Against the Odds – How Stutterer Bill Walton Became a Broadcaster
“Learning to speak without a stutter is without a doubt my greatest accomplishment in life…and your biggest nightmare,” said basketball legend BILL WALTON to an audience of financial professionals recently. The crowd laughed because it was 30 minutes into his 60-minute talk and they'd already discovered what Walton fans everywhere already know -- the man can talk!
To that point, Bill’s ESPN broadcasts for Pac-12 basketball are truly an adventure, with Bill talking about humpback whales, saguaro cactus, making animal sounds of all the Pac-12 school mascots, memorable lines from his favorite Grateful Dead songs – all while adding color commentary for the game in front of him.
It's important to note that Bill wasn’t always so loquacious. He was great at academics and outstanding at basketball, both in high school and during his college days at UCLA, but Bill had a stutter so bad that he couldn’t say a simple “thank you” until he was 28 years old. For someone who loved words and reading so much, the inability to vocalize them was beyond frustrating.
Bill is a gentle man but he knows how to grit it out. He survived 38 orthopedic surgeries - one which ended his career prematurely. Injuries kept him from playing more than half the games during his remarkable NBA career. Pure tenacity kept him in the games he did play.
When his career ended, Bill wanted more than anything to become a broadcaster but more grit was required. With hard work and dedication, he fully devoted himself to learning how to speak - a prerequisite to that new profession. He accomplished that and never looked back.
I found this great article from many years ago that Bill wrote – his advice to those who stutter and those who love them. I wanted to share it here.
Hearing about Bill's journey in his own words is truly inspirational. Bill is many things to those who only know him from his public self. If you're lucky enough to get close to the man, you learn that, above all, Bill is truly a kind and gentle man who loves to shine a light and help people any way he can. And so, here are his words on the amazing journey of learning to speak.
BILL WALTON ON STUTTERING - IN HIS OWN WORDS
Thank you for your interest in my life long problem with my speech and communication skills. I was a very shy and reserved young man who could not speak at all without severely stuttering until I was 28 years old. Always a success in the classroom and on the basketball court, I took refuge in the things that I did well as a youngster. A straight A student, my athletic abilities covered the deficiencies that limited my overall growth and development. The game of basketball was my religion, the gym my church. It was a convenient way of avoiding my responsibilities of developing my human relation skills.
When I was 28, a chance encounter at a social event with Hall of Fame broadcaster Marty Glickman completely changed my life in so many ways that things have never been the same since, nor have they ever been better. That day, in a very brief, private conversation (one way, mind you, since I literally could not speak at the time) Marty explained, patiently and concisely, that talking, communicating was a skill not a gift or a birthright and that like any skill, whether it be sports, music, business or whatever, needed to be developed over a lifetime of hard work, discipline, organization and practice. Marty gave me some simple tips that day and then encouraged me to take those keys and apply them to methods of learning that I had received from the special teachers that I had come across in my life, particularly the 6 Hall of Fame basketball coaches that I had played for throughout my career. The beginning of my whole new life was as simple as that. No gimmicks, tricks or shortcuts. Just the realization that with some help, guidance and a lot of hard work that I too could do what seemed so easy, simple and natural to everyone else, yet seemed impossibly out of my reach and comprehension.
I am not a doctor nor a speech therapist, neither of which I consulted at any time with my problems. I am not saying what worked for me will do the same for you. This is my story. This is what I have done and continue to do each and every day. What Marty gave to me, the gifts of how to learn, of how to practice, have changed my life; have given me a whole new life. I have gone from a person who literally could not say thank you, to someone who makes his living as a television commentator and public speaker. I have also become a spokesperson for the National Stuttering Foundation. I urge you to contact the Stuttering Foundation and give it your best shot. As we say in basketball, "Never up, never in".
The tips that Marty Glickman gave me almost 20 years ago that I still use and apply every single day are (in no particular order):
- Slow your thoughts down---think about what you are saying now, not 3 or 4 sentences ahead---don't be in a hurry---you will not successfully communicate with speed, but rather with concise, analytical content.
- Chew sugarless gum---to strengthen the muscles in your jaw and to get your mouth/jaw moving.
- Read out loud---it doesn't matter what the subject is, just do it…a lot. When you are comfortable reading out loud, move in front of the mirror and watch yourself, as others will see you speaking.
- Identify the sounds that cause you the most trouble-for me they are D's, H's, S's, Th's and W's (although on some days I can't say a single one)---find written material that contain a lot of these sounds and go back to the start of this list and start over.
- Become a teacher - to anyone, anywhere, on any subject---start with young children with a topic that you know-they won't care about your limitations-all they care about is that you are willing to spend time with them and are trying to give them the gift of knowledge.
- Move forward and don't be afraid to fail---confidence will come from repetition---if I can do it, why can't you?
- When you stumble---stop, then start again---find your pace, your rhythm, your game---everyone makes mistakes---it's what you do after those mistakes that will determine your ultimate success and happiness---turnovers out of commission are what people are looking for---they mean you're a player.
BILL WALTON: Improbable Transition - The Power of Persistence
Marty then instructed me to incorporate these tips into the 4 laws of learning that I had picked up from the top teachers/coaches in my life:
That's it. For me, no magic, no medication, no gimmicks, no shortcuts, no tricks…Just a plan, a vision, a dream that maybe someday?…And a lot of hard work.
Good luck and let me know how I can help. I know it's not easy and it takes a lifetime, but believe me the rewards are incredible.
Your friend always…let me know how you're doing.
About Tony D'Amelio
Tony has spent his career putting talented people and audiences together, first in the music business and later representing the world's leading speakers. After concluding 27 years as Executive Vice President of the Washington Speakers Bureau, Tony launched D'Amelio Network, a boutique firm that manages the speaking activities of a select group of experts on business, management, politics and current events. Clients include: Mike Abrashoff, Geoff Colvin, Ron Insana, Katty Kay, Polly LaBarre, Beau Lotto, Nicole Malachowski, David Meerman Scott, Bill Walton, and Bob Woodward.