Grateful For A Deadhead

Bill Walton left this mortal coil yesterday, which given the fact that mere weeks ago he was courtside broadcasting Pac-12 basketball games with the wit, wisdom and sometimes bizarre style that endeared him to generations who never knew exactly how incredible a player he was was all the more shocking.  Cancer, which apparently he had been battling for quite a while, claimed him at the far-too young age of 71.   There’s more than a touch of irony that his demise was mere hours after the final out of the final competitive team event in the history of his beloved “Conference of Champions”, the Pac-12 baseball championship.

The outpouring of reactions that flooded the internet when the news broke was at a level usually seen only by truly transcendent people and beloved people.  If you were of an age where you did see Walton lead his UCLA Bruins to victories in his first 65 games as their center, en route to a pair of NCAA titles and three national player of the year accolades, you knew how dominant and transcendent he was–arguably the most successful three-year career (freshmen weren’t allowed on varsity teams in his era) in the history of the game.  If you were or are a lover of the Portland Trail Blazers (and some of the best people on Earth are), you know he was the leader and vortex of their stunning and to this date sole NBA championship in 1977, and both were well on their way to a successful defense of it in 1978 before the first of a series of devastating injuries robbed him of time and effectiveness.  After an acromonius parting of the ways during prolonged and frequently frutiless rehabiliation efforts, he would get true redemption as a member of the Boston Celtics’ second most recent NBA championship team in 1986, serving, as would often say, as “Larry Bird’s valet”.–an experience which, as YAHOO! SPORTS’ senior basketball writer Ben Rohrbach shared yesterday, was one he was forever, well, grateful for:

The young people, the children, they don’t care that you have red hair and a big nose and a goofy, nerdy looking face and you stutter all the time and you’re a Deadhead and you’re drinking Guinness every minute. They’re going to care that you’re there, and when you care about them, they will care about you. Through practice and through a lifetime of experimentation, maybe you have a chance to play in the game of life one more time — that opportunity that Red [Auerbach] and Larry and Celtics Nation gave me.”

Rohrbach shared those words in the same piece in which he recounted his own history with Walton:

I once left Bill Walton a voice message regarding a story I was working on about Larry Bird. When he telephoned back, I didn’t even have to ask him a question. I just pressed a button on my tape recorder.

He must have gone on for an hour. It was one of the great joys of my career. An hour was all you needed, if that, to fall in love with the man. By then, Walton would have given you a lesson on basketball and life.

“Larry’s story, coming from where he came from in Terre Haute,” he said in a breath as long as his 6 feet, 11 inches. “It is just a classic journey of this comet, this meteor, just searing across the universe, and bam — just so much light, so much heat, so much radiating brilliance, and it just said, ‘Larry Bird, I was there.’”

A similar personal anecdote was offered by the LOS ANGELES TIMES’ Bill Plaschke, one that offered up impressive self-revelation to boot:

A couple of years ago we were together at the annual California Sports Hall of Fame induction ceremony. Walton went out of his way to engage with my starstruck family and friends while unknowingly giving me the reinforcements to give my speech.

As you probably know, Walton once battled a stuttering problem. As some of you also know, I have battled the same issues, and throughout my adulthood I have taken inspiration from listening to the precise confidence with which Walton spoke.

His NBA peers waxed both eloquent and nostalgic as well.  The ASSOCIATED PRESS compiled but a few, including this summative statement from another pretty decent Bruin center. Kareem Abdul-Jabbar:

My very close friend, fellow Bruin and NBA rival Bill Walton died today. And the world feels so much heavier now. On the court, Bill was a fierce player, but off the court he wasn’t happy unless he did everything he could to make everyone around him happy. He was the best of us.” 

Or this one from a slightly less talented amateur hoopster:

“Bill Walton was one of the greatest basketball players of all time — a champion at every level and the embodiment of unselfish team play. He was also a wonderful spirit full of curiosity, humor and kindness. We are poorer for his passing, and Michelle and I send our deepest condolences to his family.” — former President Barack Obama.

But what was especially impressive to me were the literally dozens of personal anecdotes and selfies that flooded my social media feeds.  Walton loved people, especially so once a 2009 spinal surgery relieved him of pain so debiltating it nearly led him to leaving us far earlier, a point Rohrbach also drove home:

“I have been living on the floor for most of the last two-and-a-half years, unable to move, unable to get up,” Walton wrote for his 2016 autobiography, “Back from the Dead,” of the spinal collapse that sent him into a depression in San Diego in the summer of 2009. “I’ve cut myself off from Jerry, Bob, Neil, and the rest, just as I’ve disconnected from most everybody and everything else. The only people I see, talk, or hear from are the few who refuse to leave me alone — my wife, Lori; my brother Bruce; our four sons; the most obstinate of my closest friends, like Andy Hill, Jim Gray, my guys in the Grateful Dead — and the one person I refuse to leave alone, John Wooden, now almost one hundred years old. Everybody else has been turned away. My mom doesn’t even know about any of this. She only gets the good news.”

Thus when given this new lease on life, Walton took immense pride and offered renewed effort to connect with people, whether in person or through media when immersed with two of his greatest passions, Pac-12 basketball and The Grateful Dead.  I saw Walton at both venues over the years, remarkably accessible, forever offering positivity and often a hit of a blunt.  Yes, he unapologetically was a marijuana advocate as well; given the degree of pain he dealt with, he was more than entitled to that indulgence.  And as THE ATHLETIC’s Andrew Marchand offered, that might explain in part some of these unforgettable observations:

His work on ESPN, late night on his beloved Pac-12, teaming with Dave Pasch or Jason Benetti really represented the groovy Walton experience.

That is why, upon his passing, social media played clips of Walton being Walton, comparing the San Antonio Spurs’ Boris Diaw to Beethoven or eating a lit cupcake or talking about actual Bears and Huskies when describing UCLA going out to an early lead on Washington.

His work on ESPN, late night on his beloved Pac-12, teaming with Dave Pasch or Jason Benetti really represented the groovy Walton experience. That is why, upon his passing, social media played clips of Walton being Walton, comparing the San Antonio Spurs’ Boris Diaw to Beethoven or eating a lit cupcake or talking about actual Bears and Huskies when describing UCLA going out to an early lead on Washington.

I defy anyone not to guffaw after viewing this.

Anyone familiar with the Dead, especially the poetry of its founder Jerry Garcia, Bob Weir and their bandmates that produced the still-iconic lyrics to so many songs, could better understand how Walton could have had such emotionality for things an average person tends to ignore.  Weed heightens all sensitivites, you know.

So it’s more than apropos that more than a few of the Best 187 Grateful Dead Quotes and Lyrics Ever, compiled in a 2018 piece by NSF Magazine, are more than fitting for the innumerable eulogies that have been and are still being offered up by both the famous and the fanatics.  The two that hit me as most apropos:

The storyteller makes no choice
soon you will not hear his voice
his job is to shed light
and not to master”
-Terrapin Station

Oh, and this one, too:

Fare you well my honey
Fare you well my only true one
All the birds that were singing
Have flown except you alone”
-Brokedown Palace

Fare thee well, Grateful Red.

Courage…

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