NBA Legend Bill Walton Grateful, ‘Feelin’ Fine’

Five years ago NBA Hall of Famer Bill Walton returned home to San Diego from a road trip when “my spine collapsed,” he told attendees at the annual meeting of the American Academy of Dermatology.

Bill Walton holds court in San Diego. Doug Brunk/IMNG Medical Media

Years of debilitating back problems had finally caught up with him. He had spent more than 4 decades on the road as a basketball player then as a television broadcaster, navigating his 6-foot, 11-inch frame through “horrendous hotels I couldn’t stand up in, sitting in chairs built for children” and being cramped in the cabins during “mind-numbing airplane flights, [logging] 800,000-plus miles a year.”

He spent 2 years mainly lying in a horizontal position on the floor, he said, “in excruciating, unrelenting pain. If I had had a gun, I would have used it. I was standing on a bridge knowing full well that it was better to jump than to go back to what was left.”

But then he was saved, he said, “by doctors like you, by innovating companies like the ones changing the world of dermatology.” More than 3 year ago Mr. Walton underwent an 8-hour experimental surgery on his spine – his 36th orthopedic operation.

“They straightened everything up, bolted it back together,” he said, noting that the foundations of the procedure involved placement of two titanium rods and an Erector-Set-like cage. This was followed by a week in a medically induced coma, 73 postoperative days on morphine, “and the long hard climb back to trying to figure out how to play the game of life and how to get on that mountain one more time.”

During his recovery, Mr. Walton, now 59, said that he was reminded of how lucky he’d been in life, of the support of his parents, friends, and “heroes and role models who stood for principle, who lived their lives with passion and purpose. And they believed in more than material accumulation.”

To borrow a phrase from the Grateful Dead gem “Touch of Grey,” well-known Deadhead Mr. Walton appears to be “feelin’ fine” these days. His views on sports are as colorful as ever. He described basketball as “the perfect game of all, unlike football, which is basically a halfway house between the Army and prison. And baseball, which is a bunch of guys out of shape scratching themselves, standing around, taking steroids, and waiting for the game of life to come to them.”

Welcome back, Bill.

— Doug Brunk

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Filed under Dermatology, Family Medicine, IMNG, Neurology and Neurological Surgery, Primary care, Sports Medicine

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