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    Thursday, July 18, 2024

    My unsuspecting kinship with Bill Walton

    We’ve been awash in tributes for a few days now to honor the passing of Bill Walton, the ever entertaining hoopster/Deadhead/commentator/narrator of everyday existence. How ironic that his death has brought equal parts levity, too, recalling the life of an American Original.

    Bill Walton never knew the kinship I felt with him. But it was real. And it began and ended with something he accomplished in life that had little to do with basketball.

    Bill Walton overcame an affliction we both share: stuttering.

    He overcame it by dealing with it.

    Same here.

    It’s still a daily struggle. The stops and starts in speech. The pause here. The pause there. The repeated word. The repeated sound. All things you learn to cope when the simplest form of communication — speaking — feels like a burden.

    “I was a very shy and reserved young man who could not speak at all without severely stuttering until I was 28 years old,” Walton wrote some time ago on the National Stuttering Foundation’s website. “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.”

    Indeed.

    I wouldn’t talk in school. I’ve been unable to order a meal at a restaurant. Do you know what it’s like to get called on in class, know the right answer, but be unable to say it?

    Do you know what it’s like to call someone and not be able to identify yourself on the phone because you just can’t say your name?

    The teasing in school?

    People finishing your sentences for you?

    Bill Walton did.

    And so do I.

    Significant others in my life have been irritated with me occasionally for being closed off. Too private. Unwilling to share. Part of that is the Italian — and how we loathe others knowing our business. But most of it is the byproduct of fear. The fear of opening up and not being able to communicate it.

    I get asked often why I took an interest in writing. The answer: Because there have been days I could not speak. And I had (still have) something to say. The magic of the keyboard is an elixir, even though my stuttering is drastically improved.

    Bill Walton is among the reasons.

    “When I was 28,” he wrote, “a chance encounter at a social event with Hall of Fame broadcaster (and former UConn play-by-play man) 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.”

    Glickman’s tips included to slow your thoughts down. Think about what you are saying now, not three or four sentences ahead. Don't communicate with speed, but rather with concise, analytical content. Read out loud, no matter the subject matter. Watch yourself. You will see yourself as others see you.

    Become a teacher — to anyone, anywhere, on any subject. Move forward and don't be afraid to fail — confidence will come from repetition — and when you stumble, stop and then start again. Slowly and concisely. I’ve studied Barack Obama’s deliberate speech patterns frequently.

    Walton got me interested in learning more. One particular speech therapist, Dr. Alida Engel in New Haven, gave me strategies on slowing down my patterns. Nothing has ever worked better.

    I’ve given two graduation speeches, delivered a number of introductions at formal dinners, spoken to English and journalism classes, did a TV talk show and am part of an enjoyable 20-minute radio segment with Lee Elci on 94.9 FM every week. Stuttering will not stop me.

    Walton may never have understood the power of his advocacy. Because so few people realize the layers of the affliction. That’s because people take fluency for granted. I sought the help of insurance once to pay for a gadget that I thought might help the situation. The insurance drone on the other end of the phone said stuttering is not a disability and thus insurance wouldn’t pay.

    I said to the drone, “have you ever been unable to say your name?”

    The drone’s response: crickets. I half thought about telling the drone, "Well, then I guess Th-Th-The, Th-Th-The, Th-Th ... That's all, folks!"

    Instead, I channeled my inner Bill Walton. Who needed a gadget anyway?

    I admired Bill Walton because of my almost 50-year love affair now with the Celtics. But I loved him for his inspiration. His words shall never die, at least not on my watch. His words that were delivered carefully, concisely, hilariously, unforgettably.

    This is the opinion of Day sports columnist Mike DiMauro

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