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Bill Walton's pain and humiliation

Outspoken foe of Todd Gloria’s homeless policies

“The infomercial, hosted by television personality Lee Meriwether, featured endorsements by daredevil Evel Knievel, former basketball great Bill Walton, and several consumers who had used the Stimulator.”
“The infomercial, hosted by television personality Lee Meriwether, featured endorsements by daredevil Evel Knievel, former basketball great Bill Walton, and several consumers who had used the Stimulator.”

Pain and suffering

With college players set to begin pulling down cash salaries and pros like Golden State Warriors superstar Stephen Curry leading the NBA with an annual $51.9 million, it’s easy to forget that Bill Walton — one of the league’s biggest superstars in his day, who died last week at 71 — collected annual pay of less than mid-six figures during much of his tortured career. Walton allegedly endured frequent rounds of pain killers ordered by team owners who wanted to keep him on the court and the stands packed. An August 22, 1978 front page story in Willamette Week, Portland, Oregon’s alternative weekly, headlined “Why Walton Wants Out,” noted, “He doesn’t trust the Trail Blazers’ medical staff any more. He doesn’t trust coach Jack Ramsay any more. He doesn’t trust the team’s owners any more. And he feels this city’s newspapers are ignoring the real issue involved in his decision to demand to be traded.”

Bill Walton’s long, strange trip has come to an end. RIP.

The debacle was later chronicled by noted author David Halberstam in 1981’s The Breaks of the Game, an agonizing deep dive into the Trailblazer’s failed season, after which Walton departed for his hometown San Diego Clippers and a $700,000 annual contract — whether or not he played. “The Walton era was over and finished,” writes Halberstam regarding the fallen star player’s end times with the Trail Blazers. “He was particularly hard in his criticism of the team doctor and trainer, who had been regarded as two of his closest friends in Portland.”

But Walton turned out to be no hero in San Diego, either. “On Halloween night, the Clippers held a competition for the best costume worn by a fan,” writes Halberstam. “A man in red hair wearing a basketball uniform and with his leg in a cast had arrived on crutches. Beside him was someone dressed as a witch doctor, carrying a sign saying ‘BILL WALTON’S DOCTOR.’ The cheering had been deafening and the man had won the contest. Walton had felt humiliated and had wanted to leave. It was a moment, he felt, of unusual cruelty, and it reinforced his skepticism about fan loyalty. He knew the Clippers were distancing themselves from him. A reporter asked Hal Childs, the Clippers’ public relations man, how Walton was doing. ‘Bill Walton’s not on this team,’ Childs had answered.”

The ignominy grew in 1982, when Walton settled his lawsuit against Trail Blazers’ team doctor Robert Cook and the Oregon City Orthopedic Clinic for what the United Press International wire service reported to be “at least $100,000.” Walton had originally sought damages of $5.6 million, and the settlement invoked a scolding from Blazers’ then-president Larry Weinberg. “’I never felt there as any justification for the suit. The fact that he [Walton] didn’t pursue it might indicate that on more sober reflection, some of [his] wild statements turned out to be just that: wild, unfortunate accusations.’”

The humiliation would continue for decades. In December 1996, the U.S. Federal Trade Commission cited Walton’s endorsement of a useless medical device in an ill-starred cable TV informercial produced by a Carlsbad firm. “Natural Innovations, Inc., company president Dr. William S. Gandee, and World Media T.V., Inc., have agreed to settle Federal Trade Commission charges stemming from the advertising and sale of ‘The Stimulator,’ a purported pain relief device widely advertised in an infomercial titled Saying No To Pain,” the agency announced. “The Stimulator, which sold for about $80, emits a weak electric spark when activated. Users are instructed to ‘touch the tip of the Stimulator to the general area in which you feel pain’ and depress a plunger to generate electric sparks. The infomercial, hosted by television personality Lee Meriwether, featured endorsements by daredevil Evel Knievel, former basketball great Bill Walton, and several consumers who had used the Stimulator.” Claimed the agency’s Bureau of Consumer Protection director Jodie Bernstein: “Millions of Americans who suffer from different types of chronic or recurring pain, desperately search for relief. Consumers who bought the Stimulator believing these extravagant promises may have wasted their money, and worse, missed out on more effective treatments. The FTC will continue to be vigilant in requiring solid scientific support for health and safety claims.”

Sponsored
Sponsored
David Halberstam chronicled Walton’s heartbreak — and body break.

In the video, Walton had extolled the virtues of the device. “I had approximately 30 operations on my feet,” Walton told viewers, according to a transcript included with an FTC complaint against Gandee and Natural Innovations. “I was in physical therapy on a constant basis. I worked with people who practiced all sorts of medicine. Orthopedists at the top. Massage therapist, chiropractors, acupuncture, acupressure, reflexology, tremendous amounts of yoga. You name it, I did it. If you have a life where you sit around and are in pain, you’re going to be thinking all day long about the things that cause those pains. One of the things I try to do with my life is help people who are also in that chronic pain. That’s why I recommend the Stimulator. So that they can move on and have a productive and happy life. And that smile will return to their face, the way it has to mine.”

But despite those claims, Walton’s suffering continued unremittingly. “In February 2008, Bill Walton suffered a catastrophic spinal collapse — the culmination of a lifetime of injuries — that left him unable to move,” reads a blurb for Back from the Dead, his 2016 autobiography. “He spent three years on the floor of his house, eating his meals there and crawling to the bathroom, where he could barely hoist himself up onto the toilet. The excruciating pain and slow recovery tested Walton to the fullest. But with extraordinary patience, fortitude, determination, and sacrifice — and pioneering surgery — he recovered, and now shares his life story in this remarkable and unique memoir.”

By then, Walton had a made a new career in broadcasting, later emerged as de facto spokesman for San Diego’s burgeoning medical tech industry, and finally as an outspoken foe of Democratic mayor Todd Gloria’s homeless policies, getting the approval of the establishment that had long spurned him.

— Matt Potter

(@sdmattpotter)

The Reader offers $25 for news tips published in this column. Call our voice mail at 619-235-3000, ext. 440, or sandiegoreader.com/staff/matt-potter/contact/.

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“The infomercial, hosted by television personality Lee Meriwether, featured endorsements by daredevil Evel Knievel, former basketball great Bill Walton, and several consumers who had used the Stimulator.”
“The infomercial, hosted by television personality Lee Meriwether, featured endorsements by daredevil Evel Knievel, former basketball great Bill Walton, and several consumers who had used the Stimulator.”

Pain and suffering

With college players set to begin pulling down cash salaries and pros like Golden State Warriors superstar Stephen Curry leading the NBA with an annual $51.9 million, it’s easy to forget that Bill Walton — one of the league’s biggest superstars in his day, who died last week at 71 — collected annual pay of less than mid-six figures during much of his tortured career. Walton allegedly endured frequent rounds of pain killers ordered by team owners who wanted to keep him on the court and the stands packed. An August 22, 1978 front page story in Willamette Week, Portland, Oregon’s alternative weekly, headlined “Why Walton Wants Out,” noted, “He doesn’t trust the Trail Blazers’ medical staff any more. He doesn’t trust coach Jack Ramsay any more. He doesn’t trust the team’s owners any more. And he feels this city’s newspapers are ignoring the real issue involved in his decision to demand to be traded.”

Bill Walton’s long, strange trip has come to an end. RIP.

The debacle was later chronicled by noted author David Halberstam in 1981’s The Breaks of the Game, an agonizing deep dive into the Trailblazer’s failed season, after which Walton departed for his hometown San Diego Clippers and a $700,000 annual contract — whether or not he played. “The Walton era was over and finished,” writes Halberstam regarding the fallen star player’s end times with the Trail Blazers. “He was particularly hard in his criticism of the team doctor and trainer, who had been regarded as two of his closest friends in Portland.”

But Walton turned out to be no hero in San Diego, either. “On Halloween night, the Clippers held a competition for the best costume worn by a fan,” writes Halberstam. “A man in red hair wearing a basketball uniform and with his leg in a cast had arrived on crutches. Beside him was someone dressed as a witch doctor, carrying a sign saying ‘BILL WALTON’S DOCTOR.’ The cheering had been deafening and the man had won the contest. Walton had felt humiliated and had wanted to leave. It was a moment, he felt, of unusual cruelty, and it reinforced his skepticism about fan loyalty. He knew the Clippers were distancing themselves from him. A reporter asked Hal Childs, the Clippers’ public relations man, how Walton was doing. ‘Bill Walton’s not on this team,’ Childs had answered.”

The ignominy grew in 1982, when Walton settled his lawsuit against Trail Blazers’ team doctor Robert Cook and the Oregon City Orthopedic Clinic for what the United Press International wire service reported to be “at least $100,000.” Walton had originally sought damages of $5.6 million, and the settlement invoked a scolding from Blazers’ then-president Larry Weinberg. “’I never felt there as any justification for the suit. The fact that he [Walton] didn’t pursue it might indicate that on more sober reflection, some of [his] wild statements turned out to be just that: wild, unfortunate accusations.’”

The humiliation would continue for decades. In December 1996, the U.S. Federal Trade Commission cited Walton’s endorsement of a useless medical device in an ill-starred cable TV informercial produced by a Carlsbad firm. “Natural Innovations, Inc., company president Dr. William S. Gandee, and World Media T.V., Inc., have agreed to settle Federal Trade Commission charges stemming from the advertising and sale of ‘The Stimulator,’ a purported pain relief device widely advertised in an infomercial titled Saying No To Pain,” the agency announced. “The Stimulator, which sold for about $80, emits a weak electric spark when activated. Users are instructed to ‘touch the tip of the Stimulator to the general area in which you feel pain’ and depress a plunger to generate electric sparks. The infomercial, hosted by television personality Lee Meriwether, featured endorsements by daredevil Evel Knievel, former basketball great Bill Walton, and several consumers who had used the Stimulator.” Claimed the agency’s Bureau of Consumer Protection director Jodie Bernstein: “Millions of Americans who suffer from different types of chronic or recurring pain, desperately search for relief. Consumers who bought the Stimulator believing these extravagant promises may have wasted their money, and worse, missed out on more effective treatments. The FTC will continue to be vigilant in requiring solid scientific support for health and safety claims.”

Sponsored
Sponsored
David Halberstam chronicled Walton’s heartbreak — and body break.

In the video, Walton had extolled the virtues of the device. “I had approximately 30 operations on my feet,” Walton told viewers, according to a transcript included with an FTC complaint against Gandee and Natural Innovations. “I was in physical therapy on a constant basis. I worked with people who practiced all sorts of medicine. Orthopedists at the top. Massage therapist, chiropractors, acupuncture, acupressure, reflexology, tremendous amounts of yoga. You name it, I did it. If you have a life where you sit around and are in pain, you’re going to be thinking all day long about the things that cause those pains. One of the things I try to do with my life is help people who are also in that chronic pain. That’s why I recommend the Stimulator. So that they can move on and have a productive and happy life. And that smile will return to their face, the way it has to mine.”

But despite those claims, Walton’s suffering continued unremittingly. “In February 2008, Bill Walton suffered a catastrophic spinal collapse — the culmination of a lifetime of injuries — that left him unable to move,” reads a blurb for Back from the Dead, his 2016 autobiography. “He spent three years on the floor of his house, eating his meals there and crawling to the bathroom, where he could barely hoist himself up onto the toilet. The excruciating pain and slow recovery tested Walton to the fullest. But with extraordinary patience, fortitude, determination, and sacrifice — and pioneering surgery — he recovered, and now shares his life story in this remarkable and unique memoir.”

By then, Walton had a made a new career in broadcasting, later emerged as de facto spokesman for San Diego’s burgeoning medical tech industry, and finally as an outspoken foe of Democratic mayor Todd Gloria’s homeless policies, getting the approval of the establishment that had long spurned him.

— Matt Potter

(@sdmattpotter)

The Reader offers $25 for news tips published in this column. Call our voice mail at 619-235-3000, ext. 440, or sandiegoreader.com/staff/matt-potter/contact/.

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