While Bill Walton seems incredibly joyous now, he was in a dark place after ESPN fired him in 2009. That firing came after Walton suffered a catastrophic spinal collapse in 2008, which exacerbated the back issues he’d faced throughout his playing career and afterwards and left him lying on the floor of his house in pain most days. As he told Sports Illustrated’s Maggie Gray Monday (in an interview promoting his new “Back From The Dead” book about his career, injuries and recovery) , the firing was particularly tough to take, and led to him seriously contemplating suicide:
Walton said the “Back From The Dead” title works on several levels; it’s about his recovery, but also his back problems and his long-standing love for the Grateful Dead. He said the 2009 ESPN firing that made him contemplate suicide was his lowest point, but he’s had so many high points since then.
“When I was lying on that floor and I had nothing, and I was going to kill myself if I had a gun, all these things just kept flashing in,” he said. “I kept telling myself all the time, Maggie, ‘What am I ever going to do if I get up off this floor?’ The epiphanic moments, I’ve tried to capture many of them in this book with Simon and Schuster. The launch this week, it’s been overwhelming, and staggering, and very, very gratifying.”
Walton goes into more detail about how that firing happened and how it made him feel in this clip:
Walton said his role models had always promoted a strong and stoic attitude, which made it tough for him to seek help.
“I grew up with my parents, both from the Depression era, and John Wooden, all my teachers, coaches, heroes,” he said. “Wooden, he laid everything out in perfect English, that was his deal, he was an English teacher. He had his two sets of threes: ‘Don’t lie, don’t cheat, don’t steal, don’t whine, don’t complain, don’t make excuses. Just get the job done.'”
Gray said people would have wanted to help if they knew Walton was suffering, but he said it was tough for him to let others in that way.
“I’m a very stubborn guy,” Walton said. “I’m very proud. But you realize when you go down like I was, ultimately, you learn that nobody makes it to the top alone. And my wife, I mean, I told Lori, I said ‘Get out, get out while the getting’s good,” but she stayed, and she had to live through all of this, feeding me on the floor, and giving up her own life.”
He said the ESPN firing came during his wife’s birthday party.
“She was having a birthday party with all her friends, there were cackling hens across the way, and I was just pumped so full of medication when the phone call came in, when I got fired,” Walton said. “I had a year and a half to go on my contract, that was my job, that was my life, I’m a working guy. And bam. At the lowest point, I got fired. I couldn’t tell her. It was the only time in so long that she had been happy, at her birthday party, because she could never leave me. She knew that I wanted to kill myself, and so she would never leave my side, without having someone else who was a trained professional, who knew what to do. But then, I started to get better.”
It’s a good thing that he did. The college basketball announcing universe is a much better one with Walton in it, and ESPN was smart to bring him back in 2012 and to stick with him since then. Here’s hoping he’ll continue to delight us for years to come.