For decades, young children have been eager to get outside, run around and be competitive with their friends. Over the years, youth sports has become more and more serious, evolving into a $7 billion industry that drives the economics of middle and high schools around the country. NBA Hall of Fame inductee Bill Walton had a quite different experience in his youth than athletes growing up today. He credits his unique athletic upbringing for helping shape his extraordinary career, which included two NCAA championships, two NBA championships and a NBA MVP award in 1978.
“The culture has been completely changed since when I was a kid, it’s so much more organized,” explained Walton. “I had a fantastic childhood and some incredible experiences as a young basketball player that I don’t think go on today.”
Some of these experiences included hanging out and playing against elite players of the time. Not only did this shape him as a basketball player, but as a person.
“In the 1960s, the NBA came to my home town of San Diego,” Walton said. “I had the keys to my high school gym, and so all the NBA players knew me because I would open the gym all night long, just for us to play.”
And for Walton, this continued into college.
“When I was at UCLA, the [Los Angeles] Lakers basically absorbed us onto their team. They went to our games, we went to their games, and that interaction was great.”
After being drafted by the Portland Trail Blazers with the number one overall pick in 1974, he continued this tradition of interaction, regularly talking with fans and being a important member of the community. In fact, during the 1970s, Walton could be found playing pickup games at Wallace Park in Northeast Portland.
“I love the people, I love the experience. I love all that stuff. It inspires me, it drives me, it makes me high.”
He also understands the culture has changed and young players today don’t have same opportunities he had. He shared a conversation he had with a college athlete.
“[The player] told me his favorite player was Kobe Bryant. So I asked him, ‘Have you met Kobe?’ and he said, ‘no, no I would love to.’ I was shocked. The players today are so isolated.”
But kids can still learn from their idols without knowing them personally, Walton says.
“It’s essential to have a hero. My heroes in sports were Bill Russell and Muhammad Ali. They stood for more than just stuff, and that’s why I idolized them. I agreed with what they said outside of sports. That’s where the role of the supervising parent or the teacher needs to come in and help the young people filter through all the madness to find the message. That’s what’s important.”
He believes that the type of message he looked up to as a kid isn’t portrayed by the elite athletes today.
“Too much of it is about individualism and opposed to being part of the team. My favorite thing ever was just being part of team. Being on a team like the [1977 Blazers]…changed my life, made my life.”
Addressing the young athletes of today, Walton says, “Chase your dream, not anyone else dream. It’s your life. Build your life by finding a vehicle you can use, whether it’s sports, music, business, whatever…find what you like, and make a better life for yourself.”