FLORENCE, Ala — Over in The Shoals, the University of North Alabama hosted their annual Lions Athletic Club dinner and auction fundraiser, where all proceeds from the event go to North Alabama athletics. And the Lions Athletic Club found probably the biggest personality (in both quantity and quality) possible as their guest of honor.
Basketball Hall of Famer Bill Walton gave the keynote address at the “Lion Pride” dinner and told stories in a way only he could.
As is often the case when in his company, Walton addressed many topics at the media availability session, one-on-one encounters he had with VIPs and his main keynote address. Of the more sentimental, Walton reflected on the impact Bill Russell had on his life, as the appearance came on the same day the NBA announced the league-wide retirement of the 2x Hall of Famer and Civil Rights icon’s jersey. Russell, Walton said, was one of his heroes and the first sports icon he idolized as a kid. Walton shared a one story how he was given Russell’s book to read by his mother whose day job was the town’s librarian.
“I never turned it back in and my mom was on my case, man,” Walton said, beaming. “Like, 'c'mon, man. We got to return books, the fines are piling up.’ When I first joined the NBA in 1974, and I became the highest paid history of all of team sports at the time, the first check that I ever wrote was to the San Diego Public Library System for that book. that I never returned.”
The event hosted over 500 members and guests of UNA’s athletics booster group. A near capacity crowd got to hear from athletics director Josh Looney, who introduced the school’s new coaches and made the program’s goals clear.
“As [UNA athletics] write our own chapter in this new history … we’re doing so as an ambitious athletic department at an ambitious university, representing the fastest-growing university in the state,” said Looney. “And it’s an incredible honor and an awesome responsibility.”
“What I love about this group, too, is that they love each other, they cheer for each other at each other’s games, but there’s a ton of internal competition, because each one of them wants to be the first one to represent UNA in the Division I NCAA Championships of their respective sports,” he added. This was a recurring theme from his remarks earlier this week at UNA’s fall sports media day.
But at the Marriott Shoals tonight, it was Walton, as expected, who stole the show.
“Dealing with obstacles or adversity of your life; mine, yes, orthopedic challenges - 39 orthapedic operations - but my biggest challenge is that I’m a lifelong stutterer and I could not say a word of ‘hello’ or ‘thank you’ until I was 28 years old,” he said. “Learning how to speak was my greatest accomplishment and your worst nightmare.”
While the funds raised tonight will have a lasting impact on projects like facilities renovations, Walton left the lasting impression.