Hall-of-Fame center Bill Walton may be the only human being on Earth capable of dispersing John Wooden’s life lessons and contemplating the metaphorical significance of Robin Williams’ movies on a tangent.
In a speech Wednesday afternoon at Haas Pavilion, scheduled as part of his tour of all of the Pac-12 schools, Walton regaled the crowd of students, athletes and Cal athletic staffers with tales of his time at UCLA and his affection for his bus driver, Matt, among a multitude of other topics.
Sitting (and, at times for reasons unknown, standing) on stage in a tie-dye Grateful Dead shirt, Walton started by referring to Berkeley “as the cradle of civilization,” warned the students of the dangers of Adderall and referenced Thomas Friedman within the span of a couple of minutes.
Walton’s speech, although twisting and turning at times without any apparent direction, found some cohesion in the advice he aimed at the students in the audience.
“If you want to find where you’re going, find someone who’s on their way back,” Walton said to the students, encouraging them to take advantage of the opportunity to speak to former secretary of labor Robert Reich.
He offered other nuggets of wisdom to the young populace.
“Learn from the master teachers; that’s how you’ll get to the promised land,” Walton said. “Look in the mirror: Are you happy with the things you control? Your fitness level, your preparation?”
Walton’s Grateful Dead obsession and Mario Savio devotion (“Mario Savio died for your sins,” Walton said, multiple times) leads one to see how Walton would have fit right in on the Cal campus in the late ’60s. In fact, Walton said himself that he routinely asked his legendary coach John Wooden if he could leave UCLA after basketball season to come study at Berkeley.
Wooden wasn’t keen on the idea.
“He looked at me and said, ‘No, you’re not.’”
Although Wooden failed to accommodate Walton’s scholastic wishes, he fulfilled just about every other important aspect of Wooden’s life. When prompted with a question about his favorite piece of advice he ever received from his college coach, Walton launched into a minutes-long monologue that included a complete recitation from memory of Wooden’s famous “Pyramid of Success.”
“He was a kind, loving, selfless, happy person who derived his joy and happiness from seeing others succeed,” Walton said. “John Wooden was right about everything. We just didn’t know.”
The talk took a profound and sad turn as Walton discussed his struggles with suicide after undergoing 36 orthopedic surgeries on his feet and spine. He recounted three years he spent on his back, writhing in pain and unable to move.
“My life was over,” Walton said. “I had nothing. If I had a gun, I would’ve used it.”
But the majority of the hourlong talk focused on much more lighthearted matters. From his opinions on Robin Williams (“What a comedic genius”) to his framing of basketball as a metaphor for life (“Life is easy when you’re hot, when your jumpers are going down, but what happens when the ball bounces out, because something bad will happen to all of you”) to quoting Neil Young and Bob Dylan lyrics off of the top of his head, Bill Walton was humorous, insightful and unpredictable.
“Don’t let the cleanliness of theory get in the way of the messiness of reality,” Walton said. “You never know how the game of life is going to play out.”