Bill Walton’s Long, Strange Tale of N.B.A. Survival

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“McKenzie River,” I said.

“Santiam River,” he said.

“Columbia River,” I said.

“Nestucca River,” he said, gaining momentum. “Little Nestucca River.”

“Illinois River,” I said.

“Metolius River,” he said. “John Day River. Deschutes River.”

After a while, I realized that this was not just a verbal tic but actually something profound, another way that Walton manages to wrench himself out of everyday reality and into the sacred flow — these vast lists allow him to create his own company, his own surroundings, no matter where his injured body happens to be. It is proper nouns as virtual reality.

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.

When a great athlete gets into a state of flow, there is this special feeling of control — he becomes free of the normal looming dread that haunts human existence, the knowledge that we are just blown around by the random winds of good and bad luck until we die. Inside the special parameters of flow, he is in charge; everything glows with meaning. This is a feeling Bill Walton knew as well as anyone who ever played. And this is his great tragedy: His ability to get into that flow, through basketball, was ripped away from him again and again by the terrible luck of injuries. He remains in constant pursuit of it.

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.