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Basketball legend Bill Walton vows, with love, to stop Grateful Dead’s farewell

Bill Walton celebrates Mardi Gras with the Grateful Dead at a 1995 show at the Oakland Coliseum. (Susana Millman)

This summer’s toughest concert ticket isn’t Taylor Swift or the Stones. It’s the Grateful Dead — or, depending on how you see things 20 years after the death of Jerry Garcia, four guys from the Grateful Dead.

And who better to talk to about the band’s farewell shows – the original members say they’ll never again play live together after two concerts in Santa Clara later this month and three concerts in Chicago the first weekend in July – than basketball legend Bill Walton, a devoted Deadhead since attending his first show in 1967. Walton says he has seen the band play more than 850 times over the years and he’s not about to get wrapped up in the questions (secondary market ticket prices? The same without Jerry?) about these shows. Big Bill is stoked. He’ll also be a special guest on the pay-per-view broadcasts of the shows. He spoke with us by phone.

What do the Dead mean to you?

For me, everything that I believe. It’s a dream that has a teacher that develops into a team which leads to a culture which builds a foundation. I go for fun. But I also go to be healed, to think, to dream, to be inspired, and to see all my friends and family. I’ve been going for 48 years and these days, we have to wait a little bit longer in between the shows but there’s five shows coming up. And I am convinced that if I yell, cheer, applaud and scream loud enough that just maybe, just maybe they’ll come back for more.

They say this is it, though. That the original four will never play together again.

The only thing that’s sad about the Grateful Dead is when the tour ends. And I am going to be there, I am going to cheering for more. That’s my goal. That’s my plan. But Geoff, we don’t own them. It’s just like with Kevin Garnett, just like LeBron James, Kevin Love. It’s their lives and we’re incredibly fortunate that they choose to do this. As we see from Bob Dylan, who just turned 74 the other day, to the Stones who I was just with two nights ago, from Paul McCartney, who we just saw recently, to Ringo to the Eagles to Carlos Santana to Neil Young to Jimmy Cliff to John Fogerty, all these guys, a dream, a leader, a culture, a foundation. And they are still going strong. We are just ecstatic that everybody is still out there driving the train.

I imagine you’ve a busy guy. Did you have to shift your schedule to make these five shows?

It didn’t matter what was planned. They announced the shows, my calendar was set. The only time I don’t get to go to the shows is when my health does not allow me. My health is fantastic right now. My spine feels great, I have a new knee.

[Meet the artist who invented the Grateful Dead’s skull and roses logo.]

You know there are some who say you can’t have the Grateful Dead without Jerry.

We all loved Jerry but this is a team. And never discount the incredible and remarkable talents of the other guys. It’s going to be fantastic. There’s nothing like being part of a team. One of the beautiful things about the Grateful Dead is the whole culture of freedom, of independence. Forever on the Grateful Dead tour, in the parking lot, there is this big bus and on the side of it was painted, “We do what we want.” That epitomized the Grateful Dead.

You’re a big fan of Sirius 23, the Grateful Dead station on satellite radio.

They keep the tribe together. I was in my gym and struggling to find the rhythm. And I always have Sirius satellite radio on in my gym and a recorded bicycle race on the monitor. There was this inordinate space of dead air between songs and so I’m pushing and I’m pulling and I’m waiting and waiting, trying to find it, and just riding. It was so much like being in the arena, in the stadium, in the dark, on the bus. All of a sudden, I stepped to the front and without a word being said, they just broke out into the early introduction of “Foolish Heart.” It’s one of those anthems, one of the rhythms, one of those beats, one of those jams that just defines the enthusiasm, the exuberance, the joy, the celebration. … You just got to that space that everyone is searching for. I’m here, it’s happening, they’re on fire and I can do anything in the world.

You have been to how many shows?

More than 850…. They’re phenomenally talented. And their level of creativity and the thought process that goes into doing this and we get to go and we just get to feel that flesh-eating low end that just comes right through you. And it just makes you grow. And the songs which address everything in your life. Every challenge. Every adversity, every mountain. Every joy. John Wooden had a maxim for every scenario. The Grateful Dead, they’ve got a song for every emotion.

Is there a song you want to hear? “Sugar Magnolia”? “Truckin’”? “Uncle John’s Band”?

I don’t care what they play. I just want to go, I want to listen, I want to be educated, I want to be inspired, I want to be healed. I want to think, I want to laugh, I want to cry, I want to dance. And I want them to put the show on that they want. Because they know what they’re doing. Years ago, I used to plug them [with requests] all the time. Then I stopped asking and I tried to listen more. And I tried to let life like the big river find its course.