Hometown: San Diego, CA
Surgeon: Dr. Steven Garfin
Indications: Stenosis, Disc Herniation
Procedure: XLIF® followed by Posterior Laminectomy, Discectomy and Fusion
Levels treated: L2-3
Surgery date: February 8, 2009
Life Prior to Surgery:
Bill Walton, the NBA great who played under John Wooden at UCLA, has never forgotten the play that first wrecked his back— and changed the arc of his basketball career and his life.
On a frigid January night in 1974, the Bruins traveled to Washington State on the Palouse in southeastern Washington. A rowdy sellout crowd lusted for victory against a proud and mighty UCLA team that had won an NCAA-record 84 consecutive games over the previous three seasons.
Late in a hard-fought game, Bill—a spirited and skeletal 6-11 center—soared high above the rim when an opposing Washington State player “low-bridged” him, flipping Bill upside down and sending him hard to the wooden floor.
“It was a despicable act of intentional violence and dirty play,” Bill would reflect 35 years later. “I broke two bones in my spine that night, and things were never the same for me again.”
Bill received treatment but wasn’t at his best when UCLA traveled to Notre Dame 12 days later. The Fighting Irish snapped the Bruin’s 88-game win streak, and an injured
Bill Walton was about to embark on a long, slow, downward spiral that would cause him nothing but trouble and grief for the next three-and-a-half decades.
Since his life was exercise and sport, Bill worked hard off the court. Core-strength training, yoga, acupuncture, stretching, physical therapy, weight training, massage, swimming, biking—as well as taking prescribed medicine and nutritional supplements—kept him playing basketball, but just barely. “It was always there,” he said. “That pain. That discomfort. That limitation. That restriction.”
That pain and discomfort is the main reason why Bill—called the greatest player in collegiate basketball history by some historians—set an NBA record he never wanted: the most games missed during a playing career. His knees, feet, ankles, wrists, and hurting back rebelled at the demands he placed on them and continued until his playing days were over.
Bill eventually transitioned into a broadcasting career, where the constant travel—200 nights a year on the road—compounded the problems with his aching back.
“I lived in this increasingly unbearable world of pain and disability,” he said. “I ate my meals on the floor, face down. I couldn’t get sleep. I couldn’t get dressed.” After 30-plus different orthopaedic surgeries, however, including having both ankles surgically fused, nothing eased the debilitating nerve pain emanating from his back. At one point, feeling like there was no hope, he stood atop a tall bridge and contemplated jumping. At least his troubles would be over.
At the age of 56, Bill finally submitted to back surgery after all other options had been examined. “I just wanted my life—any life—back,” he said. He underwent eight-and-a-half hours of XLIF® surgery and was amazed by the relief from the unrelenting and excruciating nerve pain that ran through his back, into his groin, and down his legs.
“I had to stay in the hospital a week, though, because I was not an easy case. For my spine, walking was the best therapy, but for my permanent knee, ankle, and foot problems, walking was the worst thing for me. So I took longer than normal to recover, but what is normal in a surgery like this? Nothing is easy and straight.”
Slowly things got better for Bill. “After a few months, I began to do things again I hadn’t been able to do in years, like put on my own shoes and socks and bend over and pet the dogs,” says Bill. “But it was right around the seven-month mark when I turned the corner and found freedom again, pedaling my bike with no limitations. Riding on the open road, the wind and the sun in my face—that was the greatest outcome in the world for me.”
Basketball great Bill Walton has a message for anyone contemplating minimally disruptive spine surgery: “I had lost everything. But now I’m back in the game.”