VAIL — Bill Walton will be easy to spot in this weekend’s SOS bicycle ride. He’ll be the tall guy riding ramrod straight wearing a huge grin.
It wasn’t long ago that chronic back pain had the NBA Hall of Famer flat on the floor and contemplating suicide.
“I had a life that was not worth living. I was on the floor and unable to move,” Walton said in an interview.
Walton is in town for an educational event featuring Dr. Greg Poulter, of Vail Summit Orthopaedics. Poulter will talk about innovative spine surgery procedures and Walton will share his story. Walton will also be riding in Saturday’s SOS Outreach Colorado River Ride and signing autographs before and after the event.
But he can only do that because of a new surgical technique that gave him his life back, and that makes Walton really, really happy.
“I love Colorado, I love my spine, I love life, let’s go!” Walton said.
About the surgical technique
Walton’s surgery was done in San Diego by one of the surgeons who pioneered the technique. Doctors no longer have to make a massive incision and move most of the internal organs to access the spine. Surgeons make an incision about 4 inches long.
Only 10-15 surgeons in the U.S. are trained to do this, Poulter said, and he’s the only one in this area. He learned it when he was a resident at the University of San Francisco.
Vail-Summit Orthopaedics is starting a foundation to help research which techniques work and which don’t. This one does, say both Walton and Poulter.
Back in the game of life
Walton’s story goes something like this:
A back injury decades ago left him in constant agony and away from the press table and announcing jobs he loved, and spent 19 years doing. He not only left his jobs, he left the world. He recently re-engaged with missionary zeal.
If you’ve heard Walton speak, either on television or in person, you know he has never, ever edited himself. He still doesn’t.
If you go Friday, you might hear about the days when he ate lying down, because the pain was so bad he couldn’t get up. He publicly admitted he considered suicide.
The surgery started when he was 13. He’s had 36 orthopedic operations and counting. He broke his back when he was a 21-year-old center with UCLA when he was undercut by an opponent. He returned a few weeks later in a corset with steel rods to play as Notre Dame ended UCLA’s 88-game winning streak in South Bend.
He played a dozen years in the NBA on two championship teams, Boston and Jack Ramsey’s 1976 Portland Trail Blazers on arguably one of the best NBA teams ever. He retired at 34 to a life of broadcasting and back pain.
Walton is not alone. An estimated 10 million Americans suffer from chronic back pain.
These days, he proclaims the good news of the “Better Way Back” program, a program for people with chronic back and leg pain.
Staff Writer Randy Wyrick can be reached at 970-748-2935 or rwyrick@vail daily.com.