I’d like to presume this blog’s readership requires little introduction to Bill Walton, certainly one of the most dominant college basketball players in the game’s history, and an at times polarizing figure in post-Watergate America whose injury-plagued NBA tenure is agonizing to recount. In Sunday’s New York Times Magazine, Sam Anderson takes the occasion of the publication of Walton’s “Back From the Dead: Searching for the Sound, Shining the Light and Throwing It Down” to quiz the self-proclaimed “most-injured athlete in the history of sports” on a variety of topics. For those who’ve followed Walton on and off-the-court, it will come as no surprise that the Grateful Dead figure strongly in Anderson’s excellent article.
Walton and I spent much of our time together in his car, listening to the Grateful Dead on our way to and from San Diego’s most scenic vistas. Walton knew every song that came on. Several times, he got excited because the music seemed to be speaking directly to us. Once, for instance, when we were talking about Larry Bird, the Dead sang the words “leader of the band,” and Walton said: “See, that’s exactly what Larry was: the leader of the band.” It became increasingly clear that the Grateful Dead was an omnipresent scripture rolling through Walton’s mind.
On our second morning together, driving downtown, Walton and I hit a particularly good patch of Dead. The jam grew and broke into multiple subjams, which wove themselves back together into something bigger and then bounced around. This made Walton genuinely happy. He turned the volume up, then turned it up some more, until the music was the only thing in the car. Even when we reached our destination, when Walton pulled to the curb and the valet-parking attendant came over to take the keys, Walton couldn’t bring himself to leave: The flow was too strong. Interrupting it would have been sacrilege, so he waved the parking attendant away and turned the music up even louder.
Walton and I sat there for several minutes, not moving, at the curb, inside the music. Occasionally, he would shout out some ecstatic explication —“That’s Phil Lesh on the bass, laying down that flesh-eating low end.” Or: “This is from 1968, before the band really even knew what it could do.” Hearing this song first thing in the morning, Walton decided, was a good omen. We would have a lucky day.