Peter Schmuck

Peter Schmuck: My breakfast with Bill Walton

Photo credit: Joe Camporeale - USA Today Sports

I’m going to give you fair warning. This is going to read like one of those “My Most Unforgettable Character” pieces your grandpa used to enjoy in a magazine called “Reader’s Digest.”

The death of basketball superstar Bill Walton this week struck a particularly emotional chord with me, even though I didn’t really know him and only interacted with him on one occasion a very long time ago.

It was the late ‘70s, and I was a very young part-time office guy at the Orange County Register when the sports editor – a nice old guy named Hal Snyder – decided to find out if I could do anything more than string high school games and keep the prep stat logs.

So he sent me to an event at the University of California, Irvine featuring the former three-time NCAA Player of the Year and current member of the Portland Trailblazers. My assignment was to ask Walton to do an in-depth interview with a rookie reporter who had never interviewed a sports figure more famous than a high school football coach.

I was terrified. I knew who Walton was, of course, because I grew up in the Los Angeles area and was a huge USC fan and therefore was required to hate him for his entire collegiate career. I also knew that Walton, at that time, was not the cuddly basketball analyst with the off-the-wall sense of humor that America got to know and love over the next few decades.

He was a controversial character thanks to his association with some of the noteworthy radicals of the late ’60s and ’70s. He was also thought to be rather reticent when it came to his interactions with the media, so I was pretty sure I was on a fool’s errand. But I stood in line at a table where he was signing autographs and finally got to the front and introduced myself.

Strangely enough, he was quite nice. He didn’t even ask me if it was my real name. And when I haltingly asked him if I could get together with him for an interview, he told me he would be at a certain breakfast restaurant on Balboa Island at 9 a.m. the next day.

I have to admit, I was a bit suspicious. None of this jibed with my preconceived notions, so I had to wonder if I would be showing up at an empty building, but show up I did and so did he.

The thing I remember most was walking into the restaurant, looking around and spotting the longest pair of legs I had ever seen sticking out from between a couple of tables. The next hour or so was among the most fascinating and enjoyable interviews that I would ever have in the 45-plus years I have covered sports.

Walton had an agenda. He told me that he had recently realized that he needed to reach out more to a sports world that he had tried to keep at a distance as he became a household name. I probably wasn’t the first guy he said that to, but I felt like it was and wrote what I thought was a pretty good story that was the first sports front byline of my career.

I don’t know where that story is now. If my mom clipped it, it wasn’t among her kid files when she passed on a decade or so ago. The only words I specifically remember were the ones in a headline that the editors allowed me to write myself.

“Bill Walton: Blazing a trail into the American mainstream.”

He got there, and he will go down in sports history as one of the greatest basketball players ever as well as a very entertaining broadcast analyst.

I’ll remember him as a superstar who gave up one of his mornings for a guy who wasn’t even a real sports writer yet.

Rest in peace.

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