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Ryan Waning Ryan Waning
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When heroes exceed expectations

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When heroes exceed expectations (AP file photo)

I recently had the opportunity to talk with an absolute legend, a former UCLA Bruin and Boston Celtic and basketball Hall of Famer - Bill Walton.

After being glad my inner mark didn't come out and turn the whole thing into an episode of the Chris Farley Show, I'd have to say the highlight was getting the chance to pull Bill off of the typical sports stuff for a few minutes to talk about our common interest in the Grateful Dead.

To me, sharing those experiences as a fan of the Dead - one with a near encyclopedic knowledge of set-lists, lineups and show dates - was just as rewarding as having an audience with one of the best passing big men of all time and having him tell you about playing alongside Larry Bird.

For instance, I never knew that Bill Walton had enough stroke among the members of the band that he could suggest songs or even entire sets until I heard it from the man himself. Usually Jerry Garcia would laugh off his mid-show suggestions in between songs, but every once in a while, he'd fill Bill's request. I'd guess being a foot and a half taller than everyone else on the floor lends one a certain visibility from stage. But from now on, every time I hear a bootleg from a certain year in the greater California area (Walton's preferred tie-dyed stomping ground), I'll always have that thought in my head. I'll always wonder, just a little bit, if that was one of the Walton shows.

At least, that's what I thought right in the immediate afterglow of it.

After having a few days to process, the thing that I've come away with is just how genuine a guy Walton was. From shooting the breeze before the interview straight through when the on-air lamp lit up, the Bill Walton you see is the one you get.

Meeting your idols is a funny thing - particularly when they happen to be athletes. For someone like me, someone who came up before the internet onslaught where reportage on everything is available immediately in whatever dosage size you prefer, respect for players usually had little or nothing to do with what type of person they were and everything to do with the stats on the back of their card.

But Walton was different. I became a fan of his in my earliest NBA fan days, jumping in at the best time and seeing my first live C's game in November of 1985 at the age of nine. Watching him start a fast break after a made basket by drilling a missile to Larry at midcourt (who immediately dropped his own pass on the bounce to McHale) was just flat-out poetic.

In the years that followed, I grew to enjoy the fun, larger-than-life personality that he displayed every time he sat down courtside and put on a headset after his retirement from the game. That couldn't all be true, could it? The over-the-top, positive-to-a-fault, we're-all-in-this-together seven-foot flower child? It couldn't be real.

And yet it is.

The final test: I got the opportunity to call him dude (because I call everyone dude, even my kids) and he dude-bro'ed me right back. It was a great moment - great for the kid who moved a ratty Bill Walton poster into each of his three childhood bedrooms, great for the teenager who rocked a Lithuanian Olympic Basketball tie dyed t-shirt and great for the adult who still believes in heroes and the good in people.

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