By DAVID VANTRESS
THE GOSHEN NEWS
“I’m Bill Walton, and I’m the luckiest man in the world,” the former NBA great told a rapt audience at the Lerner Theatre Friday night as he took the stage.
And after listening to Walton share his compelling life story for 90 minutes, one is hard-pressed to disagree with him.
Walton brought a message of hope and optimism to Elkhart County Friday night, interspersed with healthy helpings of humor and his own experiences in dealing with both physical pain and depression over the course of his more than six decades of life.
Walton’s appearance was the cornerstone of the Oaklawn Foundation for Mental Health’s annual fundraiser. The faith-based provider serves more than 14,000 people in Elkhart and St. Joseph counties annually.
Walton spoke candidly of a lifetime of injuries.
He has had 37 orthopedic surgeries — the most recent being knee replacement surgery a mere 32 days ago.
He spoke even more candidly of severe depression brought on in 2007 by debilitating pain ... depression that led to thoughts of suicide.
Back surgery in 2010 helped start Walton back on the road to wellness.
“It can be a long, hard climb back into the game of life ... you have to work at it,” Walton said.
“When it’s hard, keep going. Believe that tomorrow will be better. Eventually the dark will change to light.”
Mental illness can be a tough opponent, Walton said.
What got him over the hump in that particular contest?
“Faith and patience,” Walton said. “I went from wanting to die, to being afraid I was going to live. I understand what that pain is like.”
Walton also shared warm memories of legendary UCLA coach John Wooden, whom Walton credits with teaching him more about life than basketball.
“He talked more about values and life than basketball,” Walton said.
“I took years off his life ... sent him to an early grave at 99,” a grinning Walton said to laughter from the large crowd at the Lerner.
For Wooden, Walton said, basketball was a game of skill, not size or strength — more mental than physical.
It’s that mental approach, Walton said, that can make a person a champion in the game of life.
“The nicest thing anyone ever said about me is that I made my teammates better,” Walton said.
“That is what the people of Oaklawn do every day.”
“You can’t live a perfect day without doing something for someone who will never be able to pay you back,” Walton said to a hushed crowd.
That, Walton said, is what brought him to Elkhart on behalf of the Oaklawn Foundation.
“It’s about people. ... It’s about being a leader ... It’s about the intangibles ... the sacrifices we have to make. Its about being a part of something special. Be a leader ... get the job done.”