Straight Talk with Bill Walton

Oct. 25, 2012

Pauley Pavilion Central

By Larry Stewart

Earlier in this series, I mentioned attending many UCLA basketball games at Pauley Pavilion during the Bill Walton Era in the 1970s. Sometimes I was on assignment for the old Los Angeles Herald Examiner, but mostly I attended the games as a spectator.

My wife and I, who often made the trip to Westwood from our apartment in Encino, were like a lot of fans. We loved watching Walton play. My opinion is that he was the greatest college basketball player ever, with Lew Alcindor a close second.

Alcindor, who later changed his name to Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, had tremendous athletic ability for someone 7 foot-2 inches tall. He was so dominant that the NCAA outlawed the dunk shot in 1967 and what came to be known as the "Lew Alcindor rule" remained in effect for 10 years.

But I give the 7-foot Walton the edge because of his intensity, his play-making ability, his imagination on the court, and a competitive spirit in which he felt losing was total failure. And he had that spirit even though his coach, John Wooden, never talked about winning. What Wooden insisted on was his players doing their best.

You probably know about the Walton-led 88-game winning streak and the 21-of-22 shots in made in the 1973 NCAA Championship game against Memphis State. But did you know Walton had a personal winning streak of 139 dating back to his days at San Diego's Helix High?

However, as much as I loved Walton as a player, in later years I grew to love him as a person.

That was not the case during his UCLA days. As a member of the media, it bothered me that he didn't talk to the press. I believed, like a lot of others, it was because he was arrogant.

I couldn't have been more wrong. He didn't talk to the press - or hardly anyone else - because it was hard for him to talk. Until he was 28, he stuttered so badly that he even had trouble even saying hello.

I think I first met Walton face-to-face in the early 1980s in Dana Point. He was there to tape an episode of the long-running national syndicated series, "Greatest Sports Legends." I was there to write about it.

There were many hosts of that show, including Paul Hornung, Tom Seaver, Reggie Jackson and even Michael Jordan for one year.

Jayne Kennedy was the host for the Walton episode. I recently found it on YouTube. During the taping Kennedy asks Walton if there was another school besides UCLA he was thinking about. Walton says, "Second place was nowhere in sight."

Bill and I talked between takes during the taping at Dana Point, but my most significant interview with him came in February, 1991. It was for my TV-Radio sports column in the Los Angeles Times, where I worked from 1978 to 2008. I wasn't quite sure what to expect.

I had done a phone interview with Abdul-Jabbar around the same time because ESPN was trying him out as a commentator on some Big Sky Conference games. My interview, which had been set up by a publicist, didn't last long; I got mostly brief and bland answers to my questions.

The Walton interview was the polar opposite. I recall a Times colleague, Bill Plaschke, calling me the day the column appeared and saying, "You had a scoop in just about every paragraph."

I did the interview with Walton because prior to the basketball season, he had been hired by Prime Ticket as its UCLA basketball commentator. But we talked about a lot more than just his new job. He opened up about his life, his painful injuries and his inability to speak.

His childhood wasn't always easy, although he came from a loving family.

"In junior high, I was 6-7 and an awkward kid with freckles who stuttered," he told me. "I got teased about everything a kid can get teased about."

His post-playing-days adult life hasn't always been easy either. He has had to endure various ailments, particularly crippling back pain. During my interview in 1991, he told me that a year earlier he had his ankles fused. After that, they were locked in position, and he could no longer run or even jog. However, he could ride a bike and, most importantly, the intense pain was gone.

But mostly we talked about the stuttering problem that had so impacted his life and how he was able to overcome it and get a job in broadcasting.

Coach Wooden used to kid Walton, saying, "Bill, you couldn't speak until you were 28, now you never shut up."

Walton was 38 in 1991. He told me that 10 years earlier he had gotten together with Marty Glickman, who for years worked with NBC sportscasters on such things as proper diction and enunciation. Glickman was, among other things, a voice coach. Walton said his sessions with Glickman in San Diego changed his life.

Glickman was a world-class sprinter who went to the 1936 Olympics in Berlin. But Glickman and teammate Sam Stoller were pulled from the U.S. 400-meter relay team the morning of the race. They were both Jewish. The speculation was that Avery Brundage, the chairman of the U.S. Olympic Committee, had requested that Glickman and Stoller be dropped because of the presence of Adolf Hitler, and Brundage did not want to put the Nazi leader in an embarrassing situation.

Glickman, who went on to the long and successful career in sports broadcasting, had also played basketball at Syracuse in the 1930s. And he later became a friend of Dr. Ernie Vandeweghe, who played basketball at Colgate in the 1940s. Dr. Vandeweghe, the father of former UCLA star Kiki Vandeweghe, was the one who got Walton and Glickman together. The two had a number of sessions over a three-day period in San Diego.

It was after those sessions that Walton began talking more fluently.

"Marty Glickman deserves a lot of credit," Walton said.

I called Glickman at his home in New York to get his reaction.

"I'm surprised Bill even remembers," he said. "I really didn't know that he gives me so much credit, but it is very gratifying to know. What I told Bill is the same thing I've told others who stutter or stammer. That is, `Slow down and collect your thoughts before you speak.' "

Someone else Walton talked a lot about in that 1991 interview was Charlie Jones, a nationally-known sportscaster who lived in La Jolla, not far from Walton's San Diego home.

"I can't say enough about what Charlie has done for me," Walton said.

Also, Jones told me, "We just worked on mechanics. The content is all Bill's. We talked about things such as on-camera presence, and his clothes and his makeup."

I couldn't resist writing this: "Bill Walton concerned about clothes and makeup? Yes, people do change."

Walton told me, "I've matured. I'm still Bill Walton, but life's experiences have changed some of my thinking."

From my vantage point, Walton went through as big a transition in life as anyone I have ever known.

Jones passed away in 2008, and I sat with Bill and his wife Lori at a memorial service at the La Jolla Beach and Tennis Club. It was the perfect memorial. No speeches, just friends talking. Jones' widow Ann said that is what her husband requested.

So I got to sit with two of my all-time favorite people, Bill and Lori Walton. After the memorial, they invited me back to their home for dinner. I was tempted but needed to get home.

My wife and I had been to the Walton home about a year earlier. As I sat there thoroughly enjoying the evening, I kept thinking that I could never have imagined such an event taking place back when I was sitting in Pauley Pavilion and marveling at what the big redheaded person on the court was doing.

That dinner with someone I now call a friend truly was one of the highlights of my life. And that is not a Bill Walton exaggeration.

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