Earlier today I had a chance to talk on the phone with Hall of Fame big man and all-around awesome guy Bill Walton for about 10 minutes. We talked about Shaquille O’Neal, the Lakers and Celtics, the Heat, the importance of coaching and home court advantage in the NBA, dominating the paint, the beauty of Pau Gasol and most important, Bill’s work with Taco Bell and World Hunger Relief. Basically everything you could ever want to hear Bill Walton talk about.
The interview is below. It’s long, but it is so, so worth it. The man can talk.
Bill Walton: Good morning, Trey! Bill Walton here. How are you, sir?
Trey Kerby: I’m doing good. How are you?
BW: Never better, thank you.
TK: I just have to let you know that my mom was very excited when I told her I’d be interviewing you. You’re the first person’s she’s recognized without me having to explain who you are.
BW: (laughs) I hope it’s for the right reasons.
TK: Oh, she’s very excited. I just wanted to start by talking a little about this coming season. You played on some legendary teams when you were still in the league, and one of those teams — the 1986 Celtics — you joined that team in a sixth man role after being a star your entire career. It’s very similar to the way that Shaquille O’Neal has joined the Celtics. How do you go about adjusting to that new role?
BW: There’s no adjustment at all in terms of what your personal goals are, with regards to helping the team win. You do whatever you can to figure it out, which is a basic mantra as we try to fight through all the challenges. As Shaq has proved through his career, he’s one of the more incredible forces in the history of basketball. Now, he finds himself in a fantastic situation, with great teammates, remarkable fans and a great history and legacy. It’s just going to be a perfect situation for Shaq. I couldn’t be happier for him. I think we’re going to see a huge contribution from Shaq this year, and he will make a major difference for this team and he will continue his huge presence on the financial level for the NBA and the Celtics. But also, he has the ability to inspire and to lead and to help other people’s dreams come true. That’s really what all life is ultimately about.
That’s why I’m proud to be here today on behalf of Taco Bell and World Hunger Relief. We are raising funds and awareness for world hunger, which is the No. 1 health issue in our world today. Greater than AIDS, malaria and tuberculosis combined. There are more than one billion hungry people in the world. That is a staggering statistic. It is deplorable. It’s depressing. And it’s something that we can make a difference on and that’s why I’m proud to be here on behalf of Taco Bell and World Hunger Relief. To make that difference. The same difference that Shaq is going to give to basketball fans in Boston and around the world.
And that’s the difference of hope. Because with hope, you have a chance. Without it, you have absolutely nothing. And as Coach Wooden would always say to us, “You can’t live a perfect day without doing something for someone who will never be able to pay you back.”
That’s where Shaq is right now. Shaq has already done it all. Now he’s in a position where he can make a difference for the Celtics. The Celtics are trying to get that championship back, trying to keep the Lakers from tying them for the all-time number of championships. The Lakers are a better team right now, and Shaq can and might be the difference.
TK: Yeah, I would have to agree with you. Along those same lines, playing with the Celtics, you played with several other Hall of Famers …
BW: A lot of ‘em.
TK: Oh, yeah.
BW: Larry, Robert, Kevin. That was a good team.
TK: (laughs) Yeah, that was a very, very good team. You’re right.
BW: And we had a great coach. We had a Hall of Fame coach in K.C. Jones who was the most like John Wooden of any coach I played for on and off the court. And we had a Hall of Fame brilliant leader guy at the top — Red Auerbach. Without all those things?
You have to have the best player. You have to have a great team. You have to have the best coach, and you have to have the top organization. Right now, that’s the Celtics, and that’s the Lakers.
TK: So you’d say you see them in the Finals this year?
BW: Yes. Yes. And the Lakers are still the best team.
It’s going to come down to health and home court. Which, if you think about it in the bigger picture of World Hunger Relief, what are we trying to do? We’re trying to create a safe and healthy home. Where people can have their dreams come true. That’s why the regular season is so critically important. The last two times the Celtics and the Lakers met for the championship, the team with the home court advantage won.
TK: That’s right. Playing with those Hall of Famers is similar, sort of, to the situation with the Miami Heat this year. They have a lot of big names. How do they go about sharing the responsibilities and the spotlight of being the leaders on that team?
BW: That will not be a problem. These guys — who I know as a fan, professionally and personally — all of these guys are committed to winning. Pat Riley has done a perfect job. The bigger problem for Miami is going to be can they get the rest of the players to play at a level that the Lakers and the Celtics are already at. In Phil Jackson and Doc Rivers, the Lakers and the Celtics have the best coaches in the league, and the respective best coaches in their conferences. Erik Spoelstra has to quickly learn how to get to that level.
Because you don’t win, Trey, you don’t win in the NBA unless you have the best players and unless you have the best coach. You have to have that combination. Right now, those combinations are in L.A. and Boston. Now, LeBron is capable of being the best player. Erik Spoelstra has to prove that he’s at that level with Phil Jackson and Doc Rivers, which is not going to happen in the short term.
For L.A., it’s now. Three years from now, Kobe is not going to be the best player in the NBA anymore. Three years from now, Phil Jackson is most likely not going to be coaching. It’s right now for L.A., and Boston is really the same way. Doc Rivers is still a young guy, but in a basketball sense, with KG and Shaq it’s gotta happen right now.
The pickup of Shaq is brilliant. We couldn’t be happier or more excited for him coming to the Celtics. They’ll be right there in the thick of everything. Right where he belongs. He has defined excellence and brilliance over the course of his Hall of Fame career.
TK: Something that I’m sure you’d know quite a bit about is how the role of big guys has changed in the NBA. There aren’t a lot of domination low post presences now, compared to the ’70s and ’80s. How does that affect the game?
BW: You still need to dominate the paint to win. And the reason that the Lakes and the Celtics are the best teams is because they take care of business down low. Pau Gasol is the best big man in the entire league. His skill level is just phenomenal. Ever since he joined the Lakers, they’ve been unbeatable. And they have Andrew Bynum, who also happens to be a big guy.
If you put Pau Gasol, Lamar Odom, Ron Artest and Andrew Bynum on Miami and left Phil and Kobe in Los Angeles, Miami would have the best team.
BW: If you put KG, Paul Pierce, Shaq, Perkins and all the other frontcourt players that Boston has with LeBron and Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh, Miami would win the championship.
It’s not so much having the single best big guy, as it is having the guys who dominate the paint. That’s what Pau Gasol does. Pau Gasol, though, does it differently than anyone else in the current game. Because Pau’s game is all skill. It’s all skill and mental and all emotional. It has nothing to do with power. It has nothing to do with dunking or having big muscles. It’s all about timing and positioning. He’s just absolutely beautiful at whatever he does.
Think back to the great Bulls teams of the 1990s. You had Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippen dominating the paint, even though the best big men were Ewing, Robinson, Olajuwon and Shaq. They’re legendary players, some of the greatest players in the history of basketball as big men. Yet, Jordan and Pippen — along with their coach, Phil Jackson — were able to dominate the paint. That’s what the challenge is for LeBron.
You come back to that mantra — do what we can to figure it out. You see those hungry children out there. Go to From Hunger To Hope. Text “TBHOPE” to 90999 and make a difference. That’s what LeBron and Dwyane Wade have to do. Figure out how to inspire. Figure out how to teach and how to get done what is seemingly impossible.
TK: Thank you, Bill.
Many thanks to Don Povia, Zach Smith and Taco Bell for hooking us up with Bill Walton. And, of course, thanks to Bill Walton for being the most amazing interview subject in the history of talking. So much fun.
And seriously, check out From Hunger to Hope. See what’s going on and what’s being done. Then donate. It’s easy and it helps.