Skip to main content

My Three Sons What a long, strange trip it was when the author hooked up with the ol' Deadhead Redhead, Bill Walton, to see a trio of Walton kids play the family sport

Been thinkin', you got to mellow slow
Takes time, you pick a place to go
And just keep truckin' on....

Come on, we're on tour, get on the bus before it fills up!
--BILL WALTON, e-mail message, March 2

Well, it's a rented Cadillac, not the tie-dyed VW bus you might
have expected, but who's complaining? We're rollin' down the San
Diego Freeway last Saturday, Bill Walton's at the wheel, and
life couldn't be grander. All three of Walton's Division
I-dwelling sons--Luke (Arizona), Nate (Princeton) and Chris (San
Diego State)--are playing tonight, in three time zones, on the
final day of our odyssey. We've already seen plenty, of course,
from John Wooden to John Lithgow, from a real-life Grateful Dead
drum set to a 16-foot-high, telephone-equipped backyard tepee.
And that was just today.

What is this journey, you ask? If there's no following the Dead
anymore, I thought, why not do the next best thing? Why not take
a long, strange trip with the proudest Pops on the planet to
watch Luke, Nate and Chris play ball? By the end of our
three-game, coast-to-coast, 5,000-mile triptych, I just might
learn a few things from the ol' Deadhead Redhead.

Day 1: Feb. 15, Los Angeles, Arizona at UCLA

"Hey, Walton, you suck!" screams a Pauley Pavilion patron
standing three rows behind Bill Walton. Such is life for Luke, a
6'8" sophomore forward who spurned UCLA for the Wildcats. As the
only Walton boy who enrolled in a Pac-10 school, Luke has heard
the obligatory "Who's your daddy?" chants at Oregon this season.
Now, moments before tip-off, a sprightly young Bruinite hands
Bill a copy of The Sons of Westwood, a handout that sounds like
the work of a Fascist hate group but is in fact the work of a
perfectly harmless hate group that circulates info on opposing
players among UCLA fans so they can ride their foes. For the
Sons, every Arizona player is fair game, including this son of a
Son of Westwood: "Luke Walton--the son of Bruins great Bill Walton
who led UCLA to two championships and a record 88-game win
streak. Sorry, son. Who's [sic] house? DAD'S HOUSE."

Bill sighs. "This is the hardest night of the year," he says,
munching nervously on his popcorn. "My life is a shrine to John
Wooden and the Pyramid of Success. I took all my sons to Coach
Wooden's house to learn how to put their shoes and socks on, the
same way he taught me. I'd write all his sayings on their lunch
bags. Be quick but don't hurry. Never mistake activity for
achievement. Failing to prepare is preparing to fail. I came to
UCLA 30 years ago, and there are still so many of the same
season-ticket holders. See that usher over there? He was here
when I was here!"

Then again, that's Luke in the visitors' red. The conflict is
unbearable. As the autograph hounds snake by, they sound a
variation on the same theme.

"Bill, who's going to win?"

"Bill, hope Luke gets 30 and the Bruins win by two."

"Who you rooting for, Bill?"

"A good game," he replies.

It's an important game, too, because UCLA and Arizona are neck
and neck in the Pac-10 race, two games behind Stanford. Luke is
the Wildcats' sixth man--one of the nation's best, a deft passer
who's also averaging 6.0 points--and he's unmistakably Bill's boy,
from the red mop top to the baritone voice to the tribute on his
right biceps: a tattoo of four dancing skeletons spinning
basketballs. It's an homage to the Dead, one spinner for each of
the Walton brothers. (The oldest, Adam, 25, played at LSU and the
College of Notre Dame in Belmont, Calif.) "We grew up listening
to the Dead," Luke says. "At home there's a picture of me
backstage at one of their concerts. I must have been four or

Wooden isn't a tattoo man, though, and neither is Bill. "When I
first saw it, I was concerned they had run out of soap in
Arizona," Bill says. "Oh goodness gracious sakes alive!"

"It's a pretty sweet tattoo, though," I say.

"Isn't that an oxymoron?"

Of the four sons, Luke is regarded as the best pure athlete--his
brothers jokingly dubbed him The East German as a child for his
singular pursuit of sports--but he's a whip-smart student of the
game, too. When Luke, as a freshman at San Diego's University
High, joined Nate on the varsity, he already knew all the plays,
having watched his brother's games so closely. Says the boys'
mother, Susie, who was divorced from Bill in 1989, "Luke is like
a chess player. He sees things four moves ahead."

Tonight, though, Luke doesn't get his first basket until midway
through the second half, when the Bruins are leading by 11. Then
a strange thing happens. Arizona rallies to tie the game, the
Pauley crowd goes apoplectic, and Bill, bombastic broadcaster,
is...silent. Hands stuffed in his pockets, he looks as if he's
watching C-SPAN. "Come on," I say. "You must be dying."

"I'm a proud dad," he says over the din. "I'm also a proud alum."

UCLA wins in overtime. We scamper from press row seconds before
the Sons of Westwood storm the court. "Luke's going to need some
cheering up," Bill says.

Cheering up takes many forms. The Walton entourage--Bill and his
wife, Lori; Luke and his Arizona teammate Richard Jefferson; Adam
and six other relatives and friends--gathers over chicken wings
and strawberry shakes at Jerry's Deli in Marina del Rey. "That
was a big three you had tonight, Luke," his cousin Harmony says.

"But I didn't have any three-pointers," Luke replies.

"No," Harmony deadpans, "that was a big three points you had."

Dis, Harmony. The mood lightens. Then Bill offers one last
Woodenism (Remember, two nights before the next game is the most
important night for sleep) and rises to leave. He has to catch
the red-eye to New York.

"I love you," Luke says, wrapping Pops in a bear hug. "Thanks for

Day 2: Feb. 16, New York City, Princeton at Columbia

Less than 24 hours after saying goodbye to Luke, we're watching
Nate take the court at Levien Gymnasium, a below-ground bandbox a
few blocks from President Clinton's new offices in Harlem. Walton
has been doing voice-overs all day for NBC's NBA broadcasts,
proving again that he has more energy than the state of
California. Fortunately, the shackles are off tonight. He cheers.
He claps. He's just another dad, only louder. As Nate scores
seven of the Tigers' first nine points, Bill bellows like a hog
caller: "Attaway, attaway, attaway! Let's go, Princeton! Come on,

"Being a college basketball player is the greatest joy in life,"
Bill says, extending his fused left ankle over the bleacher seat
in front of him. "You get up in the morning, listen to
fascinating people talk about different subjects, play ball all
afternoon, study, go to bed and then do it all over again. How
perfect is that? Princeton has done for Nathan what UCLA did for
me. It's given him a full life, a balance."

Bill finally realized that Nate had left the nest one night in
1996. UCLA was playing Princeton in the NCAA tournament, and
Nate, who had just committed to the Tigers, was at the game in
Indianapolis. Bill was watching at home in San Diego with several
Bruin buddies. "We've got our letterman jackets on, we've lit the
votive candles, and UCLA's killing them," Bill says. "Then it
turns around, and Princeton wins. We're having a wake at our
house, and we see Nate running on the court, cheering! The sense
of joy and pride you have when your sons develop was almost worth
the bitter defeat."

Nate, a 6'7" senior forward who has been pressed into playing
center, is Princeton's captain, and his all-around game--through
Sunday he led the Tigers in points (10.6), rebounds (5.5) and
assists (4.4)--is reminiscent of Larry Bird's, which makes sense.
Nate grew up playing two-on-two in the family driveway with Bird
against Bill and Adam, and he remembers how Bird would take each
game as seriously as the NBA Finals and then leave the last shot
for "The Game-winner," as Larry Legend affectionately called
Nate. Nate's uniform number? Bird's 33, of course.

Nate is a voracious reader and has a free-spiritedness that calls
to mind his middle name, White Cloud. His teammates have grown
accustomed to his quirkiness, whether it's his dead-on impression
of his dad or his propensity to do homework on the road while
naked. Moreover, Nate is a politics major, a yellow-dog Democrat
whose senior thesis is a feisty rebuke of George W. Bush that
asks the question, What does it mean for government to be
compassionate? "When we were little, my dad didn't tell us ghost
stories about the bogeyman," Nate says. "We heard stories about
Ronald Reagan and Richard Nixon."

There will be no Nixonian V signs tonight for Princeton, however.
Though the Tigers came into the game atop the Ivy League, the
Lions pull away for an easy 59-42 win. "I wish I had played
better, but he understands," says Nate, who's suffering from a
stomach virus. "My dad has told me many times that it's what you
do in the face of adversity that counts."

There's scant time for Bill to impart any other words of wisdom
before the two part ways. Nate has to catch the team bus for the
ride to Cornell, where Princeton will play the next night. Bill
has an 8 a.m. flight to Sacramento to do a Kings-Jazz game.
Believe him when he says he travels 700,000 miles a year. This
will be his third cross-country trip in as many days.

Day 3: March 3, San Diego, Colorado State at San Diego State

Before Tuffy's regular-season finale (more on Chris Walton's phat
nickname later), we have a full day planned. First comes
Stanford's win over UCLA at Pauley, where Bill chats up Wooden
and Lithgow, who happens to be sitting next to us. Then we get on
the bus--or, rather, in the rented Caddy--and drive to the Waltons'
three-acre hacienda in San Diego. It's a monument to Wooden and
the Dead (an odd juxtaposition, to say the least), a place where
two dozen friends and family members hang out in the summer by
the pool or (not as frequently) in the Manhattan-studio-sized
tepee, a gift to Walton from a Native American group.

Tuffy, a 6'8" freshman forward, may be the fourth Walton son to
play college basketball, but that doesn't mean any of the boys
were steered toward his father's calling. "Basketball is my
life," says Bill. "Nothing says it has to be their lives too. Our
main emphasis has always been education and learning how to
create a life for yourself."

Says Susie, who teaches a popular parenting course in San Diego
called Redirecting Children's Behavior, "If you get so involved
in your kids' sports, they won't know if they're playing for you
or for themselves. Our kids played because they wanted to play."

Oh, about that nickname. Tuffy (the name by which everyone in the
family but Bill hails the youngest child) is a play on Topher,
which Christopher was christened by a German nanny. "Tuffy has
always had a mind of his own, but he adores his brothers," Susie
says. In junior high he would cobble together their news clips
and box scores and paste them in scrapbooks. Late this afternoon,
in fact, Tuffy was glued to his headphones, listening to the
Internet broadcast of Nate's game against Brown. "From Adam on
down, I've used my brothers as role models," Tuffy says.
"Anything I could learn from them has helped me."

Before long, the brothers may be learning a few things from
Tuffy. San Diego State (14-13 through Sunday), led by former
Michigan coach Steve Fisher, is trying to finish above .500 for
the second time since 1985, but tonight it has let a double-digit
lead drop to three points with four minutes to go. Then Tuffy, a
reserve, takes over. He drives for a three-point play. He tips in
a missed free throw. He even looks over and winks at Pops in the
stands. By the time Tuffy pulls down the final rebound of the
Aztecs' 78-73 win, he has set career highs in minutes (28) and
points (13). The Cox Arena P.A. announcer booms, "And the Xerox
player of the game is...Chris Walton!"

It has been, to put it mildly, a good evening for the clan.
Luke's No. 9 Wildcats thrashed Oregon by 39 points, while Nate's
Tigers smoked Brown to ensure themselves at least a share of the
Ivy League title.

So many nights, so many games. Which is why, as we conclude our
journey, I ask Bill Walton if there's such a thing as too much
basketball. "There's never enough," he replies. "Basketball is
always fresh. Every possession is different, just like every song
by Jerry Garcia or Bob Dylan or Neil Young is different. It's
about people and emotions and timeless stories. It's about

It's about family, too. Tuffy emerges from the locker room, a
beatific smile on his face. "Well done, son," Pops says, and
suddenly we're headed, entourage in tow, to yet another postgame
meal. Come on, we're on tour, get on the bus before it fills


COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY JOHN W. MCDONOUGH Proud papaWalton says he never pushed his sons into basketball, but each has developed his own passion for the game.

TWO COLOR PHOTOS: PHOTOGRAPHS BY JOHN W. MCDONOUGH Gym ratLuke (4) has shown the most dedication to basketball; the payoff is that he plays for an NCAA title contender.

TWO COLOR PHOTOS: LOU CAPOZZOLA (2) Free spiritPrinceton has provided balance for Nate, who grew up playing driveway ball with Larry Bird.

TWO COLOR PHOTOS: PHOTOGRAPHS BY JOHN W. MCDONOUGH Tough TuffyChris, who grew up idolizing his brothers, was the player of the game on the night his dad came to see him.