There’s a Grateful Dead song I’ve been obsessed with lately. “Standing on the Moon” tells the story of a narrator who’s looking down at Earth but can’t stop thinking about his one true love.
“Standing on the moon, with nothing left to do.
A lovely view of heaven, but I’d rather be with you.”
Bill Walton is perhaps the world’s most passionate Deadhead. The basketball legend saw the Grateful Dead in concert more than 835 times and even played drums with the group at the Pyramids in Egypt. I can’t help but wonder what Walton thinks of “Standing on the Moon.” I imagine that he likes the song but perhaps feels the narrator missed out on “the game of life.”
I heard that phrase — “the game of life” — a handful of times when I saw Bill Walton speak at the University of Washington last week. The event was part of the nine-week Walton on Wheels tour, which included speaking engagements at most Pac-12 schools. When I heard that Walton would speak at the UW, I knew I had to go.
I never saw Walton play — he retired three years before I attended my first NBA game — but he meant more to me growing up than most sports figures. Unlike so many professional athletes, Walton stayed true to himself. He preached the virtues of teamwork and truly took the most pleasure from his teammates’ success. So, even though I only know of Walton’s career from grainy YouTube clips, he holds a special place in my heart.
Not just that, but he’s a crack-up whose mind jumps from topic to topic like a verbal Whack-a-Mole. An answer might include references to Neil Young and the Grateful Dead, a mantra from John Wooden, stories from his playing days, and a motivational speech. Even then, he might not fully answer — or even remember — the question.
True to form, Walton used his opening remarks last week to hype the upcoming game between UW and Oregon (“The Columbia River versus Puget Sound! Phil Knight versus Bill Gates and Paul Allen!”), relive the Malice at the Palace, and set the stage for his heartwarming philosophizing: “That’s really the name of the game of life, is how you get out of the funk you’re in.”
It only got funnier and crazier when the moderator opened the floor for the question-and-answer session. I’ll let Bill take it from here.
Note: These are merely excerpts from a handful of answers. Walton doesn’t speak in full sentences or even complete paragraphs; he’s more like a Choose-Your-Own-Adventure book. I tried to capture the best of the best.
Walton spoke about his heroes, including Muhammad Ali, Martin Luther King Jr., and Bill Russell:
“They lived, they played with passion and purpose. Their life was not about stuff. Their life was not about material accumulation and physical gratification. They were the antithesis of selfishness and greed. If you think of all the problems that we have in whatever it is that we’re facing, it all comes back to selfishness and greed.”
Walton used basketball as a metaphor for life:
“Everybody’s involved. In basketball, you only have to wait for the opening tip. And then there are endless possibilities to make a positive contribution. The same way when you guys get out of bed and put your feet on the floor, you gotta know in your mind, ‘Today, I’m gonna do so many fantastic things that, by the time I get back here to this bed, I’m going to be so tired. I’m gonna win some, I’m gonna lose some, but I’m gonna chase it down. I’m going to build my life, and I’m gonna try to make other people’s lives better.'”
(That, by the way, came in response to a question about Kobe and LeBron. Walton also quoted Neil Young and shouted out President Obama during the course of his answer. I don’t get it, either.)
I really have no context for this, but I love it, anyway:
“If you don’t believe that tomorrow’s gonna be better, how’s it ever gonna work? You’re gonna give up. You’re gonna wait. You’re gonna wait for somebody to give you something. That’s not the way the game of life works. Be like Brandon Roy. Be like Kareem. Be like Magic and Kobe and LeBron. Chase it down. Be out there in front. Be the first guy that gets up and says ‘Let’s go! Give me that ball, coach! Put me in!'”
Why I want Bill Walton to be my new therapist:
“When things go bad, you’re down, you can’t get going, you don’t believe anymore, take a giant step back and a huge breath and say, ‘Okay, who am I? What do I stand for? Where am I going?'”
A fan asked Walton to recite his trademark “Throw it down!” Walton took it eight steps further:
“Throw it down one time, big man! Please throw it down! Ahhh! I came to see somebody play here! And all these guys are doing is just jogging up and down the court! Don’t they wanna win? Please! Don’t they care? Why am I supposed to care if they don’t care? Throw it down one time!”
Walton closed with a rousing call for those in attendance to make a difference in the world. Presidential campaigns have been won with less eloquent, exciting speeches.
“Make a difference. Walk like a giant in the land. This DOES matter. Come on, hold people to higher standards. If you don’t like what you see, say something! What are they gonna say? ‘You’re wrong?’ You’re not wrong for what you think. You’re entitled to your own beliefs. Come on, let’s go! Get in the game of life. Build it! Build more libraries! Chase it down! Write more books! Stand up there, bring our troops home, let’s go.”
Following Walton’s speech, I stood in line for a photo with the legend himself. I couldn’t help but smile when the person in front of me introduced himself and Walton replied, “Hi, Cody. I’m Bill.”
I could only put out my hand and say “Thank you” as I approached Walton. It wasn’t just an appreciative gesture for his speech. It was gratitude for what he meant to Portland, how he inspired me, and who he chose to be through all of life’s difficulties. I wanted to thank him for all of that and for the dozens of humorous life lessons. But the words weren’t there. A simple “Thank you” would have to do.