"I am the human being that I am today because of the Grateful Dead": Bill Walton shares life lessons from 859 shows

The world's tallest Deadhead tells Salon "I'm living under a series of mantras from the Grateful Dead right now"

Published April 16, 2016 11:30PM (EDT)

Bill Walton
Bill Walton

Bill Walton has always marched to a different drummer. Two different drummers, in point of fact: Bill Kreutzman and Mickey Hart of the Grateful Dead.

If you are any kind of a basketball fan, well, Walton needs no introduction. If you are like me, sadly indifferent to the sport, there is still much more to Walton than meets the eye, despite his 6-11 height. A Center of Gravity for one of legendary Coach John Wooden’s championship UCLA teams, Portland Trailblazer and then Boston Celtic league champion, Walton is also known for a series of catastrophic injuries that ripped him off the court during what should have been his most productive years.

But in a memorable second act, Walton overcame a childhood speech impediment to become a sportscaster whose occasionally mixed up metaphors never got in the way of a shimmering intelligence and relentless candor. Both of these qualities are on display in his new memoir, “Back From The Dead.” Walton writes – and speaks – like the Grateful Dead jam – a cascade of free flowing ideas that can sometimes lose their way, but more often than not resolve into a powerful focused moment of insight worth a listen – or closer read.

With Walton currently on a tour promoting the book, I seized the opportunity to discuss his No. 1 passion, a passion we both share, which has little – but then again, has everything – to do with basketball.

I read your book, which I thought was terrific on many levels. But some sports fans might read it and say, “This is a great book about basketball, but why all these weird digressions on the Grateful Dead?” My take was well, "I don't care all that much about basketball, but there was very some insightful stuff in there on the Grateful Dead.”

I'm a Deadhead. It all rolls into one, and I've never been able to separate basketball from life. I'm living under a series of mantras from the Grateful Dead right now.

For instance?

I’ll just roll them out for you. When you get confused, listen to the music play. We used to play for silver; now we play for life. Once in a while, you get shown the light in the strangest of places if you look at it right. Sure don’t know what I'm going for, but I'm gonna go for it for sure. And then it all rolls into one, but nothing comes for free.

Here’s a procedural question; do you know the exact date of your first Dead show?

No. It was ’67, the Summer of Love in California, I was about 15 but I forget where and when. In those days, we didn’t know anything. We just heard them on the radio, and then the DJ said look, this is a new band from San Francisco, go check them out. And we did. And I got in the front of the stage, in the pit, and I never left. And it was just absolutely incredible.

So what exactly did you learn from the Grateful Dead? Can you somehow compress that life lesson you’ve picked up from the 859 shows the book says you’ve attended?

I learned from them about how to become a champion. I became the basketball player that I was because of the Grateful Dead. I am the human being that I am today because of the Grateful Dead. They’re right there at the top of my teachers. Their inspiration moved me brightly.

Well, one thing about the Dead is that I’ve personally noticed is that occasionally, when you bring them up to civilians, they look at you like you just confessed to being a Level 4 Scientologist, and kind of edge away from you on the couch ...

I completely disagree with that. I completely disagree.

Then how do you grapple with trying to explain the inexplicable to people?

I don’t try. I don’t care if people are not Deadheads; that’s their choice. I've made my choice. I made it 49 years ago. And I'm proud and I'm loyal and I am grateful for that choice. And every time I go to the Grateful Dead shows, every time I'm just engulfed in this entire world, it makes me more proud; it stimulates greater levels of loyalty and makes me more appreciative.

When we were growing up in the ‘60s, it was just like when I was at UCLA playing basketball. That was the only world we knew. We were going to all these concerts and listening to all this music, these songs were written to us, for us, and about us. Everything that the Grateful Dead, Bob Dylan, Neil Young and all the guys sing about all the time are the stories of our lives, and I keep listening. I listen for inspiration; I listen for knowledge; I listen for strength, for confidence; I listen to be healed.

Just last night, we all went to hear Elvis Costello play in San Diego. He put on a spectacular three and a half hour show that was a roller coaster ride through the universe and beyond. And the second to the last song, he broke out “It Must’ve Been the Roses.” (A minor Grateful Dead classic.) And when we talked to Elvis after the show, he said it was only the second time he’s ever sung it in public. There were just tears coming down. He did not have a band with him. It was him, his guitar, his piano and a microphone. It was a phenomenal show. There’s got to be a sense of emotional commitment, of mental acuity -- for a singer/songwriter, for a band, for a basketball team -- to be able to convey the message of hope. To be able put your life into it so that it will inspire other people to care.

Where did John Wooden put loyalty in his pyramid of success? In the very bottom block, the ultimate foundation. You pull loyalty out and it all crumbles. It all just implodes. I am a loyal Deadhead. And if people don’t like it, well, that’s fine.

Did you ever convert an athlete that people would be surprised by, somebody you brought to a show who actually “got on the bus,” and just said, “Oh, my God, I finally get what all the fuss is about?”

Absolutely. The Grateful Dead are about choice. They're about freedom. They're about “OK, we are all volunteers here.” That was one of the leadership messages from Jerry that was the same as John Wooden. “It’s a privilege to be a part of this thing. You don’t like it. Hell, it’s fine. We can find somebody else.” That’s what John Wooden told me every single day. There was and is a sense of the Grateful Dead coming together, representing all that we believed in, all that we thought of, of the culture that I grew up in, which is we can make this better. Whether it’s the relationship with the fans, whether it’s the relationship with all the people that come to work and put the show on, it’s a team; it’s a community; it’s a culture; it’s a world. And I choose to be a part of that. Those are all my friends. And, and I'm proud of my friends; I'm happy for my friends; and I'm privileged to be on that team.

You describe in the book a great scene in the late '80s, where the Dead’s road crew set up a little sanctuary on stage at the Boston Garden for your Celtic teammates, so you could bring them on stage. Do you remember any of your teammates’ reaction? Did any of them come out of there and say, “OK, Bill, I get it. Give me some of your tapes.”

Well, when the show was over and the band was packed and gone, they turned to me and they said, “Oh, my gosh, can we come back tomorrow?” And they did. And they all came back. It was fantastic. Kevin (McHale) joined us on the Dylan and the Dead tour; Larry (Bird) would go all the time; Chief (Robert Parish) would go; DJ (Dennis Johnson) would show up. Rick Carlisle met his wife at a Grateful Dead show.

It sounds like you’ve infected a significant portion of the sports populous with your peculiar virus ...

I'm an evangelist for life. For example, Rick Carlisle calls me up. It’s 1987 or ’88; it’s in the summertime. Rick calls me up out of the blue. And he said, “Bill, I met this girl, and we’re in Washington, D.C, and the Grateful Dead are playing tonight; can you get me some tickets?” I looked at the itinerary that the band always mailed to me, and I said, “Look, the show’s gonna start any second. Just go. Just go the back door and knock and ask for Ramrod.” And Rick said, “Oh, that’ll never work.” And I said, “Look, that’s your only chance; you gotta do it.”

So he did it. He tells the girl, Donna, “Now look, we don’t have any tickets; we have nothing. But Bill said go to the back door and just ask for a guy called 'Ramrod.'” Donna was rolling her eyes. “Yeah, right. This is a disaster here.” But still they go. They knock on the back door, and a guy answers the door and Rick says in this quiet sheepish voice, “Uh, is a guy named 'Ramrod' here? The doorman asks, “Just who wants Ramrod?” And Rick says, “My name is Rick Carlisle; I'm a friend of Bill Walton’s ...” He let them right in, and brings Rick and Donna right up on the stage, right next to Jerry. And Rick Carlisle winds up marrying Donna. That was their first date and it just absolutely changed their entire life. That’s the way life works at the Grateful Dead. And that’s one of the countless reasons why I am a proud, loyal and Grateful Deadhead.

There’s a question I’ve wanted to ask you since a night when I saw you in late December of ’78, on stage at Pauley Pavilion. I remember, even in my ruined condition, thinking, “My God, what must that be like for Bill Walton, who owned this court, to now be on stage with the Dead, who are themselves now owning this court. I've waited 37 years to ask you about that night.

That was the Egypt show. It was phenomenal.

Yeah, it was the “Return From Egypt” mini-tour ...

... with Hamza el-Din and all the amazing drummers and everything. It was my life. I've been a Deadhead since I was 15, and we’ve always tried to go to as many shows as possible and, and then when I went to UCLA, the Grateful Dead started coming to us 'cause they would play at UCLA a lot. We would go to every show and, and then I got to know them. Right when I graduated from UCLA, I was so shy. I, I w—I, I'm a lifelong stutterer. It was just an absolute nightmare as a young person to try to move forward and chase my dreams because I couldn’t talk; I couldn’t communicate; I couldn’t express myself. Learning how to speak is my greatest accomplishment and everybody else’s worst nightmare. And so now, I get to go to all these shows, and then I met the band in 1974 and it completely changed my life. Nothing was ever the same again. And then to go back to UCLA and become friends with the Grateful Dead, to travel with them to Egypt and then the return ...

(Pause) Look, John Wooden, Larry Bird, and Jerry Garcia are all the same person. With that same sense of selflessness, that sense of leadership, that same sense of being the person responsible for the outcome, with the team nature, the team concept, to be with the guys and, and that ability to deliver peak performance on command. There’s lots of attributes of the champion, but what do you really need? When the ball goes up, when the back beat comes down, when the red light comes on, when the phone rings, you’ve gotta be able to have it. And that’s with John Wooden, that’s with Larry Bird and that’s with Jerry Garcia and the Grateful Dead.

I do see the parallels between the three of them, with one difference. John Wooden and Larry Bird were very willing leaders, where I never sensed that Jerry Garcia was that comfortable being that guy; he was really the anti-leader. Garcia was the obvious focal point, but a very reluctant leader who grappled with that fact his entire life.

Yeah, but he still assumed the responsibility and assumed the duties of the leader. In life, you don’t always have the choice. It would be fantastic if nobody had to be the leader. But in the group dynamic, there’s always that sense of doubt, hesitation, and indecision -- always. Where are we gonna go? What are we gonna do? How are we gonna get this done? And these great leaders, they, they do it because they have to. And Jerry loved to have fun; he loved to have a great time, but he also knew that they had to get the show on. Sometimes, we choose life; sometimes life chooses us. And there was a lot of both of that in, in Jerry’s, and in all of our, lives. Again, there are parallels between a great band like the Grateful Dead and being a great basketball team like I was privileged to be a part of. The relationship with the fans, the creativity, and the use of new technology to move everything forward. I mean, it is just surreal.

Well, what do you think of the Dead in terms of basketball and the concept of a “winning season?” The Dead had their great seasons, and they had their not-so-winning seasons. I’ll go first. I would say any year from ’67 to ’74 and then ’77, ’80, ’89 and ’91 would be great seasons. You know, when the music was clicking, the “X” factor was there on stage, more often than not. Do you have any peak periods from their performances that you look back on?

That’s not the world I live in. I don’t get into that.

ESPN has completely changed our world and how we look at things. Everybody feels they have to rank, rate and compare everything. And that’s not the world I live. I live in the world of today, and I learn from the past; I live for the moment; and I dream about the future. I have Sirius satellite radio 23 on in my house 24/7. Like I have to mute it right now so that I can concentrate on this conversation. But I live for today. And what the Dead are doing today, with the technology, the equipment — they're all better musicians today than they were — whenever. I always tell the guys, don’t ever let the music stop.

When John Wooden retired in 1975, he was 65 years old. I just thought it was over and I didn’t realize at that time that that was just the beginning. (Wooden would pass away in 2010, at the age of 99.) And the fact that they're still going out there and doing this? It’s hard to be a rock star. You kidding?

I'm looking from your book where you cite John Wooden’s famous memo on the 15 key principles of “Practice.” It makes me think about The Dead. Wooden Rule Number 14: “Conditioning comes from hard work during practice and proper mental and moral conduct.” And of course, Rule Number 15, “Poise, confidence and self-control comes from being prepared.”

That’s the Grateful Dead. Because they have to be there. They have a time that it starts and they’ve gotta deliver -- because the world is coming. The world is coming to be healed. The world is coming to be educated. The world is coming to be inspired. And they have got to come out there and make that happen. Some of the greatest quotes ever from the Grateful Dead? Coming right up, coming soon, we’ll be right back. What we want in life is more. I want more Grateful Dead. I want more music; I want more concerts; I want more artwork; I want more songs; I just want more. And I’ll be out there as long as they’re going — as long as they're willing to sacrifice their lives so that our dreams can come true. And I look at how happy they all are right now.

You know, that was one of the things that was so great and inspirational about John Wooden, as we saw him age in front of our eyes. I was with Coach Wooden for 43 years of my life. I've been a Deadhead for 49 years of my life. John Wooden was happy. He never got bitter. He never got cynical. And that’s what I love about the Grateful Dead. Is it easy? No. I try to live by this ideal, chase your dreams, make your dream your job, make your job your life. And to see how involved all of these members of the Grateful Dead are in so many different things; it is just so inspirational. It just drives you to greater heights than you can ever get to on your own. They take you places. You know, the road trips, the tours ...

 ... like joining the circus. That’s what Garcia once said; that they were the modern-day equivalent of following the circus.

Yeah. And then the time travel, and the travels through the universe. I grew up in a world of radio and we didn’t have a TV growing up in our house. I had the radio. And even when the games became televised, even when I had the chance to watch, I would love to sit there and just close my eyes and listen to Chick Hearn describe the game. And now when I'm in my car and I have satellite radio on, I can just not look at anything. One of the great things about the Grateful Dead is how visual everything is. And that’s what I love; it’s always new; it’s always fresh; and it’s always changing. I've been going for 49 years as often as I can, and I can’t wait to get out again this summer.

Well, for me, when Jerry Garcia passed away, it was like someone saying, “Basketball will never be played again. You can watch movies; you can listen to Chick Hearn call classic games; you can read about it in memoirs, but the game itself will never be played again.”

I don’t agree with your position. The Grateful Dead move on. It was devastating when Jerry died, but there’s other people still delivering the message. Just like the NBA today is better than ever. The Grateful Dead are moving forward with what they’re doing right now, what they did with the Fare Thee Well Concerts, continuing what they’ve done for all these years. But it’s hard. You lose such a key member of the team, but life is not what happens when you're hot; life is what happens when things fall apart.

And, and that’s what’s been my story, and what I try to convey in this book, which was that I had all these meteoric rises to the top and I made it. I was part of three of the greatest basketball teams ever. But then every time I got to the top, it just all fell apart, collapsed. I learned the hard way that you’ve gotta get back up and get going again. And that’s what the Grateful Dead have done. I was there for those nine days of the Fare Thee Well Concerts that changed the world. I was there when they opened it up this year with Dead and Company, and I’ll be there this summer when they're back out there.

I'm gonna be older; but I'm gonna be in Alpine Valley, I'm gonna be in Portland, the Gorge, San Diego, Irvine, Sacramento and San Francisco at Shoreline. I never thought all these years that I would be able to get back into the pit, because with my health I thought I would always be relegated to a seat in the way back. But I love the pit. It’s just like I loved being underneath the basket to fight for the fall.

Well, personally, I wouldn’t want to be standing behind you in the pit ...

Oh, it’s a very nice spot. I meet the nicest, kindest, most generous people in the world in the pit, and they all have the most fascinating stories. Every time I go out there, there’s some kind soul who I’ll end up next to who’s just telling me all these great stories of life and stories of hope and, and what this all means is that a Grateful Dead concert is like a fantastic book. It makes you laugh; it makes you cry; it changes you. As we stand at the fork in the road, and the concert is over and we say, “OK, what are we gonna do now?” Where are we gonna go? That’s why I was so proud of Mickey Hart at the end of the Fare Thee Well show. He stood up there and said, “Hey, take what you’ve learned here; take what you’ve seen here and do something with it and be kind out there.” I'm proud, loyal and grateful. Yeah, let’s go.

By Erik Nelson

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