-Title IX area without support from her family. She relied on her friends’ parents to get her to sports events.

Susie said she vowed she’d drive her kids and others in the neighborhood anytime, anywhere. She spent their youth sports years crisscrossing Southern California.

When the story appeared in print, she called me to thank me.

“Tom, one of my girlfriends called said, ‘Susie, I can’t believe it. You finally got credit for the boys’ basketball.’”

That’s not to say Bill didn’t support their basketball. Luke told me about Bill driving home the boys from a camp in Utah. Naturally, the Grateful Dead and Bob Dylan tapes played on the car stereo.

It wasn’t the boys’ type of music, but Luke said by the time they got home, he said, “Hey Dad, that Bob Dylan guy is pretty cool.”

Another reason Bill felt his boys could find sports without being pushed was his own childhood. He often said his parents, Ted and Gloria, weren’t sports-minded, but Bill and his older brother Bruce, who died in 2019, fell in love with sports while attending Blessed Sacrament, a K-through-8 Catholic school in San Diego. A parishioner named Rocky Graciano coached Blessed Sacrement kids throughout the sports calendar changing with the seasons.

I wrote a story on Bruce in 2017 for the National Football Foundation about Walton as a football name first, and Bruce told me, “Rocky is no longer with us, but Bill rings his bell every time he has the opportunity.”

Another time I interviewed Bill we talked about the value of high school coaches. I told him my high school coaches were terrible. I added I assumed everyone’s coaches were like mine until I was a sportswriter in San Diego and saw the impact so many great coaches had on kids.

Bill said his experience was the opposite. He thought everyone had great coaches — as he had at Helix High with Gordon Nash and at UCLA with John Wooden — until he got to the NBA and learned otherwise from his teammates.

Bruce and Bill were basketball teammates at Helix, although Bruce’s UCLA sport was football as an All-American offensive lineman. Bruce played three NFL seasons with the Dallas Cowboys, including Super Bowl X, a loss to Pittsburgh.

Bill and Bruce are the only brothers to play in both an NBA championship and NFL championship, the Super Bowl.

“Bill loves to tell people that,” Bruce told me in that 2017 interview.

There are so many Bill Walton stories. Allow me to finish in a way I never could have anticipated.

Bill Walton was my favorite player when I played high school basketball in Michigan. I lived for every chance there was to watch UCLA on TV in the days long before cable games were ever-present. My senior year I mimicked one of Bill’s antics responding to the crowd.

Bill more than once told me he was lucky to have friends like me. Sure, he said that to a lot of people, but I still treasured the words. Then came this unexpected surprise when I asked if he’d endorse my new book, “THE RIGHT THING TO DO, The True Pioneers of College Football Integration in the 1960s.”

I knew how Bill felt about scourge of racism in America and the book would interest him, but I didn’t expect him to put so much thought and effort into a blurb.

And then, when the early obituaries hit the media on Monday, I couldn’t have been more honored when a friend a Michigan State college friend living in Chicago emailed me a story posted in The Athletic/New York Times. The report cited a quote from Walton that I had used in a story about college athletes in 2020 protesting as support of Black Lives Matter. My story cited when Walton was arrested for protesting the Vietnam War in 1972.

The passage: Walton told author Tom Shanahan that he believed in peaceful protests then, and always.

“Protesting is what gets things done,” Walton said. “The drive for positive change requires action. The forces of evil don’t just change their ways.”

Wow. How did I get to be part of saying goodbye to Big Bill in a national outlet?

Another friend in from my hometown of Big Rapids, Michigan, had easy answer.

“It was an excellent quote that captured who he was.”

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I invite you to follow me on Twitter @shanny4055

David Maraniss: “History writes people out of the story. It’s our job to write them back in.”

Responses from Ken Burns and Howell Raines when I expressed my frustration with myths and fiction about Bear Bryant overshadowing the true stories of college football integration.

Burns, award-winning filmmaker: “Keep plowing ahead.”

Raines: Former New York Times executive editor: “Straightening out history is an endless task.”

Below are links to click on to purchase my books focused.

My books tell the true story of college football integration in the 1960s and address the myths and fiction that allowed a false narrative surrounding the 1970 USC-Alabama game to usurp the credit from the true pioneers. As I said when I spoke at the National Sports Media Association book festival, no two books provide an accurate portrayal more than RAYE OF LIGHT and THE RIGHT THING TO DO.

I’ll put my facts up against anybody, anytime, anywhere. Watch here.

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Click here for my story on the 1962 Rose Bowl and Segregation awarded first place by the Football Writers Association of America. I tell untold stories on Michigan State’s leading role and the true pioneers of college football integration. Click here to read the summary as a first-place story.

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Click here to purchase The Right Thing To Do

THE RIGHT THING TO DO

The True Pioneers of College Football Integration in the 1960s

Foreword by Ruffin McNeill

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Click here to purchase Raye of Light.

RAYE OF LIGHT

Jimmy Raye, Duffy Daugherty, the 1ntegration of College Football and the 1965-66 Michigan State Spartans

Foreword by Tony Dungy

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Click here to purchase my children’s book, Bubba’s Dad, Duffy and College Football’s Underground Railroad

The book for now is only a Kindle version on Amazon. Print and audio platforms available soon.

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My next children’s book coming soon: How Duffy Put Hawaii on the Football Map

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