Before he was ever a basketball star, Bill Walton was a Grateful Dead fanatic.
So it’s no surprise that as he progressed from being a gangly teenager to winning college and professional championships, as well as numerous individual accolades culminating in his 1993 induction to the Basketball Hall Of Fame, Walton would also continue down that golden road to unlimited devotion.
Now 63, the San Diego native who went from signing the richest contract in the history of team sports to being, as he describes it, “the most injured athlete in the history of sports,” has published a memoir that covers his life both on and off the court. Back From The Dead: Searching For The Sound, Shining The Light And Throwing It Down shows equal reverence for the legends he’s encountered along the way, no matter if it’s Larry Bird or Jerry Garcia. “Music, basketball, it’s all the same,” Walton writes. “It all rolls into one.”
The A.V. Club: On the opening page of the book, you describe a time of intense pain and difficulty by saying that not only had the light gone out of your life, but the sound as well. Has music always played such a huge role in your life?
Bill Walton: I grew up in a classical music household. My dad is a phenomenal musician who can play any and all instruments, can sight read, can play by ear. We grew up without a television, so we constantly had music playing in our house.
Music is my life. It’s inseparable from anything else that I do. The passions I have in my life are my family, music, books, I’m an avid plant collector, and I love to ride my bike. I live by the motto of “chase your dream, make your dream your job, make your job your life.”
AVC: How did you make music part of your pre-game routine? Were there particular songs you played to get psyched up?
BW: I learned early on the value and the power of music to inspire and to drive me. Tchaikovsky’s “1812 Overture” was my first go-to song in terms of getting into the zone and getting ready and then I quickly gravitated to rock and roll music in the mid-’60s with the Grateful Dead, Bob Dylan, Neil Young, The Beatles, Crosby, Stills & Nash, The Rolling Stones, Carlos Santana. So many of them are still around and still going strong. I go out to see them all the time.
It changes over the course of life, depending on how you’re feeling. There’s this incredible catalog of different songs, so it depends on what you’re hoping for, what your dream is and that song will come on. I’ve got my iPod and I’ve got it on shuffle. If I’m not ready for one, I’ll click to the next one. My wife, Lori, and our children, Adam, Nate, Chris, and Luke, will all tell you that when I find one I like it can stay on repeat for weeks on end.
AVC: What did you enjoy so much about the Grateful Dead performances that you kept going back, more than 850 times?
BW: I started going when I was in high school. I was 15. It was the Summer Of Love. I went to my first show, got right up front and never left. The incredible excitement, the family, the spirit, the hope, the happiness, all the different things I love and live for in life are there. The joy, the optimism, the teamwork, the experimentation, the exploration, the curiosity. No band has inspired more artwork, no band has inspired more books. No band has ever inspired a more loyal following and I’m involved in all of that stuff.
AVC: Did developing close personal friendships with the Grateful Dead change the way you experienced their music?
BW: I’m a fan and a friend, I met them in 1974 when I first joined the NBA and my life has never been he same since. I became the basketball player I was because of the Grateful Dead.
I’m a different person today than I was yesterday. I live for the moment and everything that happens in my life changes me. That’s what I tried to share in this book, Back From The Dead, the ability to learn, to dream, to hope. In a world that is far too often selling fear and death, I’m selling hope and life and success and that’s why I chose to be part of the Grateful Dead.
My relationship, my friendships with them, has shaped me. Our house is a shrine to all our musical heroes. Our house is full of musical instruments. I love to play music. I’m terrible at it, but I love learning about it and to study the way they put the songs together and the timing and the beat and the pace and the rhythm and the lyrics, it’s fantastic. And it’s so inspirational in terms of making me want to become better.
I like a lot of other music and listen to a lot of other music, but one of the greatest things about the Grateful Dead is they played all the time. During the course of my life, they played all the time. There were constantly concerts you could go to. I love live music. I love going to the event. And to know them as people and to have seen them grow up and become who they are is so incredibly special.
When I’m at a show, I’m yelling and cheering. I’m with those guys. I had this fantastic collection of Grateful Dead T-shirts and live concert music the band had give me over all these years, decades of material, and when our boys became teenagers they started going through everything and wearing the shirts and listening to the music and that’s what the Grateful Dead is all about.
AVC: Was there a band or artist you wished you could have seen in concert but weren’t able?
BW: John Lennon. I saw almost all the others. I got to see The Doors. I got to see Jimi Hendrix. I wish I’d seen John Lennon.
AVC: The book was written before the Fare Thee Well concerts last summer. What was your experience being a part of the Grateful Dead’s closing chapter?
BW: Don’t ever think of it as a closing chapter. It’s just another verse. They’re going out again this summer and I’ll be out again too.
Those were nine days that changed the world and there was so much anticipation and expectation and hope around those [five] concerts. Everything that we dreamed about was blow away by an exponential power that is incalculable. It was so fantastic and forever more I will be able to say “I was there.” And I was in the pit. I never thought that I’d be in the pit again, with all my health problems, with the inability to move and to stand, and now I spent all five shows in the pit and I am ready for more. I’m the luckiest guy in the world. I’ll be in Portland and I’ll be at the Gorge, I’ll be in San Diego, I’ll be at Shoreline. I’m healthy enough, I have positive things going on in my life, and I get to go. I’ve been doing for a long time and I can’t get enough.