Sunday, January 3, 2016

Review: Back from the Dead (2016)

By Bill Walton

How many autobiographies do you get when you're one of the greatest basketball players of all time?

The number for Bill Walton is two and counting.

The center for such teams as UCLA, Portland and Boston (he won championships at those stops) wrote the story of his life more than 20 years ago, "Nothing but Net."

Now he's back with another book. Thanks to some medical problems that came up in the last few years, "Back from the Dead" has a bit more personal drama in the final chapters than its predecessor, which probably makes it the book to read if you want to know about the author.

For those of you too young to remember, Bill Walton was something like hockey's Bobby Orr. He was positively brilliant when he was healthy, one of the best ever, but he wasn't healthy very often.

Walton started having medical problems back in high school, when his agility and ability made him a big target of opposing players with fewer skills. He also talks here about the fact that his foot problems really started at that stage in his life. In hindsight, Walton probably never had a chance to be great for very long.

But he was great at UCLA, helping the Bruins win national championships in 1972 and 1973. The 1973-74 season was a different story, and it might be the most interesting story in the book. UCLA coach John Wooden apparently benched point guard Greg Lee when Lee may have admitted that he smoked marijuana. It's a little vague in Walton's description, and the center says he sort of dodged the same question from Wooden. In any event, Tommy Curtis gets ripped in the book for being selfish in that season, and Walton gives him the blame for losing that championship despite a stacked roster. Walton also talks about some major physical problems he had that didn't help matters.

Once he enters the pros, Walton was never healthy very often. But when he was, he gave us a taste of what might have been. Walton led the Trail Blazers to a championship in 1977 in a memorable final over Philadelphia. That team was a pleasure to watch. He was on his way to an MVP season and maybe a repeat championship in 1978 when he suffered a very serious injury that essentially ended his best part of his career. Walton spent years on the disabled list, but recovered long enough to help the Celtics win a title in 1986. He was the NBA's Sixth Man of the Year in a backup role. But then Walton got hurt again, and he was gone.

Walton overcame a bad stuttering problem and became, of all things, a color commentator for college and pro basketball. He even worked some NBA Finals. Walton was smart if offbeat on the air, matching his personal reputation. But physical problems popped up again, this time adding spine issues to his personal list, and Walton couldn't even get off the floor for a while about six years ago. Surgery and a long rehab program apparently has given him his life back to some extent, which is good news by any measure.  He's even back behind the microphone again.

Walton was a purist when it came to basketball, which made him a good fit for Wooden's style of play. The center pays tribute to his old coach throughout the book, and also shows his appreciation for many others who have helped him in his life. There are plenty of nice things here about his old teammates, especially Larry Bird, and his other friends and mentors picked up along the way. Curtis, Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan are about the only people to get trashed here. And it wouldn't be a Bill Walton book without some references the Grateful Dead, including a bunch of song lyrics. Bill might not have been the biggest Deadhead around, but he was the tallest.

One other oddity: A reviewer of the first book mentioned that it was odd that Walton didn't mention the mother of his children in the first book. Well, there's no sign of her here either. At least his second wife gets plenty of credit, particularly when it comes to nursing him back to health. A couple of the anecdotes are repeated as well.

Walton always had the ability to fascinate us on the court, so it's interesting to read his account of his playing career and its effect on him later in life. This hasn't been an easy lifetime for Walton, but "Back from the Dead" makes him easy to root for again.

Four stars

Learn more about this book.

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