AAD keynoter Bill Walton: Tough times? Dig deep

March 21, 2012

American Academy of Dermatology (AAD) keynote speaker Bill Walton told his audience that in moments of crisis, picking around the perimeter of a problem won't do. Rather, the NBA Hall of Famer said that that's the time for a complete overhaul, and getting back to one's roots.

San Diego - American Academy of Dermatology (AAD) keynote speaker Bill Walton told his audience that in moments of crisis, picking around the perimeter of a problem won't do. Rather, the NBA Hall of Famer said that that's the time for a complete overhaul, and getting back to one's roots.

Walton spoke as part of the AAD's 70th Annual Meeting, which drew more than 18,800 participants, including an AAD record 4,931 international attendees.

"Five years ago," he said, "I had it all - I was on top of the world. Who could ask for more?" He was a sought-after sports analyst, a former NBA MVP and a proud husband and father.

But then, he said, the spine he had battered and bruised through college, the NBA and thereafter simply collapsed. "I had been on the road for 40-plus years, more than 200 nights a year in horrendous hotels" where he couldn't stand up in the bathrooms or get a good night's sleep. He'd also been logging more than 800,000 flight miles yearly, cramming his six-foot-11 frame into seats the average flyer finds uncomfortable.

After the collapse, "I spent two long years on the ground, in excruciating, debilitating, unrelenting pain. But then I was saved," he said, by innovative doctors like those who make up the AAD. An experimental surgery left him with two titanium rods and what he calls an "erector-set cage" holding his spine together.

While struggling to return to the active, productive life he was used to, Walton says, "I learned that in those times when the ball has bounced the other way, you have to get back to that foundation, to what makes you a special player" in the first place.

"The biggest problem we have when things are going wrong is, we tend to think that it's all about minor adjustments on the perimeter. No - when things are really tough, take that step back and redefine yourself. Come back to your core and your fundamental values."

For Walton, this meant remembering the unconventional wisdom of his UCLA coach John Wooden. "He would say, ‘Basketball, like life, is not a game of size and strength. It's a game of skill, timing and position. It's not how big you are - it's how big you play. It's also about subjugating your ego to the greater goals of the team.’"

To that end, Walton said that now that he's virtually pain-free, "I spend a ton of time as a volunteer with the Challenged Athletes Foundation. We buy wheelchairs and prosthetics for people who don't have arms and legs - people who have given up, people who are returning from wars in Iraq and Afghanistan blown up, young children born with defects and people who have been in terrible accidents - so that they can play in the game of life."

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