“Won’t you try just a little bit harder.
“Couldn’t you try just a little bit more?”
“The Wheel,” —
The Grateful Dead
It was among the Grateful Dead tunes wrestling for Bill Walton’s attention as he cruised the Carlsbad streets.
Walton was out in front once again, plopping it all on the line.
But he wasn’t yapping about his favorite band (the Grateful Dead), his favorite coach (John Wooden) or his favorite person (wife, Lori). Instead Walton, nestled on his beloved bike, was leading the 2010 Carlsbad 5K runners, casting behind doubt with every spin of his oversized wheel.
“Look at all these people outside enjoying this and I’m out here with them,’’ said a sweaty Walton, through his toothy grin. “I’m the luckiest man in the world.’’
That morning was a giant step in Walton’s return from the brink of surrender.
A collapsed spine which left him sprawled on his living room floor for nearly three years did the impossible: zapped Walton of his zest for life and his will to live.
“If I would have had a gun,’’ Walton said. “I would have killed myself. Because there was no dream that the next day was going to be any better.’’
Walton, the NBA Hall of Famer, ESPN analyst and member of the San Diego Hall of Champions, rallied to stand tall.
Thanks to a pain relieving, six-hour, three-incision back surgery, Walton again mounted his bike and started conquering his next summit.
The top of the mountain is always his destination, where the Grateful Dead is playing, Wooden is distributing life lessons and Lori is by Walton’s side.
Walton, 63, tells his riveting story of hope lost and gained with clarity and sincerity, making his new book, “Back From The Dead,” a compelling page-turner.
“There’s been a lot of books written about me,’’ Walton said. “But this is the only one where I wrote every word.’’
And picked the art which enhances the publication as it presents a look inside Walton’s passion for people, music and basketball.
Although Walton was rejected when publisher Simon & Schuster eyed his cover picture. The reproduction of a Grateful Dead poster fell flat with the editors.
“They said ‘no,’’’ Walton added, and here comes that toothy grin again. “Those guys were tougher than coach Wooden.’’
Walton’s been on a fast break of sorts, racing from one end of the coast to another. His book tour had him at La Jolla’s Museum of Contemporary of Art on Monday where he, of course, held court.
Hundreds of Walton watchers attended to hear tales told by one of America’s great storytellers. Walton rambles on with an unrelenting flow which makes it easy to forget he didn’t overcome stuttering until he was 28.
“That’s part of the message in the book,’’ Walton said. “That if I can do that, what’s to keep anyone else from doing what they want to do?’’
Walton’s previous appearance packed the NBA Store in New York City, where Grateful Dead music filled the air and eager fans clogged the aisles.
“I had people coming by from China, England, Japan, Germany, Poland,’’ he said in amazement. “How do these people find out about it?’’
At nearly 7 feet with an unruly patch of red (now white) hair, Walton was never undercover. What’s refreshing about his book is he peels back whatever layers he hasn’t previously revealed, giving readers an inside look at someone always thinking from outside the box.
“I went to my first Grateful Dead show in 1967,’’ Walton said. “We didn’t have any tickets but we got up to the front of the stage and we never left.’’
Walton didn’t exit a UCLA practice — something he anticipated at 3:30 p.m. sharp during the season — without learning something from Wooden.
A befuddled Walton tells of his first workout encounter with Wooden when freshmen were called back inside the locker room. Wooden cleared his throat and the man Walton worshiped was to deliver the secrets, or so he thought, of basketball.
“Instead he took his shoes off and showed us how to put on our socks just right to avoid blisters,’’ Walton said. “And then he showed us how to lace up shoes in the correct manner.
“But coach had these curled-up toes with fungus under the toe nails,’’ Walton said. “We thought what is this old guy doing?’’
He was informing Walton there is a proper way to do everything and that’s not restricted to putting a ball in the basket.
Walton chronicles his UCLA stay when the three-time college player of the year and academic All-America challenged Wooden on everything from the length of his hair to the military quagmire in Vietnam.
He speaks of playing in the NBA, where he won titles for the Portland Trailblazers and Boston Celtics, and where his health derailed his homecoming dream of resurrecting the San Diego Clippers.
“My greatest failure,’’ Walton said.
His woeful Clippers years illustrates what makes “Back From The Dead” a solid read.
Walton’s well-rounded life has featured nearly as much heartbreak as heartwarming experiences. While he’s seen nearly 900 Grateful Dead concerts he’s also had 37 orthopedic surgeries. While’s he embraces public speaking, for almost three decades he was petrified to speak at all.
“Trouble ahead, trouble behind, and you know that notion just crossed my mind.”
It’s another Grateful Dead lyric from “Back From The Dead” and the book has them sprinkled throughout. Same goes for Wooden’s succinct sayings which penetrate the soul.
Thousands will test their soles in this weekend Carlsbad 5K. Walton is at the Final Four in Houston, but part of him accompanies those optimistic back-of-the-pack runners.
He cranks up another Grateful Dead tune, a sampling meant for those once again seeking their sunny day.
“Every silver lining’s got a touch of grey. I will get by…I will survive.’’
Contact Jay Paris at [email protected] Follow him on Twitter at jparis_sports.