Were you to examine all the ups and downs of his life and career, you might not make a statement that basketball Hall of Famer Bill Walton is “the luckiest guy in the world” as he often claims. But in the four-part ESPN 30 for 30 documentary series, The Luckiest Guy in the World, Bill Walton seeks to prove otherwise. Directed by Steve James (Hoop Dreams), the first two episodes held their premiere at SXSW ahead of the show’s launch this June.
Son, husband, father, athlete, friend, activist, fan; These are the many hats Bill Walton wears in this intimate portrait of his life, telling his own story along with commentary from those who know him best. Talking head interviews include his wife Lori; sons Adam, Luke, Chris, and Nate; and mother Gloria. Then there’s his former basketball coaches, including high school Helix coach Gordon Nash, archival interviews with UCLA Bruins coach John Wooden, and Portland Trail Blazers assistant coach Tom Meschery. The biggest names, besides Bill and Luke Walton, come from Larry Bird and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, who reflect on the environment Bill walked into when he started his higher education at UCLA, and Grateful Dead band member Bobby Weir, who shares how his friendship with the band’s tallest fan formed. But viewers also hear from his teammates from the Bruins (Henry Bibby, Jamaal Wilkes, Andy Hill, Swen Nater, Greg Lee, and Larry Farmer) and the Trail Blazers (Lionel Hollins and Dave Twardzick).
Having only seen two of the four episodes, I can only attest to having half the story. As someone who doesn’t follow professional sports closely and didn’t live through Bill Walton’s playing years, what I connected with most was the human aspects of the story. Bill’s love of life, enthusiasm for nature, courage to be himself, and passion for the sport are what viewers come away with. Narratively, Steve James is careful not to let sports-only segments stretch on for too long without a break. For example, Bill’s incredible four years as a UCLA Bruin takes a break between his sophomore and junior years for a fun tour of his home by his wife Lori, who shows just how obsessed she and Bill are with the Grateful Dead.
The Luckiest Guy in the World is the story of overcoming setbacks. A speech impediment made a high-profile sports career difficult, but Bill not only overcame it late in life, but went on to a successful sportscaster career. And despite basketball being Bill’s first love, giving him his zest for life, Bill’s body didn’t love basketball back. At 6’11″ in height and with misdiagnosed bone spurs, Bill’s continuous years of playing his favorite sport brought his body to its current state, depicted in a scene where he revisits an old outdoor court he practiced on in his youth and tries to play hoops with two kids. But in spite of all his personal setbacks, he still maintains that the series’ title is true. Bill Walton is The Luckiest Guy in the World.
The four-part documentary The Luckiest Guy in the World will premiere this June on ESPN, as part of the 30 for 30 documentary series.