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Originally published Wednesday, February 13, 2013 at 7:50 PM

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Bill Walton keeps students entertained in 90-minute chat

Former basketball great and current broadcaster meets with UW students

Seattle Times staff reporter

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A young man sitting among roughly 125 students at the University of Washington's HUB asked Bill Walton to rank the better player, Kobe Bryant or LeBron James?

Over the next six minutes, he received a spell-weaving diatribe on Jerry Garcia, the Grateful Dead and the sagging attendance in Pac-12 basketball.

After a few minutes, Walton paused mid-sentence and asked, smiling: "What was your question again? Oh yeah, Kobe and LeBron.

"As a parent, I've learned to never rank or compare. Just enjoy the moment."

Walton thoroughly enjoyed himself during a 90-minute chat Wednesday afternoon with UW students as part of a Pac-12 Networks/ESPN campus tour.

Standing in front of two flat-screen televisions that flashed photos from his Hall of Fame basketball career, the 60-year-old shared heartwarming stories and colorful commentary that delved into sports, music and politics.

While engaging in a free-flowing Q-and-A with the audience, Walton was easily sidetracked and perhaps intentionally lost track of the questions.

Once the anecdotes started rolling, there was no telling where they would end.

He talked about his friendships with basketball greats Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Larry Bird, and musical giants Neil Young and Bob Dylan.

He touched on his career at UCLA where he was a three-time All-American. He discussed the year he led the Portland Trail Blazers to an NBA title early in his professional career, how he helped the Boston Celtics late in his career and the foot injury and physical ailments that shortened his basketball life.

It hardly mattered that most of the students in the crowd weren't alive when Walton retired in 1987.

As Farheen Siddiqui, a 19-year-old business major put it: "It was motivational just to see him and hear him talk. What I got from it was you can do whatever you put your mind to."

Walton, who rolled on campus in a blue-and-yellow tour bus with his face on the side, gave a little something for everyone.

He drew laughter after delivering his famous catchphrase: "Throw it down big man one time!"

He talked of overcoming a speech impediment at 28, and of his second career as a basketball analyst.

He admitted to having thoughts of suicide after a debilitating spine injury forced him into an early retirement from broadcasting.

"It was like being submerged in acid with an electric current running through it," he said. "The pain was incredible. I was in the same dark place as Junior Seau."

Walton thanked a "brilliant surgeon" for saving his life. He endured an 8 ½-hour surgery four years ago. He was placed in a medical coma for a week and spent 73 days in the hospital.

"I lost my job, I lost my insurance, I lost everything," he said. "And then, I got it all back. I'm pain free. No medication. It's a miracle what happened to me."

Walton, who returned to sports broadcasting, hammered home a message of hope and overcoming obstacles.

"What I got most from him was to always prepare in life," said Matt Bruhn, 23, a communications major. "And don't wait for it to come to you. It was fun listening to him quote proverbs from John Wooden."

Oh yeah, Wooden.

The legendary UCLA basketball coach was a constant theme in Walton's talk, just as he played a major influence in his life.

From Wooden, Walton learned "Happiness begins when unselfishness ends." "Failing to prepare is preparing to fail." And "do your best. Your best is good enough."

Walton also quoted Boston Celtics iconic coach Red Auerbach who famously said: "I don't care what you do, just get the job done."

The only time Walton got emotional was when he talked about naming his son Luke after his friend and former Blazers teammate Maurice Lucas.

When it was over, Walton gave the students three directives.

"Make a difference," he said. "Walk like a giant in the land. And get in the game of life."

Percy Allen: 206-464-2278 or pallen@seattletimes.com. On Twitter @percyallen.


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