Hooked On Basketball Early
He was born William Theodore Walton III in La Mesa, California, not far from San Diego, the son of a father who worked as a music teacher and a mother who
was a librarian. Although neither of his parents had any particular interest in athletics, preferring art, literature, and music, Walton followed in the footsteps of his older brother, Bruce, and gravitated toward sports. Another major influence was Frank "Rocky" Graciano, a volunteer coach at the Catholic elementary school Walton attended. Young Walton's first coach "made it [basketball] fun and really emphasized the joy of playing the team game," Walton told ESPN. The game proved a haven for Walton, who told ESPN, "I was a skinny, scrawny guy. I stuttered horrendously, couldn't speak at all. I was a very shy, reserved player and a very shy, reserved person. I found a safe place in life in basketball." He also found time to keep his parents happy by taking music lessons.
After an early growth spurt, Walton had reached a height of more than six feet by the time he entered Helix High School in La Mesa. During Walton's junior and senior years in high school, the Helix basketball team, coached by Gordon Nash, won forty-nine consecutive games to win the California Interscholastic Federal High School title two years in a row. For his part, Walton, who towered nearly seven feet tall as a senior, was ranked as the best high school basketball player in the state. Among Walton's honors during his last two years in high school were being named All-State and All-Conference in both 1969 and 1970 and All-American and Helix Athlete of the Year in 1970.
Throughout his years in elementary and high school, Walton had avidly followed the exploits of UCLA's basketball team on the radio, silently promising himself that someday he would play ball for the team. His outstanding record as a high school player made him a hot property for college basketball recruiters, but the one offer he was most interested in came from UCLA. Walton quickly accepted the university's invitation to enroll there and play basketball for the Bruins under legendary coach John Wooden, a man who was to have a major impact on his life. Of Wooden, Walton writes on his Web site: "The joy and happiness in John Wooden's life comes today, as it always has, from the success of others. He regularly tells us that what he learned from his two favorite teachers, Abraham Lincoln and Mother Theresa, is that a life not lived for others is not a life."