Bill Walton's love of basketball is still exceedingly evident, even 25 years after he last played the game competitively.
The legendary 59-year old still carries a zest for life and the sport which made him a national icon beginning with a sensational college career at UCLA in the early 1970s and through a pair of NBA championships with the Portland Trailblazers (1977) and Boston Celtics (1986).
Walton was in Bakersfield Tuesday night, spreading his positive message about basketball and life as the guest speaker for the Bakersfield Jam Partner Event at the Dignity Health Event Center.
"What an honor to be here in Bakersfield," Walton said. "My dad, he's from Taft. And it's just such a great harmonic convergence in my life to be here tonight to work with the Bakersfield Jam, the D-League representative that just makes everything come into focus in terms of the dream that tomorrow is going to be better. Because the message of the Bakersfield Jam is, is to build your life (and) to chase your dream."
Earlier in the day, Walton met with community leaders and students from Standard Middle School.
After that, the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame member sat down and talked to the media about a host of subjects including: the state of the NBA, his current health, the Los Angeles Lakers' revamped lineup and the many life lessons he learned from John Wooden.
Walton, whose NBA career was derailed by numerous foot injuries and chronic back problems, walks with a limp, but otherwise is in good health.
He had what he calls "a revolutionary spine surgery" just over three and a half years ago.
"It was absolutely the hardest thing I've ever done in my life, but I have no pain," Walton said. "I take no medication. I had no idea what life was like without back pain. I had lived with it for 35-plus years. And now, I have none. It's a miracle what's happened to me. I'm the luckiest guy in the world."
Walton's plans for the upcoming basketball season include working as a broadcaster for the Sacramento Kings, plus ESPN and the Pac-12 Network. He has two decades of experience calling basketball games.
"I'm excited as can be about the chance to be part of something special one more time," Walton said.
One of Walton's first experiences being part of something special came when under the guidance of Wooden, he led UCLA to back-to-back NCAA titles in 1972 and 1973. Walton scored 44 points on 21-of-22 shooting from the floor during the Bruins' 1973 championship game victory over Memphis State.
The 6-foot-11 redhead from San Diego spearheaded a pair of 30-0 seasons and an NCAA men's basketball record 88-game winning streak.
"Coach Wooden is the single most important, influential and inspirational person in my life outside my mom and dad," Walton said. "Coach Wooden gave us everything. He taught how to learn. How to think. How to dream. But he also taught us how to compete, not just at basketball."
Walton said all the great things Wooden taught him didn't completely register with him until he left UCLA.
That day came in 1974 when he was selected by Portland with the No. 1 overall pick of the NBA Draft.
By his third season, Walton established himself as one of the best players in the league. He was selected as the NBA Final's MVP in 1977 after carrying the Trail Blazers past the Julius Erving-led Philadelphia 76ers in six games.
A year later Walton was the NBA regular season MVP.
Walton recalls his NBA glory days fondly, calling Kareem Abdul-Jabbar the toughest opponent he ever played against, Larry Bird the best player he ever played with, and Maurice Lucas (his son Luke's namesake) the greatest teammate he ever had.
Walton is still a huge fan of the NBA and thinks the league and its players are better than ever.
Two of his favorite current players are Steve Nash and Pau Gasol. The two are part of a revamped Los Angeles Lakers lineup that also features Kobe Bryant and newly acquired Dwight Howard.
"It's going to be tremendous," Walton said. "... Assuming good health for everyone, you'd have to say the Lakers are the favorite (to win the NBA championship)."
Walton said he was also impressed with the Jam organization.
"What a story of success that the Jam represents," Walton said. "That ability to take control, to take responsibility, and to build. To use a vehicle, in this case basketball, to create something ... To come back here and see what (Jam) coach (Will) Voigt and (majority owner) Stan (Ellis) and (minority owner) David (Higdon) have been able to build with the Bakersfield Jam; there is really nothing like it in all of sport ...They represent what the dream is about."