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I'm A Believer

Mar 15, 2024
Written By: Mark Newman

Bill Walton, a former college basketball player who converted to volleyball 50 years ago, is convinced the Grand Rapids Rise will do the same to others.

When Bill Walton was graduating from Dwight D. Eisenhower High School on the far south side of Chicago, he received a congratulations card from his grandmother.

Inside the card was a newspaper clipping of a news digest item. "It said, 'Bill Walton, best high school basketball player in the country, signs to play at UCLA,' Walton recalled. "It went on to describe him as the 6-11 center from San Diego. I say, 'But grandma, I'm not 6-11.' She goes, 'I'm 4-9. You look 6-11 to me!'"

Story and photo by Mark Newman

Bill Walton, meet Serendipity. Serendipity, meet Bill Walton.

Although several inches shorter than his more famous Basketball Hall of Fame counterpart, Bill Walton started on a similar sports trek to his namesake until fate sent his whole life bouncing in a completely different direction – one that he never imagined but one that was no less satisfying. It's a journey that would lead him, 50 years later, to become associate head coach of the Grand Rapids Rise professional women's volleyball team.

It's his experience as a master technician – he was head coach of the women's volleyball team at the University of Houston for 24 years – that allows Walton to speak with authority when he sings the praises of the new Pro Volleyball Federation.

"I've been coaching for over 40 years and those were some amazing rallies," Walton said after a recent Rise match against the Omaha Supernovas. "I've watched the Olympics, professional volleyball, and everything else, and those were some of the longest and finest rallies I have ever seen."

There's a belief that the new league wants to become the NFL or NBA of the volleyball world, and Walton contends it is entirely possible. "If you're a top-notch women's volleyball player, this is where you're going to play," he said. "With word of mouth and the high level of competition, hopefully, you'll see our crowds continue to grow."

That Walton has become an ambassador for the sport is no fluke. But it probably would have been a surprise to his younger self, who had stopped playing volleyball when it was "nine people on a side at church."

Walton was a junior college student playing in a summer basketball league at the Harvey YMCA in suburban Chicago when he was recruited to play point guard for George Williams College, a small school founded in 1884 by leaders of the YMCA movement.

It was at the start of his second semester at George Williams that a dorm suite-mate offered a suggestion that would change everything. "He said, 'Bill, you've got a pretty good jump. Why don't you come out and play on the volleyball team?' I thought, 'No way, those skills are beyond me.' But he goes, 'There are two other guys on the basketball team who play and we need middle blockers.' I said, 'Let me think about it. I'll talk to my coach.'"

Given his coach's blessing, Walton went to a tryout where he learned that the two guys were both captains of the basketball team. He made the team, becoming a two-sport collegiate athlete in the process.

The next year, the school welcomed a new volleyball coach. "Jim Coleman was my chemistry professor," Walton recalled. "I didn't know he knew anything about volleyball."

But the educator was already well-known among his volleyball peers.

Coleman had learned the sport from his father, who was on the staff of the Springfield, Ohio, YMCA. He started the volleyball program at the University of Kansas and turned it into one of the best in the country, finishing third at the 1957 Collegiate Championships and second a year later.

If Walton was going to learn everything about volleyball, he could not have found a better mentor.

Coleman participated in seven Olympic Games, eight Pan American Games, five World Cups, and six World Championships. He worked with every national men's team from 1965 until his sudden passing in 2001 at the age of 69 from acute pancreatitis.

In 1968, Coleman was the head coach of the U.S. Men's Olympic Volleyball Team that competed in Mexico City, and he served as an assistant coach for the Olympic team from 1971-72 and 1987-90. A true pioneer of the sport, he was also an innovator and analytical thinker who helped revolutionize the game.

Coleman was one of the first systematic volleyball statisticians, creating statistical systems still used worldwide today. He was a member of the sport's rules committee for 25 years and was an advocate for many rule changes, including the tie-break game, serving from behind the entire end line, and changing the match format.

He even created the net antennae that are still used in today's competition.

"We were the first college team to play with antennas on the net," Walton said. "He bought two bamboo fishing poles and taped the ends with alternating colors, then attached them to the net and started collecting data for the rules committee.

"People think rally scoring started in the '90s, but we were trying rally scoring, running clocks, and stop clocks during tournaments in the '70s. He was always collecting data for [innovations] like that."

But Coleman was most influential in his endless contacts, whether it was making connections through clinics or appearances at numerous tournaments. "I didn't even know what a clinic was, but that's what Jim did for you. He knew everybody in volleyball and because he knew everybody, he could help get you experience playing against the top level guys all the time."

Walton became captain of the basketball team and was good enough at volleyball to become an All-American in addition to helping George Williams College win the NAIA National Championship in 1974. But he had no intention of becoming a coach.

For a time, he thought his future might be in theater. He had contemplated attending the School of Arts at Goodman Theatre in Chicago. "I had read for every production from my junior year on – musicals, the whole bit. I wasn't sure if I wanted to be an actor or a stage guy, but I loved doing productions. I thought, 'This is what I'm going to do.' I was a bit of an introvert in high school, and the stage allowed me to become an extrovert by becoming someone else.

"In the end, I chose regular school and sports, but I never once thought I would be a coach."

Through Coleman, Walton was doing his share of clinics. Leaning on his theater training, he learned how to work a room. "I don't think I'm a comedian, but I always try to be extra amusing," he said. "Some clinics are mandatory and they're not coming to see you, they're coming to put in their hours and get out.

"When it came to evaluations after these clinics, recommendations were often based on the presentation, not the information, so I always made sure to make a positive impression so people would want to come to my clinics."

Even so, Walton figured his fate rested in teaching, not coaching. "I was going to be a science/health/PE teacher, anywhere from K through 12, and I was going to get certified for every grade so I could have options," he said.

His first semester as a student-teacher was spent with seventh and eighth graders. Later, teaching high schoolers was not much better.

"Male teachers end up guarding the hall, doing bus duty in the morning, cafeteria duty at lunch, and detention after school, besides your classes. I did not want to become the disciplinarian, the policeman at the school. That's not what I wanted to be."

He became convinced that he needed to change course.

"I decided I had to go back to graduate school," he said. "My goal was to become a professor just like Jim Coleman – not be a coach, just be a professor. I was enjoying a number of my classes because I like researching stuff and finding the answers to how and why things work. My major was kinesiology and exercise physiology and I thought all this was interesting."

After college, Walton kept playing volleyball. In fact, he managed to transform himself from a middle blocker to a setter as a way to maximize his athletic ability. He was training for the 1980 Olympics as a member of the U.S. National Team when he got a job offer from Elmhurst College in Illinois.

"I was going out west to see how I did compared to the other setters on the team when the offer came," he said. "I shouldn't have told them because they said if you're not fully committed, let us bring someone who we know we might have in the future. So now I had to decide between four years of 'maybe' and my goal of becoming a college professor."

He gave up his potential Olympics ticket for the opportunity to teach science classes at Elmhurst.

"During my orientation period, the athletic director came into my office and said, 'By the way, you have to coach a women's sports team.' I didn't know about Title IX and that all universities were required to have plans for women's teams to meet equity with the men's teams.

"He said, 'All of our women's teams are coached by somebody in the community who doesn't work at the university, so equity means we need to have full-time coaches here. We want you to coach basketball and softball. You played basketball in college and you played baseball growing up, right? Softball is almost the same thing. You'll figure it out.'"

Walton cobbled together a basketball team from a group of girls, only one of whom had played high school basketball, and he did his best to field a softball squad that could be competitive with other schools in the state.

"I went to the AD and I said, 'I'm looking at my resume and I hadn't considered coaching, but while there are lots of men and women who played high school and college basketball, there are not many who have played on the national team in volleyball.’

"I learned from people like Jim Coleman, Doug Beal, Bill Neville, Carl McGowan, and Marv Dumphy, and that's like playing basketball for guys like John Wooden, Phil Jackson, and Gregg Popovich. I said, 'I think you probably should make me the volleyball coach.' And he agreed."

Walton had to continue coaching a second sport, but he was intent on building a winning volleyball program quickly. Looking back, Walton chuckles at his sheer chutzpah when he started coaching the sport.

"The previous coach had recruited a pretty good group, but they were probably wondering ‘who is this guy,’" he said. "I told them, 'If you learn to do what I teach, you will be national champs.' That was the dumbest thing anybody could ever say. I'd never coached a collegiate team and yet I was promising they'd be national champs if they did what I said."

Even so, his words proved to be prophetic. Under his leadership, the Elmhurst women's volleyball team won the state championship in 1981 and won conference championships from 1982 to 1985. More significantly, Elmhurst won national titles in 1983 and 1985. During his tenure at Elmhurst, his volleyball teams compiled a record of 211-55 for a winning percentage of .793.

Although he never intended to become a coach, Walton found himself an ardent adherent to the 10,000-hour rule championed in best-selling author Malcolm Gladwell's book, Outliers, which suggests that achievement is talent plus preparation.

"For seven years after college, I was either playing on the national team or I was coaching clinics all summer long with a large number of people who became Division I coaches," he said. "We were all elite players and coaches who were working camps from June through mid-August, and it was like a laboratory of the ways to learn how to teach skills.

"I had a teaching background so I knew how to do pedagogy and how to create a practice plan and all that stuff. I was fortunate to have all these mentors who taught me how the game should be played, and I had Coleman who taught me the most important things, statistically speaking, if you want to win."

In 1985, Walton also became a tenured professor. "It meant I had a lifetime contract at the school," he said. "I thought, ‘I'll eventually become the head of the department.' Because I won the second national championship with sophomores, I thought we had more titles coming. The girls thought that, the whole school thought that."

Walton soon had a summer schedule filled with clinics. "Once you're a national champion, everyone wants to know how you did it," he said. "And then I got a phone call from the University of Houston."

It took considerable cajoling and compromises before Walton agreed to take over the Cougars’ volleyball program. It was a decision he never regretted.

By the time he stepped down in 2009, Walton had spent 24 seasons at Houston, leading the Cougars to an overall mark of 458-319. He led the Cougars to 11 NCAA Tournament appearances, 14 20-win seasons, the 1994 Southwest Conference championship, and an appearance in the 1994 NCAA Elite Eight.

A two-time Southwest Conference Coach of the Year, Walton mentored 63 All-Conference players in addition to 27 All-Region selections. He coached 1994 AVCA All-America and Olympic Festival participant Lilly Denoon and placed at least one player on an All-Conference team in 21 consecutive seasons.

Over the years, Walton learned the secrets of attracting talent to Houston, often recruiting athletes from other sports whom he felt he could coach to become great volleyball players. "I'd go to basketball games and track meets and look for the best athletes. If Texas got the best kid, then who was second or third? That's the only way we could compete."

Walton ultimately became a victim of his own success. Once he became the highest-paid coach in the conference, he knew his days were numbered, especially when his contract became an easy way to cut the budget.

More recently, Walton had been serving as the head coach for the Texas Tornados, a club volleyball team, in addition to doing clinics and appearances on the Volleyball MasterCoaches podcast and YouTube channel, where former Michigan State University head coach Cathy George was also a regular.

Walton has known George since she was a junior volleyball player in Chicago. They coached against each other after she began her Division I coaching career at UT-Arlington in 1989 and he was still at the University of Houston. "I don't know what the results of those matches were, but her teams were always very good."

When the Rise hired George to be the team's head coach, Walton was already offering opinions behind the scenes, acting as her confidant and consultant. "She would call me and ask questions about this or that player," he said. "I was just kind of giving my two cents’ worth. And then one day she asked if I would be willing to come here and be the associate head coach."

He was intrigued by the offer, seeing it as an opportunity to bring his career full circle.

"I only became a volleyball player because a roommate convinced me to try out. I wasn't going to be a high school teacher to become a coach. And I didn't go to Elmhurst to be the volleyball coach. I went there to become a tenured professor. I got started when the school asked me to coach because of Title IX.

"This was never an ambition, but now I'm a volleyball coach, and I say something stupid during the first day of practice. 'We're going to win the national championship.' If people ask for advice, I go, 'Don't say this.' But the tides of coincidence were always steering my rudder."

When he was offered the opportunity with the Rise, Walton said "it just seemed like the right thing to do."

Even so, he admits that he was skeptical about what kind of players PVF could sign, but George's recruiting abilities in the face of enormous odds convinced him of the league's viability, especially given that she was the first coach inked by a team.

"She had to call people and say ‘I want you to come play for me’ without there ever being a team here or a league or anything," he said. "There was no picture of what the league was going to look like. It required a leap of faith and she did an incredible job."

Walton said the challenge was even greater because teams were limited to two foreign players and most U.S. Olympians would want to stay in Europe to play against the competition they would face in the next Olympic Games.

"When she got Emiliya Dimitrova, I was really surprised," he said. "Emiliya was one of the top European players but she was able to convince her to come play here. Claire [Chaussee] and Symone [Abbott] were playing in Italy, and Shannon [Scully] was playing in France. You can go right down the list. All of them could have jobs someplace else but they chose to come here.

"Cathy did every other team a favor because she signed some really solid players. The quality of players who were coming here made it easier for other teams to attract other good players because they all started talking to each other."

Walton thinks the Rise players have the potential to do great things collectively during their inaugural season.

"Our girls really play hard for each other," he said. "We're a little smaller than some of the other teams. They have middle blockers and opposites who are bigger, but they're not more skilled or more athletic."

Walton, who continues to marvel at the quality and length of the rallies ("It's like a tennis match, at times," he says), is grateful that he has a place on the Grand Rapids bench.

"I tell the girls all the time, 'Thank you, I'm so honored to have this opportunity to work with you,’ because after working with college kids, it can sometimes take them a month, a year, or two years to figure it all out.

"Now when I say, 'Hey let's make this little change,’ it sometimes happens that very day. Ideas you have about what might be better for the team happen instantly rather than months or years down the road. So that's what's so fun. They're all so talented."

And volleyball, Walton can attest, is truly a team sport.

"In almost every other sport, you can give one person the ball and they can go the whole way by themselves. In the recent Super Bowl, Patrick Mahomes either ran or threw the ball for 11 of the final 13 plays that won the game. That couldn't happen in volleyball because the other team would never let the ball keep going to the same person.

"Everybody's got to be prepared because there's no chance to catch the ball, so they're ricocheting the ball to each other and they instantaneously have to be prepared for the next thing. It's an easy game to watch, but it's a hard game to play."

Walton thinks back to 1983, when he had to choose between coaching basketball or coaching volleyball.

"It was a sliding door moment for me," he contends. "If I had stuck with basketball, we could have gone to the Final Four and I'd have landed a Division I women's coaching job and gotten paid more a lot sooner.

"But I told the AD that the best sport for women to play and for you and me to watch is volleyball. They lowered the net, which allows women to be dynamically explosive and powerful in a way that is close to the same as the men's game. It's entertaining to see them hitting the heck out of the ball.

"Volleyball, I told him, will eventually be the pre-eminent women's sport in the world. And so here I am, now in 2023, in Grand Rapids, watching some of the finest female athletes in the world excel at the sport they love."

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Bill Walton met his more famous namesake for the first time at the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta.

The Rise's Walton was there as the television liaison between the broadcast team and the volleyball jury members from the various countries, while Basketball Hall of Famer Walton was present as a broadcast analyst for NBC Sports.

"We were in the gym and I was wearing these huge credentials that are the size of a notebook on my chest with my photo, my name, and a thumbprint. We were rehearsing and I spotted him in long basketball shorts and a tank top. It looked like he was coming in from a run.

"He's walking down the middle of the gym, all sweaty, and someone goes, 'Oh, there's the other Bill Walton,' which is what I've heard my whole life, and I decide to go introduce myself.

"We're right in the middle of The Omni and it's 16,000 seats and I have my credentials on but he doesn't have his. He thinks I'm coming for an autograph or something. So I go up to him and I say, 'I know you want to meet me.'

"He gets this puzzled look on his face and he responds, 'You mean YOU want to meet ME.' I say, 'No, no, I know YOU want to meet ME.' He goes, 'Why do I want to meet YOU?' I said, 'Because we've had the same name for the last 30-some years and I've been playing basketball while you've been playing basketball and people have called me Not-the-Real-Bill-Walton, so I want YOU to finally meet the REAL Bill Walton.

"He looks at my credentials and he goes, 'Oh, you're William G. I'm William T. Nice to meet you.' And we stood there and chatted for a few minutes."