Every other week in The Coach’s Box, Timothy Thomas explores the various lessons that can be learned from the world of sports.
ESPN’s The Luckiest Guy in the World highlights the colorful life of legendary basketball superstar Bill Walton. Although his professional career was cut short due to injuries and controversies, Walton’s impact on sports and activism—especially as a white American male—has had long-lasting effects. Reflecting on Walton’s career and life off the basketball court during this Independence Day can serve as a good reminder of how we ought to use our freedom as both Americans and Christians.
Bill Walton didn’t come from a “sports family.” Rather, his family simply encouraged their children to be extraordinary and explore life’s possibilities. At the age of eight, Walton fell in love with basketball. After graduating high school, he received a scholarship to play for college basketball’s most successful coach, John Wooden at the University of California Los Angeles.
While at UCLA during the early 1970s, Walton entrenched himself in the freedom movements that swept across America, demanding an end to the Vietnam War and equal justice for all, along with other tangential grievances America’s younger generation had at the time. His teammates, including some African Americans, also joined the cause but could not take their stance too far because of what they stood to lose. Walton had much to lose as well, but as a white American basketball superstar, he had more leverage with which to make change.
Walton remained undeterred even after getting arrested at a 1972 anti-war protest on the UCLA campus. When the disciplined and straight-laced John Wooden found out, he bailed out Walton and some of his teammates and drove Walton home. During the drive, Walton discussed his intentions with Wooden. They went back-and-forth until, eventually, Wooden told Walton, “Listen, I don’t agree with this war, either. But the way you’re going about this is not going to bring about the change you want.” Wooden encouraged Walton to write a letter to the President rather than participate in more disruptive demonstrations.
Immediately after getting dropped off, Walton typed a letter to President Richard Nixon listing all of his grievances and politely asking the President to resign. Bill tried to get Coach Wooden to sign it, but he would not. Nevertheless, Walton mailed his letter to the President on UCLA Basketball stationery and letterhead. Nixon eventually resigned, though not because of Walton’s letter (see: Watergate).
Walton’s willingness to put his body and name on a cause to end war is a small example of his activism and how he perceived the world. He earned the respect of many African Americans on and off the court, both for his athletic skill—he took on Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Julius “Dr. J” Irving in 1977 with the NBA’s Portland Trail Blazers and defeated both greats to win an NBA Western Conference Finals and Finals Championship—and his willingness to speak about freedom for all people.
As Americans, we mainly desire freedom for the sake of our individual comfort and privilege. As Christians in America, we often adopt a similar mindset. But as Christians, we have a different example in Jesus, who sacrificed his freedom and equality with God to guarantee freedom for all who believe in him (Philippians 2:5-8). Jesus set aside his own special privilege for a much more significant, longer-lasting cause.
Looking at Bill Walton’s life, we see similar elements of how we can be better Americans. Walton exchanged his privilege to become the next “Great White Hope” in order to bring about peace, justice, and equality for others. As a white man in the 1970s, it would’ve been easier for Walton to stay silent and out of sight, and just focus on dominating in basketball. Instead, he took the lessons he learned from his parents and used them to live an extraordinary life that changed basketball and America.
So during this July Fourth holiday, let’s all consider the examples set by Christ and Bill Walton. Instead of simply consuming our freedoms selfishly, we can examine our privilege and imagine how to use it to do something extraordinary for our fellow citizens and neighbors.