Bill Walton: 'I'm Back in the Game of Life'
Two years ago, due to a debilitating back injury that made him go so far as to contemplate suicide, Walton could only make it to the three Los Angeles games when his son's Lakers faced Boston in the NBA Finals. Last year, he was in too much pain to make to any Lakers' Finals games, and he missed seeing forward Luke Walton earn his first NBA title ring in the triumph over Orlando.
"After he won that championship, Luke was the happiest that he's ever been. ... But I couldn't be there,'' said the father who didn't see his son after the Finals until later in the summer.
But Bill has been there in these Finals for Luke, having attended all five games and ready to attend Tuesday's Game 6 at the Staples Center. If the Lakers can overcome a 3-2 deficit against Boston, enabling Luke to tie his dad with his second NBA championship ring, Bill will be there to see it.
"It has been incredible for me to be able to be there for these NBA Finals, having missed the last two NBA Finals,'' said the father. "I've missed so much of his life, but now I'm there for him. ... I am so proud of our son. I would do anything for our son.''
Bill has been sitting in a suite during games. But he makes a point of coming down shortly before tipoff to offer encouraging words to Luke.
On the off-days, the two get together. The dad, a Hall of Fame center who won titles with Portland in 1977 and Boston in 1986, gives whatever advice he can.
"It's great,'' Luke said of having his father on hand for the Finals. "It's always tough to see your dad when he's having health issues. ... It's been hard the last couple of years him not being able to travel (from his San Diego home). But we've been able to go out to dinner (during these Finals). ... He tells me it's the opportunity of a lifetime and to make sure that, whenever you get a chance, be ready to help the team.''
Luke Walton played a bigger role in the Lakers' previous two Finals. This time, he's not played in two Finals games but did log a key 13 minutes in his team's Game 3 win.
Yet Bill Walton, 57, treasures being able to see his son whether he plays or not. He remembers how tough it was between late 2007 and early 2010 when he was in utter agony.
The father said he "could barely walk'' when he made it to one game at the Staples Center for the 2008 Finals. And Bill Walton first told the San Diego Union-Tribune two months ago he had contemplated suicide.
"It got to the point where my life wasn't worth living,'' Walton, who had a revolutionary form of back surgery in February 2009 in San Diego, told the paper. "I was standing on the edge of the bridge, figuring it was better to jump than to go back to where I was.''
Bill Walton has not backed off from saying he thought about suicide, but he never came close to trying it. His NBA career from 1974-87 was devastated by injuries, namely to his feet.
He's had 36 orthopedic surgeries, and his back problems first surfaced when he was undercut by a Washington State player while with UCLA in 1974. Even though his most recent surgery was 15 months ago, Walton said it was about a year until he started feeling much better earlier this year.
"I had nothing for 2 1/2 years, but now I'm rebuilding my life,'' said Walton, who at times during his ordeal couldn't even get off the floor. "I'm the luckiest man in the world.
"Unless you've been in that deep, dark space, where you (think) about not living, you cannot understand. ... You cannot comprehend the pain. It was indescribable. It was like being submerged in scalding acid with an electrified current running through it, and you cannot get out.''
When the Union-Tribune article came out, it was news to Luke, who lived off and on with his father after his parents divorced when he was 5. He knew his father had been in bad shape, but not that he was thinking of suicide.
"Only he knows,'' Luke said about it getting that bad. "The times I talked to him during that stretch, I'd never seen or heard him act like that before so I don't know what was going on deep inside his head. But, hopefully, he wasn't too serious about that. He was definitely depressed.''
Luke said he understands why his father never talked to him about those thoughts when they were ongoing.
"He's our father,'' Luke said. "I don't think that he wants to sit down and talk to us about suicidal thoughts he was having. We knew he was down, but I don't think any of us knew it was that far. ... I was just glad (after reading the article) that he had come through. It would have been a lot harder had I learned he was still in that state. But he has gotten through it.''
Even after reading the article, Luke said he hasn't had a conversation with his father about his suicidal thoughts.
"We talked about being happy for him that he's through (the terrible back pain),'' Luke said. "We never talked about that topic. Why bring up something that depressing? There's no reason to bring that up unless he wants to bring it up.''
The father hasn't had a desire to discuss it with his son. Asked about Luke saying he didn't know about the suicidal thoughts until he had read the article, Bill said, "I don't know what people read.'' Asked why he hadn't discussed it before with Luke, he said, "He's very busy and I wasn't going to bother him.''
Now, though, it's nearly all positive thoughts that the father passes on to his son before games in the Finals.
"I just tell him I love him and how proud and I am and how happy I am for him,'' said Bill, who is remarried to Lori, whom he has given much credit for getting through his painful, 2 1/2-year ordeal. "I've been there before and I know it is the greatest feeling in the world when you win the Finals and the worst feeling when you lose." Bill's Celtics fell to the Lakers in 1987, his only Finals loss in three appearances.
It's the fourth Finals for Luke in his seven NBA seasons, the first being a 2004 five-game loss to Detroit when the Waltons had been vying to become the second father-son NBA combination to win rings as players.
The first combo was Matt Guokas Sr. in 1947 with the Philadelphia Warriors and Matt Guokas Jr. with the Philadelphia 76ers in 1967. The Barrys, with father Rick winning in 1975 with Golden State and son Brent earning rings with San Antonio in 2005 and 2007, eventually became the second.
Luke came up short for the Waltons to be the third when the Lakers fell in six games to Boston in 2008. But Luke finally got his ring last June when they beat Orlando in five games.
One more ring, and Luke would tie his father at two. That might help during meals.
"He likes to talk trash to me at the dinner table,'' Luke said about Bill letting it be known he won NCAA titles at UCLA and Luke had none at Arizona and about his father having a lead in NBA title rings. "(It would help curtail) bragging that I can tie him in the NBA. ... I would love to have more (NBA rings) when all is said and done.''
If Lakers can win, Luke also can prove his father wrong. Or at least wrong in how he felt at the start of the series.
Bill Walton, who calls himself a "Celtic'' even though he played just his final two seasons with the team, picked Boston to win the Finals in 2008 and was right. And he said before the Finals he again picked the Celtics to win.
"Who I think is going to win and who I want to win are two different stories,'' said Bill, making it clear he's pulling for Luke's Lakers.
But the father said he changed his prediction after the Lakers won Game 3 in Boston to take a 2-1 lead. He said he's sticking with the Lakers even though the Celtics won the next two games.
"I think the Lakers are in the driver's seat,'' he said. "They're at home (for Game 6 and Game 7, if necessary).''
Now, Bill Walton feels back at home in an NBA arena. After saying last year he was retiring from broadcasting, he recently agreed to serve as a television analyst on a limited basis for Sacramento games next season.
"I'm back in the game of life,'' Walton said of plunging into this new opportunity.
Walton's zest will be on display when he greets Luke before tipoff at the Staples Center on Tuesday. It's one of 365 Father's Days he will have this year.
Chris Tomasson can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @christomasson