By JASON QUICK, OregonLive.com
Bringing a heart deep with regret, Bill Walton returned to Portland on Friday for the first time since he can remember.
Ostensibly, his return was for a banquet tour – this weekend he is receiving the Governor's Gold award, making a speech for Special Olympics and attending a fundraiser for the Trail Blazers.
But when his plane descended through the Willamette Valley on Friday, Walton said he discovered tears streaming down his cheeks, and he knew this trip was so much more than awards and encouraging speeches.
It was his time to heal old wounds. And a signal that his life was once again changing.
Walton -- one of the NBA's biggest personalities, first as a player and later as a broadcaster -- has been in seclusion for much of the past 2 1/2 years because of a severe back injury. He's able to travel again because of successful surgery.
But the wounds he discussed Friday are older, going back to his ugly departure from the Blazers in 1979, two years after he led the team to its only NBA championship.
Walton left after demanding to be traded, and while accusing the team of pressuring him to play through what had become repeated foot and ankle injuries. He also sued the team physician, Dr. Robert Cook, and one of his closest friends, trainer Ron Culp, over the quality of treatment and care by the Blazers medical staff.
"I'm here to try and make amends for the mistakes and errors of the past," Walton, 56, said during a 40-minute press conference. "I regret that I wasn't a better person. A better player. I regret that I got hurt. I regret the circumstances in which I left the Portland Trail Blazers family. I just wish I could do a lot of things over, but I can't.
"So I'm here to apologize, to try and make amends, and to try and start over and make it better."
Throughout the day he was emotional, crying as the plane touched down, and then weeping in his meeting with Blazers staffers. And there were times in his address to the media when he stopped talking to compose himself. Much of that emotion is because his ravaged body has once again been rebuilt.
Debilitated for the past two and a half years with severe back pain that stripped him both of his high-profile position as a national television broadcaster, and his ability to live a normal life, Walton is back on his feet after a spinal fusion in February.
He said he spent much of the past two years lying on the floor of his home in San Diego, reduced to a "pitiful ball of flesh" that was unable to walk, talk, sit, stand, or sleep.
"I went from thinking I was going to die, to wanting to die, to being afraid I was going to live, to now seeing rainbows, Calliopes, clowns, and dreams of a better tomorrow," Walton said, his once famous shaggy, red hair grayed and combed back. "Not only am I proud to be here today, I am unbelievably lucky to be here today."
Blazers ambassador Bill Schonely, who was the team’s broadcaster when Walton played and has remained friends with him, was at the staff meeting.
“He was very, very emotional,” Schonely said. “He apologized for the things he did in the past. You know, he’s 56 now, and we all grow up. But I know he is sincere. And he was close to death, and that tends to make you think about things. Now that he’s making a comeback, I think he thought there’s nothing he could do but apologize.”
The back surgery was his 36th orthopedic operation of his life. He says he has two fused ankles, 11 bolts throughout his body and knees, hands and wrists that don't work – symbolic and telling of a 14-year NBA career in which he had only one offseason when he didn't have at least one surgery. Throughout his career, he missed 762 games because of injury, the equivalent of nine seasons.
But when he was healthy enough to play for the Blazers, there was never anybody better or more interesting.
He was politically active, environmentally aware and outspoken on both accounts. He was a vegetarian and became a devout follower of the "Grateful Dead" whom he met in 1974 at Portland's Paramount Theater. He later said it was "an experience that changed my life."
On the court, he was one of the most skilled and cerebral big men of all time, an incredible passer, deft shot-blocker and efficient scorer who blended power and grace.
But just before his rookie season, he had knee surgery. Then during his rookie season he missed 47 of the 82 games because of foot ailments. In his second season, he broke his ankle and missed 31 games. Even in the championship season he hurt his ankle, missing 17 games.
But the last straw was the 1977-1978 season, the year after the championship. The Blazers were rolling with a league-best 50-10 record when a slew of players went down with injuries, including Walton. He returned for the playoffs, but broke his foot in the second game of the first series against Seattle. The Blazers lost, and Walton decided he wanted out of Portland.
"I wasn't alone," Walton wrote in his autobiography, "Nothing But Net." "I think the Portland fans and media also wanted me out."
Today, Walton only remembers the good things. He remembers coach Jack Ramsay "made me the best player I ever was." He remembers Maurice Lucas as "the greatest Trail Blazer of them all." And, of course, he remembers the fans, whom he calls "Blazermaniacs."
But those memories are tainted with regret. He said the fans' support pushed him to heights he said he couldn't reach by himself, but he seldom returned the favor. He was too injured and also too wary of opening himself up to the public.
"The love they gave me was something I could not return," Walton said. "And that's something that will forever be a stain, a stigma, on my soul. I can't wash it off."
He hopes for a closer connection to the Blazers in the coming years. He closely follows the current team, saying "they have the talent" to win it all, and he says he is a big fan of center Greg Oden, who he says "is capable of being a historic-level figure."
He also aims to get back into broadcasting.
But until he leaves on Sunday evening, he is set on reconnecting to the past. He said he would spend much of Friday afternoon driving to his old haunts – Nature's Food and Tool, Wallace Park, Multnomah Athletic Club for a quick soak in the Jacuzzi. And he would visit the old Paramount Theater, where he first met the "Grateful Dead".
"I'm just so happy that I can dream about better tomorrows," Walton said. "You talk about a long strange trip..."