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Basketball legend Bill Walton is cycling to fight COVID-19

“I work all day on Bike For Humanity because people need to eat and they need to eat now.”

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Bill Walton is many things to many people. He is, in no particular order, a hall of fame basketball legend, committed Grateful Deadhead, esteemed sports commentator, and a lifelong, passionate cyclist. But Walton has been overwhelmed by the devastation of the COVID-19 pandemic and is committing virtually all of his time to create a new event, Bike For Humanity, a virtual group ride on Saturday, April, 25, that brings his passion for cycling together with his urgent desire to raise money, support and awareness for those affected by this global health crisis.

In what he calls, “an inter-galactic initiative,” Walton is encouraging everyone to ride their bike in a manner that respects social distancing measures this coming Saturday (from 9-11 a.m. PT) and if possible to make a donation, as 100 percent of all net proceeds from the event will benefit victims of the coronavirus pandemic, along with healthcare professionals who are battling the pandemic on a daily basis.

“I love my bike and I love being alive,” Walton says. “These seemingly inseparable aspects of my life are great privileges, privileges that not everybody has, even in the best of times. However, with that privilege comes responsibility, obligation and duty. And with the global health coronavirus crisis changing everything for everybody these days, we are doing something about—and for—the exacerbated challenges that so many of our communities now face, not the least of which are food and medical care.”

We caught up with Walton and discussed his love for cycling, how it has helped him in his own life, and why he thought it was a perfect vehicle to combat COVID-19.

VeloNews: Bill, it is obvious that you have been hit strongly by the current global health crisis.
Bill Walton: Well I was never the kind of player, or person, that would sit around and wait for things to happen. I was not waiting for the ball—or the game of life—to fall in my lap. And we have seen the incredible need, the need of the people who are suffering so much. The people who are sick, the people who are dying, the people who are alone, the countless, countless millions of people around the globe who have lost their jobs and the realization that people have to eat and have to have health care. That is what we are supporting right now. Feed the people and support the health care workers so that they have the equipment they need.

It would be like going on a bike ride without a bike. It would be like going to a basketball game and not having a ball or doing a show without a microphone. So we are using everything that we have, right now, to raise the consciousness, and the awareness, and the resources so that people can get through this, as well as plan for a better tomorrow. We are focusing on all of the things that we have to do, and the things that we can do to have a better tomorrow. And when we are looking at that better tomorrow, we are looking at the availability of health care, the working conditions, the benefits and the opportunities for people. The basis of your foundation in life starts with your health. The strength of the team is the strength of the individual.

I have to work on my health. My health is not something that I take for granted. I’ve had 38 orthopedic operations. My life has been defined by meteoric climbs to the top, followed almost immediately by a catastrophic orthopedic health crisis. I’ve had to start over from the bottom 21 different times.

VN: How long have you been working with Bike For Humanity?
BW: I started it up with the devastation of COVID-19. Bike For Humanity believes in the power of sports. That’s our goal, our mission and our purpose. It is a four-pronged purposeful event based on hope, health, community and service.

VN: But you are Bill Walton. You are a legendary basketball player, a Hall of Fame member, and a successful sports commentator. In short you are a very high-profile personality. There are a lot of ways in which you could have increased awareness for COVID-19. Why did you chose the bicycle and a virtual bicycle ride as the vehicle to raise money and awareness for COVID-19?
BW: Oh for many reasons. I live to ride and I ride to live. I have literally been a part of the bicycle community for my entire life. I started riding when I was five years old. And riding our bikes is one of the few things that is allowed and prescribed today, here, where we live in San Diego. We are allowed to go ride our bikes around as long as we wear our masks and keep safe distances.

Bill Walton
Bill Walton. Photo: courtesy Bike for Humanity

VN: You have been working closely on this project with San Diego Sport Innovator.
BW: Yes, Bike For Humanity is the genesis of those of us in our likeminded SDSI community and the sports and active lifestyle industry which here in San Diego has over 1,200 companies and a six billion dollar impact here in San Diego, with over 50,000 jobs. We came to the conclusion that we have to do something. We have to work together and send a message, a message of hope, health, community and service. We just said, “What can we do to help people in the immediate short term because people have to eat and people have to have health care?” And we came up with Bike For Humanity.

VN: Yes. You mentioned a sort of four-pronged attack, and the proceeds of your virtual ride will go to four organizations.
BW: Yes, two organizations that fight hunger, Feeding America and Father Joe’s Villages, which is a stalwart of all good things for people who are up against it. And then on the healthcare side we have Champions For Health, which is an amazing organization of health care professions—be it doctors, nurses, or social workers—who are volunteers that just rush to the hotspots. It is incredibly inspirational to witness what they do. And then, which focuses on getting health care workers the protective equipment [they need].

VN: How did you come up with the idea of a virtual bike ride?
BW: Well firstly because we are not allowed to do a group ride. Our bike community is separate right now. But there is nothing more powerful than the team, so the virtual bike ride is a way for uniting the community, the team, under the current set of circumstances. And then we were like, “Bill you are a solo biker to begin with. Why don’t we get everybody to ride solo!” Let’s all go out for our rides and then come back and have and live stream our different rides on Saturday, April 25. All you have to do is sign up. It’s free. You can donate if you want, but we are really raising a lot of things. We are raising consciousness, awareness and resources.

VN: Bill, as a basketball player you won just about everything there is to win. But as you have said, you have also been a life-long cyclist. Tell us a little about your journey as a cyclist. How did you get into cycling and what kind of role has it played in your life over the years?
BW: Well we didn’t have a lot growing up. Both my parents worked. My dad was a social worker, an adult educator, and a music teacher, and my mom was our town’s librarian. But I grew up in a family and a world of curiosity, exploration and experimentation. And so one Saturday morning my dad took me down to the police auction and I got my first bicycle. I was five years old and it cost five dollars.

VN: Do you remember what it was, or what color?
BW: It was a bicycle with two wheels! But I immediately outgrew it, so I rode it back to the police auction the next week and the officer looked at me and said, “Billy come on in here and switch that bicycle out for one that fits you!” I was growing quite fast and so they let me come back and trade in my bicycle whenever I needed one.

My bicycle allowed me then, as it still does today, to do things that I cannot do on my own. My bike is the bridge. It is the perfect tool, the perfect metaphor, the perfect piece of equipment that allows me to reach my dreams. It is all about self-reliance, empowerment, self-esteem, freedom and independence. For me, the longer I ride my bike, the more I love my bike. The longer I ride my bike, the better I feel. It has always been like that. I have always ridden my bike, when I was a kid, when I was a professional basketball player and today. I have always ridden, be it for fitness, health, love, recreation. As a basketball player, I always rode my bike and it helped me get through injuries. In fact, the only time I have not ridden my bike was when I was in the hospital and bedridden. It just helps with everything in life.

Again, I have had 38 orthopedic operations. Both of my ankles are fused. I have not been able to play basketball in 35 years, but I can ride my bike. I cannot walk down the street, but I can ride my bike. I cannot walk to the store. But I can ride my bike. As I said, both my ankles are fused. I have to count my steps. But I can go all day long on the bike. But I am alive and relatively pain-free. When I say I love my bike, I mean it. I bike for humanity. I understand the power and value of sport and the lessons it can give you in life.

VN: Obviously, you are a big guy and you have one big bike. What kind of bike do you ride these days? It sure doesn’t look like anything stock!
BW: I have a custom made Bill Holland titanium bike. I love my bike. I am not a good rider. But I can ride my bike all day long. I ride for fun. I ride for health. And with Bike For Humanity, I ride for a purpose.

VN: How much do you ride? How many miles a year do you ride? What for you is an ideal length for a bike ride?
BW: Well, I like to ride long. But to be honest, right now, all of my time is on Bike For Humanity. I am still riding, but I work all day on Bike For Humanity because people need to eat and they need to eat now. You never get used to not eating. And people have to have health care. This health crisis has just been devastating in every aspect. People need help and I am healthy. You know when you are on a group ride, or on a team, everybody has to take their turn at the front. And I am healthy and ready to go. So I am taking my turn at the front. There has been no challenge in my life [greater] than COVID-19.