The first time Bill Walton says “I’m the luckiest guy in the world,” he’s sitting by a river in his home state of Oregon, wearing a kaleidoscopic tie-dye T-shirt, and grinning from ear to ear. Aside from the brief video that precedes his oft-repeated tagline — a montage which hints at the disastrous injuries Walton sustained as a professional basketball player and the controversy he stirred as a Vietnam War protester — it’s easy to believe him. He’s so blissed out he’s beaming, and he’s flashed that smile so consistently over his five decades in the public eye, it’s what first comes to mind when picturing the NCAA legend, NBA star, and broadcast favorite. He’s just a happy guy. With all he’s accomplished, why wouldn’t he consider himself lucky, too?
Director Steve James, who’s often behind the camera when Walton is in focus, circles back to the statement time and again throughout the four-part “30 for 30” documentary series of the same name. He opens the second episode by interrogating the phrase, after Walton voices it once more, and circles back again during the closing moments. “Why?” isn’t a simple question to answer. It’s not to reinforce the obvious: that Walton has been lucky in parts of his life, and that he certainly sees himself that way. Nor is it to argue the opposite: that for every height he’s reached, there’s been a low-point to match it, if not descend even further.
It’s both reasons, really. James builds his docuseries around the phrase because there are at least two sides to every story, and Walton’s could easily be framed as a feel-good inspiration or a calamitous series of events that kept a star from reaching his full potential. The fact that “The Luckiest Guy in the World” honors both perspectives — and forces Walton to consider the pessimistic viewpoint — is a testament to its resiliently cheery subject as much as its deftly inquisitive director. Having rarely given a second thought to Walton over the course of my life, I was moved by this four-part series — in a way that’s becoming rarer among today’s documentary market of athlete-backed hagiographies, and thus worth recognizing while we still can.
In its broad structure, the series follows a chronological path through Walton’s life, though James is smart to recognize when to jump ahead. Episode 2 spends plenty of time highlighting Walton’s glory days at UCLA, when he and the legendary NCAA team were all-but-unstoppable. Game footage is thrilling, and old teammates and competitors frame the Bruins’ title runs in compelling language. But James also cuts forward to see Walton walking the grounds in the present day. He watches him remember those games, and he pushes him to reassess the past through fresh eyes.
John Wooden is a key example. The Wizard of Westwood won 10 NCAA titles in 12 seasons and is widely regarded as one of the greatest coaches in the history of the game. He created the Pyramid of Success, which is used today in and out of basketball, and Walton is quick to sing the man’s praises. “He would come pick me up and bail me out of jail,” Walton says, when talking about his campus protests. But he also refused to sign a letter Walton wrote denouncing the Vietnam War — a letter that only existed because Wooden told his star center to write something instead of marching.
Here, James prods Walton to discuss his political views, and the big man contends, “I’ve always been mainstream.” When James says he’s not sure if that’s true, Walton cheerily quips, “Depending what stream you’re standing in.” Scenes like this — where Walton stands firm in his perspective while conceding another vantage point — help set up more contentious moments later on, when Walton starts to push back. “You’re always trying to get me to explain myself,” he says in the final hour — and yes, of course he is; that’s James’ job as a documentarian.
But it’s also his job to listen to what his subject is telling him. While discussing Walton’s late-career injuries, when he would get paid during his recovery period, James says, “They’re paying you even though you can’t play, which is not a bad deal.” Walton responds, “It’s the worst deal ever.” Why? “Because I want to play.” He doesn’t stop there. It’s evident in that moment, as Walton remembers those long years of not knowing whether his foot would heal, whether he would ever play in the NBA again, and even if he’d ever walk again, that similar comments at the time stuck with him. He’s visibly upset, and he eventually tells James, “Don’t try to tell me that’s a good deal,” while expressing his passion for the game and his team. His sentiments are similar to ones we heard and saw during the UCLA segment, but rather than feel redundant, they reveal the other side of the coin. Whereas before, when times were good, he can speak to his love of the game with elated reverie. Now, remembering when things were bad, his love of the game is conveyed through hurt and sensitivity.
“Don’t tell me that’s a good deal,” Walton repeats, when he’s said his piece. And James apologizes.
“The Luckiest Guy in the World” has all the in-game highlights and career accolades basketball fans would expect. James, after all, has an affinity for the sport. But what separates it from other one-subject sports documentaries is the director’s ability to see Walton better than he can see himself. James can honor Walton’s intentions without shying away from what makes him uncomfortable, and he can shape a story around both in a way that leaves audiences fulfilled and exhilarated. No matter how you take Walton’s claim that he’s the luckiest guy in the world, James’ series finds the truth in it.
“The Luckiest Guy in the World” premieres the first two episodes Tuesday, June 6 at 8 p.m. ET on ESPN. The second half will air Tuesday, June 13 at the same time, and all four episodes will be available via ESPN+ immediately after their network debut.