In a story last year, The New York Times said that Bill Walton’s life story read “like a jock Book of Job.”
Walton, who called himself “the most injured athlete in the history of sports,” has undergone 37 orthopedic surgeries. Of his 14 seasons in the NBA, he spent nine and one-half of them injured and unable to play.
The injury with the most telling long-term consequences came when Walton broke his spine while playing for UCLA. Over the next 40 years, his condition deteriorated to the point he could only lay on his stomach.
“I could no longer move, eat, sleep or hope,” he said before an appearance in Lexington on Wednesday evening.
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Walton, the three-time college Player of the Year and a member of the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame, considered suicide.
“I was incapable of functioning as a human being . . . ,” he said. “If I had a gun, I would have used it.”
As God restored the biblical Job, so Walton’s story also has a happy ending. It was a tale he told an audience of about 100 people at Saint Joseph East hospital. His divine intervention came in the form of eXtreme Lateral Interbody Fusion (XLIF).
The thought of spinal surgery terrified him, Walton said. But with no other good options, he underwent the procedure on Feb. 8, 2009. The surgery lasted eight and one-half hours.
“Of all the things that I’ve ever done in my life, this is by far the toughest,” he said. “Everything has changed in my life.”
Saint Joseph East is the first hospital in Central Kentucky to offer XLIF. James Rice, a surgeon with Kentucky Orthopedic Associates, said the procedure treats chronic back and leg pain. XLIF is 10 to 15 years old, said Rice, who does the procedure about twice a month.
Several times during his 45-minute appearance, Walton spread his arms wide, smiled broadly and said, “My spine feels fantastic.” He called himself “an ambassador” for The Better Way Back program. For more information, call 800-745-7099 or check the website TheBetterWayBack.org.
Walton sounded like a medical evangelist when he said, “What we’re trying to do is go around and spread the good news of what is possible.”
He told the audience — including those suffering and caretakers — to be proactive in dealing with pain.
“Don’t ever minimize spine surgery,” he said, “and don’t ever minimize someone who is really complaining about that unrelenting, endless, terrifying, burning-fire nerve pain that destroys your life.”
Walton said he waited too long to explore a surgical option. He credited his wife, Lori, and their four sons for helping him endure when he wanted to die.
“Family members called every day (and said) ‘Don’t give up,’” he said. “But I had given up. It was too hard.”
Walton credited one of his former broadcast partners, Jim Gray, for finding a surgeon.
He also told the audience to set their egos aside and listen to their doctor. His doctors told him his rehab would last six to nine months.
“I thought, ‘I’m a tough guy, I’ll do it in two months (or) six weeks,’” he said. “(The doctor) was right in everything he said. It was the longest and toughest thing I did in my life.”
Now, in addition to being an ambassador, Walton works what sounded like a suicide hotline.
“The depression, the loneliness, the isolation, the hopelessness of spiraling ever downward, you have no control and there’s nothing you can do,” he said. “When you’re in that state, in that position, suicide is very real. . . .
“Every day I’m on the phone with people who are going to kill themselves because it’s just too much. It’s too overwhelming. I waited too long, and that was a huge mistake for me. I wasted so much of my life. That’s why I come out and do this.”