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One more honor due Bill Walton: The Presidental Medal of Freedom

By TOM SHANAHAN

President Joe Biden: Please honor Bill Walton with a Presidential Medal of Freedom same as Bill Russell and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar.

Russell received his Meda in 2011 and Abdul-Jabbar in 2016 from President Barack Obama. Walton can join them posthumously following his death on May 27 at age 71 from colon cancer, but this is a suggestion based far beyond sympathy.

They are, after all, considered three of basketball’s greatest centers, having each won multiple NCAA and NBA titles. All three were activists known for their social conscious. And they weren’t shy about expressing their opinions, especially in regard to countering racism in America.

But there’s more.

Walton was an American treasure for entertaining us as a sports broadcaster, and, similarly, so was baseball broadcaster Vin Sculley, a 2016 Medal recipient from Obama.

And there is yet another reason that might sound odd at first to make the case Walton earned a seat at the table. Although Walton never served in the military, it’s relevant he died on Memorial Day.

Older Americans who remember the Vietnam War — especially those who served in the military — might be startled by my “relevant” conclusion. They considered Walton a radical or even a communist after he was arrested on May 10, 1972 for protesting the Vietnam War. He sat down in Wilshire Blvd. with other UCLA students just two months after he led the Bruins to the 1972 NCAA title.

But Walton’s critics didn’t understand his protest was meant to prevent more Americans – from his generation — coming home in a body bag. He wanted them to live to honor future Memorial Days instead of being mourned on the solemn national holiday. They had been asked to fight a war with no national security risks to the United States.

Walton believed in the U.S. Constitution – what’s un-American about that? — and his concern was the government wasn’t living up to it. Through the Pentagon Papers, we learned the Johnson and Nixon administrations lied about the conduct of the Vietnam War. And we later understood the Pentagon Papers contributed to another Constitutional crisis, the Watergate scandal.

Who was the un-American?

Conservatives also considered Walton a traitor for his FBI criticism during the Patty Hearst hostage saga. At the time he was an NBA player with the Portland Trailblazers, and his speech impediment hindered communicating his thoughts. This was long before the great broadcaster Marty Glickman helped Walton solve his stutter to launch his own broadcasting career.

Walton liked to say he believed in American values, including the Cadillac he drove when accused of being a radical. Even venerable Los Angeles Times sports columnist Jim Murray, a Pulitzer Prize winner and socially conscious writer ahead of his time (he challenged Alabama coach Bear Bryant on segregation in 1961 on Bryant’s turf) misinterpreted Walton in the 1970s.

Walton and Murray were more alike than different, but that’s not how Murray’s 1978 column during the NBA playoffs turned out.

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Murray’s story:

“How are you coming in your war with the U.S.A.?” I began the general questioning.

Bill Walton talks softly and takes a long time answering—like a guy loading a big gun.

“I am not sure I want to try to answer that question,” he began gently, turning to his inquisitor. “You and I have very different philosophies. I’m not sure we could resolve the differences in a one-hour conversation, or you could explain in a—what is it, a 600-word column.”

“Well,” I continued, “let’s say you entertained some opinions that ran counter to the tide in this country—your FBI stand, for instance.”

“In the circles I hang around in, my ideas are not that counter to the tide,” chided Walton.

“That must make for tranquil evenings,” his interviewer said enviously. “But, tell me, have your values changed, your outlook.”

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Younger athletes and fans who only knew Walton for his unrestrained personality as broadcaster can’t imagine there was a time he was considered anti-American.

When NBA player Wendell Moore Jr. was a junior at Duke in 2020, he organized a Black Lives Matter protest. He was surprised, he told me, to learn about Walton’s Vietnam protests. For a story, I asked Walton what he thought about Moore and other college athletes supporting BLM.

“Protesting is what gets things done,” he told me for a 2020 story. “The drive for positive change requires action. The forces of evil don’t just change their ways.”

Let me ask another who’s un-American question.

Walton wasn’t enshrined in the San Diego Hall of Champions, the county’s Hall of Fame, until 1988. The chairman of the Hall was retired U.S. Admiral Tom Hamilton, who informed board members that Walton would never make the Hall while he was the chairman.

This was the same Tom Hamilton who plotted behind the scenes to have Alabama’s segregated team sneak in the back door of the 1962 Rose Bowl at the expense of the traditional Big Ten entry. But when eight UCLA players threatened to boycott the game and Murray wrote about in the LA Times, the Rose Bowl backed down.

Hamilton was willing to break the rules to invite a football team representing a state and coach still fighting the Civil War. Who was un-American?

Walton, who was always a San Diego icon as athlete dating to his Helix High days, grew into a San Diego icon as a citizen. He and his second wife, Lori, were believed to be involved with supporting more than 100 charities with time and checks.

He raised money for veteran causes. On broadcasts, if a player had parents with a military history, Walton cited it and thanked them for their service. He was involved with the Challenged Athletes Foundation in San Diego for more than 20 years.

And don’t forget the night he showed up dressed as Uncle Sam, January 17, 2017. He joined an ESPN “Voices” program with Jay Bilas, Keyshawn Johnson, Marcellus Wiley and Michelle Beadle to watch Clemson beat Alabama for the 2016 season’s national title.

I asked Bill’s older brother Bruce, who played football at UCLA and with Dallas Cowboys, about the Uncle Sam appearance. Bruce, who died in 2019, watched the straight broadcast oblivious to his brother’s antics.

“My phone blew up,” Bruce said. “People were sending texts about what Bill said. I’m thinking, ‘He said, what!’”

Walton stepped up his civic contributions after he had contemplated suicide in 2009 to escape debilitating back pain. When the pain was ameliorated, he began repeating, “I’m the luckiest man alive.” American was richer with Bill Walton as a basketball player, protestor and broadcaster.

And then there’s the story of Bill Walton, the father who knows best. He never pushed his sons into basketball, but Adam (LSU), Nate (Princeton), Luke (Arizona) and Chris (San Diego State) all played college ball. Luke, of course, went on to an NBA career winning two titles as a player with the Los Angeles Lakers and serving as a head coach of the Lakers and Sacramento Kings.

President Biden, please posthumously present Bill Walton with the Presidential Medal of Freedom.

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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

TAGS: INTERN PROGRAMLARUEN FREELANDMICHIGAN STATE WOMEN’S TRACK

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