Yesterday I met Bill Walton, the basketball great. He claims to be 6’11”, which I believed until I stood next to him. He’s more like 40 ft. tall.
Bill came to talk to a group of us in Bloomington/Normal about economic development. He is a part of San Diego’s efforts to spur entrepreneurship in sports there. Though he did talk about supporting our efforts in economic growth here, that was not what captivated me during his talk. It was the story of his personal struggle to overcome injuries he sustained as a player and afterward that sent me out of the gathering with a bit more of a lift in step and spirit.
Sports are hard on a body. I recall one morning many years ago as I hobbled to put corn in the planter my father said, “Son, I know you love martial arts, but is it worth it?” Remembering the kick I threw the previous night that landed on someone’s elbow instead of their ribs, I stopped, bag of corn in hand, and thought. I didn’t say anything to Dad, but he knew the answer as soon as I did. Yes, it was worth it.
As I listened to Bill Walton talk about his ordeal, neither my sore foot nor the ACL surgery after my last competition a few years ago seemed noteworthy. Bill has endured over 30 foot surgeries and a spine fusion. After his spine collapsed, he spent two years mostly on the floor feeling like he was “in a vat of acid with an electric current running through it.”
Bill wanted to give up. He contemplated suicide. He told his wife to leave him. He knew he could not go on but he did anyway. Today, he stands again at his full height in body and soul.
Sometimes in this blog, I sound like a dour and curmudgeonly scold. I see what is coming and I want people to be ready. I want them to know the opponent they are about to face, the no-holds-barred economic game they are about to play. I want them to be ready. I want to be ready myself. Frankly, my own struggle has lately dampened my enthusiasm and left me less than optimistic about the future.
Bill Walton helped me remember that unplanned tragedies befall us and unbidden events abound, but that during the times that threaten to break us, there are other people to reach down from the mountaintop and lift us up.
My advocacy of freedom is not about getting to the mountaintop and forgetting about the others still on the path upward. It is not about stepping on the poor to get rich. It is not about elbowing your way to the top. It is about being your best, about reaching your potential and living your dream. It is a celebration of the joy that can only come from giving it all you have and accepting help given freely, with a clear conscience and a clean heart. It is also about giving that kind of help to others when truly needed and refusing to give it when others are perfectly capable of doing it themselves.
Yesterday, I needed that message. Badly. I had allowed myself to slouch to a fraction of my true height. I was shrunken, not spread to my full breadth. Were I superstitious, I would say that the Cosmos had seen my plight and sent a messenger. As it is, I’ll just accept that Bill was the right person at the right time. Thanks, Bill.