Standing tall

Bill Walton just wanted to die.

His body hurt so much he felt there was no reason to keep living.

The former NBA star and collegiate basketball legend was no stranger to pain, having sustained numerous injuries from his many years absorbed from the pounding his big body took running up and down hardwood floors.

Over the years, he had been through three dozen operations, mostly for his feet and knees, but he didn’t want to undergo another surgery.

“Everything caught up to me,” he said, recalling the two-year long stretch when his misery was so great that his life amounted to spending days stretched out on the floor of his suburban San Diego home.

“I was in awful pain. I wanted to kill myself,” he said.

The problem was his back.

Walton had tried everything to remedy his pain, but nothing had worked.

And now, he was paying for it.

“I had never heard anything positive about spinal surgery,” he said. “Ultimately, I had no choice.”

Speaking last week at Williamsport Regional Medical Center, Walton, 61, talked about his surgery, his rehabilitation and how he finally reclaimed his life.

Walton, a 6-foot, 11-inch center and the leader of legendary coach John Wooden’s UCLA basketball teams of the early 1970s, brought hope to others possibly facing challenges in life.

Spinal surgery in 2009, he said, has left him pain free, even if he feels he waited too long to have it done.

He can’t walk or sit for long periods of time.

But it doesn’t stop him from embracing life, he said.

“My feet and knees are bad,” he said. “I ride my bike.”

In fact, he’s a biking enthusiast, having once pedaled from San Francisco to San Diego – a trip of some 750 miles.

But mostly, he gives hope to others who may feel they way he did a few years ago when he was in such misery.

“When I was lying on that floor I hit rock bottom,” he said.

He said while surgery helped him, it certainly didn’t come without its price.

He described the post-surgery pain as akin to being hit by an “eighteen wheeler.”

Of the 37 surgical operations he’s had over his lifetime, all were “a piece of cake” compared to the spinal surgery.

Rehabilitation was difficult.

He did the work required to get his back strong again, but hated it.

He got stronger and began riding a bike around his neighborhood, only to face a big setback when a teenager on a skateboard crashed into him, breaking his hip.

But Walton found his way back – again.

Effervescent, jubilant, his talk sprinkled with humor and references to counter-cultural musical icons such as Jerry Garcia, John Lennon and Bob Dylan, Walton made it clear to the audience that he has much to live for.

Wooden, his college basketball coach, always offered words of wisdom to him and his teammates many years ago that Walton continues to heed to this day. Among them were to do your best and not cheat yourself and lay a foundation for success.

His coach, he said, also let it be known that there would always be tough times ahead too.

Spine surgery is something nobody wants to face, but it’s something that no one who needs it should reject, he said.

Marjorie Scouten, 81, told Walton back surgery helped her reclaim her life.

Her procedure, an extreme lateral interbody fusion performed at Williamsport Regional Medical Center in January, left her feeling like a new person.

Scouten had hurt her back in 1988, and turned to surgery after years of medications and physical therapy.

“After surgery, I had no pain,” she said. “I was one of the lucky ones.”

Harry Kerstetter, 58, underwent the same surgery as Scouten in February.

He decided to opt for the operation after enduring pain for about five years, leaving him unable to walk or sit for any length of time.

Now, he walks a few miles each day.

“This stuff won’t go away by itself,” Walton said.

Dr. Ronald DiSimone, a Susquehanna Health orthopedic surgeon, made it clear that not everyone with back problems is a candidate for spine surgery.

“We don’t do surgery unless a nerve is compressed,” he said.

However, improvements in spinal surgery in the way of minimally invasive procedures promote less pain and better healing, he noted.