Bill Walton is standing in front of a basketball hoop in the gym at Helix Charter High School in La Mesa, and he’s talking about the journey of Bill Walton in the same voice he used for more than a decade as a basketball commentator on television. He speaks deliberately, often pausing between words for effect.
“Sometimes the light’s all shining on me. Other times, I can barely see,” he is saying, using an old Grateful Dead lyric. “But to be … back in the game of life at such a dynamic time… is really the greatest opportunity … and the greatest challenge.”
Forty years since he played at Helix, Walton has turned his sights back home to San Diego. The La Mesa native is starting over after 14 years in the NBA and 19 years as a broadcaster — this time as a businessman. Just since the year started, he’s emerged as a leading figure in three local business ventures.
Walton is the executive chairman of SD Sport Innovators, a trade group that mentors sports companies and is part of the nonprofit high-tech trade organization Connect. He’s also working as a spokesman for NuVasive, a local medical device company that developed a spinal procedure Walton underwent last year. And he’s a spokesman for Greener Dawn, a Solana Beach based-firm that specializes in energy efficiency consulting and helping young clean technology companies find investors.
A lot has changed for the two-time NBA champion. He won’t say why he left broadcasting last fall — only that “broadcasting left me.” Since then, Walton has focused on figuring out what he wants to do here, at home.
“I left here in 1970 to chase my dream. A lot of those dreams came true,” Walton says. “I’ve always lived here but I’m guilty of not being involved in all aspects of our great city. Now it’s time for me to help other people with their dreams.”
Most of all, he says he feels very lucky, like he’s been given his life back. For the better part of the last two-and-half years, Walton found himself in pain so excruciating he was unable to work. He hurt his back while playing basketball at University of California, Los Angeles in the early 1970s and the pain continued on and off for years, worsening recently.
“I had a life that was not worth living,” Walton says. “The pain … the limitations … imagine yourself being submerged in a vat of boiling acid with an electrifying current running through that liquid and that does not even come remotely close to how bad it was.”
It got so bad he was forced to have spinal surgery about 13 months ago. Doctors inserted four four-inch bolts, two titanium rods, and spacers in between his vertebrae to hold his spine together, he says. Walton’s no stranger to surgery — he was plagued by foot injuries in his playing days that paved the way for his move into broadcasting in the early 1990s. His latest surgery has required regular early morning visits to a pool at a Mission Valley YMCA facility for more than two hours of physical therapy and then weight training at home in his garage near Balboa Park.
Then he gets to work. His involvement with these projects is still in the early stages so Walton says he spends a lot of time in meetings. He’s been talking with local companies and individuals who might be interested in investing in SD Sport Innovators so the organization can become independent of Connect, says Garrett Hale, Walton’s assistant at SD Sport Innovators. With Greener Dawn, Walton is often on the phone brainstorming ways to develop business for the company, says Courtland Weisleder, its president.
The themes of those projects — innovation, technology, mentoring — fit into Walton’s vision for improving the world. When he was younger, Walton was an outspoken critic of the Vietnam War and Richard Nixon, says his older brother, Bruce Walton. Their parents instilled in them the importance of leaving the world better than they found it.
They emphasized that “if the way to do that was through change, to not be afraid to go down that path,” Bruce Walton says. “Bill has been very fortunate that he’s always been able to do something he’s been passionate about.”
That includes this current phase of Walton’s life, or as Bruce calls it, “the next reinvention of Bill Walton.”
Giving back is an important part of that, Bill Walton says. “Our responsibility to the next generation … our duty to leave this world a better place for our children and theirs. And that means … a sustainable environment and economy … so that they can have their dreams come true as ours have.”
The Connect organization, SD Sport Innovators, started in 2007 as a way to provide local sports companies with guidance on business and marketing plans. There are now more than 600 sports companies in San Diego, from surfboard foam manufacturers to sneaker fabric designers. But SD Sport Innovators struggled without someone dedicating attention to it on a full-time basis, says Marco Thompson, one of the group’s co-founders and current board member.
When Connect’s CEO Duane Roth met with Walton about the job, Roth says he came away impressed.
“I thought Bill interviewed me more than I interviewed him,” Roth says. “He has to be very articulate on these issues.”
Weisleder has noticed the impact too. Since Walton joined Greener Dawn as a spokesman, more companies have started paying attention to the year-old firm, Weisleder says.
Walton hopes to raise San Diego’s profile as well. After spending the last 40 years on the road, he says he can’t stop smiling when he comes home.
“Loyalty!” his voice booms in the gym. “A human attribute … that enables people to achieve … extraordinary feats because they care.” He pauses.”I care about Helix. I care about San Diego. That’s why I’m involved.” The bell in the gym rings loudly, drowning him out.
“Ah! The bells,” he says.
Later, when Walton stands up to walk out of the gym at Helix, a group of students filing into the gym suddenly take notice of the 6-foot-11-inch man in white sneakers walking toward them.
“Oh my God, it’s Bill Walton!” one student exclaims. Heads turn, jaws drop and the students’ chatter spikes in volume.
Walton raises his long arms, grinning. “Helix rocks!” he says in his booming voice. He’s home.
Correction: The original version of this story misquoted Bill Walton in its final paragraph. It has since been updated. We regret the error.