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Bill Walton does much more than just talk a good game

scottteaser-215x160Basketball-hall-of-famer-turned-commentator Bill Walton jokes over the phone from San Diego that his loquaciousness is all Marty Glickman’s fault because it was Glickman who helped him overcome a life-long stuttering problem.

To those not familiar with Glickman, he was the first of the famous sportscasters to come out of Syracuse University. He’s the reason Marv Albert and Bob Costas went there. And they, in turn, inspired people like Sean McDonough and Mike Tirico to follow in their footsteps as SU became known as Sportscaster U.            But Glickman also is the guy who gave Walton the confidence to express himself after the hoops legend spent the first 28 years of his life struggling just to say “hello” or “thank you.”

“I always thought that speaking skills were something you were born with,’’ said Walton, who will be the keynote speaker at Lifespan’s annual Celebration of Aging banquet at the Riverside Convention Center, March 29 at noon. “But Marty convinced me otherwise. He said, ‘Bill, you practice your jump shot and you practice setting screens. Well, speaking is no different than basketball. It’s something you have to practice and work at, like any other skill set. The more you do it, the better you’ll get.’ And so, Marty developed a program for me to follow and it worked. I like to say that learning how to speak is my greatest accomplishment—and your worst nightmare.’’

Or as Walton’s old UCLA basketball coach and mentor John Wooden once quipped: “I’m mad at Marty because he taught Bill how to speak, but he didn’t teach him how to stop talking.”

Walton is indeed a garrulous guy. His stream-of-consciousness commentary on college and NBA telecasts takes you places even he had no idea he’d go.

“It just sort of happens,’’ he said. “I just let it flow.”

During a broadcast there might be allusions to figures as disparate as Martin Luther King Jr., the Grateful Dead, Mozart, Steve Jobs, Bob Dylan, Robert F. Kennedy and Walton’s first youth-league coach, a dedicated, salt-of-the-earth guy named “Rocky.”

Some may find it annoying, but no one finds it boring.

Walton has a lot to say after all the living he’s done in his 65 years on the planet. And as the folks who attend Lifespan’s bash will discover, much of what Walton has to say is humorous, poignant and inspirational. He is a riveting public speaker, with a powerful, uplifting story to tell.

Many know that Walton was a supremely gifted basketball player for Wooden’s dynastic UCLA teams in the early 1970s, and might have wound up being mentioned in the same breath as his idol, Bill Russell, had a spate of injuries not short-circuited his NBA career. He was that good. But many don’t know that this guy who refers to himself as “the luckiest man on the face of the earth” contemplated suicide 10 years ago.

“My spine had failed,’’ Walton said. “I couldn’t move. I couldn’t get off the ground. I couldn’t eat, sleep, think, talk. I couldn’t do anything. And the pain was overwhelming, unrelenting, debilitating. I described it as being submerged in a vat of scalding acid with an electrifying current running through it. That’s how bad it was. There was no way out. I was standing on the edge of the bridge believing it was better to jump than to go back to what I had.’’

Three dozen surgeries to address chronic back, foot and knee pain had failed. But then he read a story about pioneering reconstructive spinal surgery and despite the risk he decided to go under the knife a 37th time. Over the course of the 8 ½-hour operation, Dr. Steve Garfin made four incisions, inserted bolts and rods and placed spacers between Walton’s vertebrae. The surgery was followed by weeks of excruciating physical therapy and experimentation with new medical technology.

“It was the hardest, most difficult thing I ever experienced—harder than the previous 36 surgeries and rehabs combined,’’ Walton said. “But these doctors and therapists wound up putting little Billy back together again. I haven’t felt this good since I was 13. Today, suicide is the furthest thing from my mind. I have everything. I have no pain. I take no medication. I’ve never been busier. I’ve never been happier.”

And he’s never been more enthusiastic about wanting to share his story and the gratitude he has for all those people who enriched his life and offered encouragement along the way—from his parents to that youth-league coach to Wooden to Glickman to so many others he regards as heroes.

“Heroes make things better,’’ he said. “They’re like forklifts. They lift people and things up, putting them in a better place.’’

Several years ago, Walton met a man in a wheelchair from Batavia who has become one of his heroes. Ricky Palermo was paralyzed in an automobile accident in 1981 and was ready to give up. Then, he attended the Miami Project in Florida. Besides regaining mobility on a motorized bike, Palermo regained a reason to live and to help others who have suffered spinal injuries. Palermo’s annual golf tournament has raised $1.3 million in 21 years.

He met Walton by chance when the former basketball star spoke at the annual Miami Project dinner in New York City several years ago. “We’re in the hotel lobby of the Waldorf Astoria, and in walks this 6-foot-11 guy with red hair wearing a tie-dye T-shirt,’’ Palermo recalls. “Talk about sticking out in a crowd. We introduce ourselves to him and he sits down with us and we hit it off right away. He was so down to earth, so humble. He wasn’t just passing time, going through the motions. He was asking me and my parents all sorts of questions. He seemed sincerely interested in us.”

A friendship was born that will be renewed when the Palermo family attends the Lifespan luncheon.

“Ricky is just one of those positive forces of nature,’’ Walton said. “Despite his enormous challenges, he has an indomitable spirit. He’s one of those forklifts I talk about.”

The feeling, said Palermo, is mutual. Walton lifts him up as much as he lifts up Walton.

“Bill’s always willing to help, especially when I need items for my golf tournament,’’ Palermo said. “He’s such a fun guy to be around. And, yes, he likes to talk.”

That he does. Marty Glickman unleashed Walton’s gift of gab many moons ago. It’s a gift that keeps on giving.

Best-selling author and nationally honored journalist Scott Pitoniak is the Rochester Business Journal sports columnist. 

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