WILKES-BARRE —Basketball great Bill Walton walked through the streets of Wilkes-Barre on Wednesday, making it across the Market Street Bridge, which offered him what he called “a spectacular view” of a great city, a big river and the Valley With A Heart.
As Walton talked about his parents, his coaches, his family, his career and his 37 orthopedic surgeries, he endeared himself with the 700-plus in attendance Wednesday night at Genetti’s by telling the audience that success in athletics and life is about building bridges and molding young people into productive citizens.
The Northeast Council Boy Scouts of America honored state Attorney General Kathleen Kane and veteran political consultant Pat Solano Wednesday night, and Walton, the former UCLA and NBA basketball Hall of Famer, delivered a message of community service to the overflow crowd at Genetti’s.
According to organizers, the event raised more than $140,000 for the Boy Scouts, who serve about 4,500 young men and women in the region.
Earlier in the day, Walton stood, all 6-foot-11 of himself, and faced about 140 members of the Avoca Jolly Boys youth athletic organization at a luncheon at the Gramercy Restaurant on Main Street in Pittston.
Before Walton spoke, he removed his pullover jacket, revealing an Avoca Jolly Boys shirt. The youth organization is celebrating its 50th anniversary of providing basketball and other sports and activities for kids from kindergarten to sixth grade. Currently, more than 600 boys and girls play basketball on weekends in the Avoca Community Center.
“Building community is what it’s all about,” Walton said at the luncheon. “That’s what the Jolly Boys are about — helping others chase their dreams.”
For nearly three hours Wednesday at the Gramercy and for nearly two hours at the Boy Scouts dinner, Walton told stories — using words like “industriousness” and “enthusiasm” to explain what it takes to be successful in athletics and in life.
He told his memories, talked about his coaches, players and fans. He revealed his fierce competitiveness and listed the great names who influenced him — fellow basketball greats Wilt Chamberlain, Bill Russell, Maurice Lucas, Oscar Robertson, K.C. Jones, Larry Bird and John Wooden, to name just several.
“Live for what organizations like the Jolly Boys and Boy Scouts are about,” he said. “Substance, character and values. That’s what’s important.”
At the dinner, Walton talked basketball and life’s lessons. He talked about his injury-plagued career — having 37 surgeries and excruciating, debilitating pain that drove him to contemplate suicide.
“If I had a gun, I would have used it,” he said in detailing the pain he endured before an eight-hour back procedure got him back on track. His spine was rebuilt.
At both appearances, Walton injected local references, telling the crowd that he and his longtime friend, Tom Blaskiewicz, stopped at the Butler Mine Tunnel Memorial and prayed. He mentioned the Susquehanna River, West Pittston and Wilkes University.
Walton’s message was clear and poignant, articulated in a manner that would never reveal his lifelong struggle with stuttering.
“I couldn’t say ‘hello’ or ‘thank you’ until I was 28 years old,” he said.
But his fondest memories are ones made away from the playing of the actual games.
“Being on the bus, in the locker room, practice, those are the places where lasting relationships and memories are made,” he said. “Make each day a masterpiece. Think of today, this moment, as an opportunity we have to make a difference. Especially in the lives of these young guys. We used to be those guys.”
George Aldrich, a former Jolly Boy and Pittston Area star, was there with his son, Will, 11, a student at Holy Rosary in Duryea. They had Walton sign a copy of his book, “Nothing But Net.”
Aldrich reminded Walton of a great game he had in an NCAA title game when he didn’t miss a shot.
“Remember, success is based on how good those other guys are,” he said. “Team always comes first.”