Basketball icon Bill Walton worked with challenged athletes to give them renewed purpose in life

Tuesday, June 11, 2024
Bill Walton's legacy goes beyond the basketball court
Former UCLA star Bill Walton was much more than a basketball icon. He used his celebrity to give challenged athletes purpose in life.

LOS ANGELES (KABC) -- At Game 1 of the NBA finals, the Boston Celtics and the NBA honored the late former Celtic Bill Walton during a pre-game ceremony. But the former UCLA star was much more than a basketball icon. He used his celebrity to give challenged athletes purpose in life.

"He could relate to our athletes because he had 36 surgeries. He called himself a challenged athlete," said Bob Babbitt, co-founder of Challenged Athletes Foundation.

Walton died last month at age 71 after a prolonged battle with cancer.

Mack Johnson met Walton by chance when he and his uncle stopped for a shake outside Yuma, Arizona on their drive to San Diego eight years ago.

"Mack rolls over and goes 'Mr. Walton sir, can I get a photo?' and Bill's like 'of course Mack. What's your sport?' 'What's my sport? I've been injured for six months, I don't have a sport a sport yet,'" said Babbitt.

"We just kept talking and he told me his story about his injuries and how he had been saved by getting back into cycling with Challenged Athletes Foundation," said Johnson.

Mack was a paraplegic, after falling from a three-story balcony months before, but Walton invited him to meet some of his friends in San Diego. Little did Mack know that it would re-direct his life.

"You need to come to San Diego, move into my house and CAF and I will find you a sport," Babbitt said.

"I remember like texting my friends in a group chat... they were kind of following what I was going through in recovery, and when I told them I was, like, I'm in Bill's backyard right now shooting basketball," said Johnson.

"He took him swimming at the Y, tried a bunch of different sports, finds wheelchair basketball, next thing you know, Bill makes a call and he's (Mack) playing at Auburn University.

Bill Walton signed a poster that said "No one gets to the top alone," telling Mack to get started right away.

"And so I look at that and, you know, just realize he's just a helpful soul. And how grateful I am that I was able to connect with somebody like that," Johnson said.

Was that meeting by chance or was it fate?

"And I started reading his book, his birthday is November 5th, that's the same date that I was injured, wow! wow! Where would I have been without this chance meeting," Johnson added.

He says he can't pay it back, so instead, he'll pay it forward.