PITTSTON — Bill Walton stood, all 6-foot-11 of himself, and faced about 140 members of the Avoca Jolly Boys youth athletic organization at a luncheon Wednesday. He then removed his pullover jacket.
Underneath, Walton was wearing an Avoca Jolly Boys shirt, celebrating the 50th anniversary of the organization that has provided basketball and other sports and activities for kids from kindergarten to sixth grade and currently has 600 boys and girls playing on weekends in the Avoca Community Center.
Walton is the featured speaker at tonight’s Northeast Pennsylvania Council Boy Scouts of America dinner at Genetti’s Best Western in Wilkes-Barre. State Attorney General Kathleen Kane and longtime political consultant Pat Solano were to be honored by the Boy Scouts.
“Building community is what it’s all about,” Walton said at the Gramercy Restaurant on Main Street. “That’s what the Jolly Boys are about — helping others chase their dreams.”
Fore nearly three hours Wednesday, Walton, the former UCLA and NBA legend, Hall of Famer and television commentator, told stories — of his college and NBA teams and teammates, of his coaches and of his life experiences. The crowd never lost interest as Walton offered a candid and learned talk on basketball, “the perfect game,” as he called it.
“Live for what the Jolly Boys organization is,” he said. “Substance, character and values. That’s what’s important.”
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 “Jamaal” Wilkes University, referring to his former teammate and close friend.
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.
His story began from his early days of playing pick-up basketball as a 14-year-old youth in San Diego, where a group of guys in their 30s inflicted his first injury, but not his last. He had 37 surgeries during his career.
Walton used words like industriousness and enthusiasm to explain what it takes to be successful — not just in athletics, but in life as well. He told his memories, talked about his coaches, players and fans. He revealed his fierce competitiveness and listed the great names who influenced him — Wilt Chamberlain, Bill Russell, Maurice Lucas, Oscar Robertson, K.C. Jones, Larry Bird, Chick Hearn, Jamaal Wilkes and John Wooden, to name a few.
But his fondest memories are 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.”
“I remember the game against Memphis State when Walton didn’t miss a shot,” Aldrich said.
Walton said he would love to play for Duke University’s Mike Krzyzewski. He told everybody to stay focused, to reach your goals, to always send a positive message.
“Groups like this have to combat the negatives that are out there,” Walton said. “You have to remove the selfishness, the greed, the excessive waste. Pull the team together. Lead the relentless offensive attack.”
Who would be on his team if he started one today?
“Lebron (James) and Lebron’s first four children,” Walton said.
Kevin Durant? “Good player, but he has to win a big game.”
Carmelo Anthony? “Next,” he said.
Walton talked about rock legends Neil Young and Jerry Garcia and then named his top seven players: Bill Russell, Wilt Chamberlain, Oscar Robertson, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Larry Bird, Magic Johnson and Michael Jordan.
“Remember, success is based on how good those other guys are,” he said. “Team comes first.”