By Kathy Day
Bill Walton taught lessons to some La Jolla High School basketball players last week, but they weren't about basketball.
Instead, they were about life and service and appreciating what you have.
The NBA Hall of Famer, who has become an avid supporter of the Challenged Athletes Foundation, was with the boys at the future home of the organization that involves individuals with physical challenges in sports.
He donated the landscaping and irrigation for the Deni & Jeff Jacob Challenged Athletes Center that's nearing completion in a Sorrento Mesa business park.
The La Jolla senior athletes and their coach, Kamal Assaf, gave a day of physical labor to demolishing, installing irrigation and planting in the rear of the building as construction crews finished hardscape on the front.
"This is as important an effort as I've ever done in my life," Walton said, watching as landscape architect Jose Parral eyed the spot where his drought tolerant design would go in. "It's more rewarding. I spend every day with the most interesting, exciting, inspired people who are doing great things on all fronts."
For the high schoolers, he said, "it's difficult ... to realize the importance of service" so this was a great opportunity for them to "help others realize their dreams."
The center, going into an existing building that the foundation bought at auction, will include an educational center displaying prosthetics and equipment that the athletes can use in competition and daily life as well as a specialized fitness and training center, a basketball court that will double as a meeting room, and CAF's offices.
Walton said he was recovering from his own back surgery - which he has said saved his life - when he read a one-line e-mail from Jeff Jacob suggesting that he check out the organization.
"It made me realize what a selfish schmuck I am," Walton said on July 29. "Everything we take for granted is something that everyday is a struggle for others."
Now, not only is he donating, he's training to ride his bike in the San Francisco-La Jolla Million Challenge in October. That 620-mile ride has been one of the primary fundraisers for the center.
Nick Reynolds, whose mom Nancy is director of development for the Foundation, and Will Schrier were the first players to arrive. He's helped before with the CAF San Diego Triathlon Challenge that ends at La Jolla Cove as has Coach Assaf.
"Even though it was hard work, it was cool to work side by side with Bill Walton," Nick said. "He made us realize it is good to do something that helps other people."
"Over lunch, I asked Bill what he missed most about playing basketball and he said, winning," Assaf said, adding "and then he goes on to say, but what we are doing here today, is winning too."
Even at their height, the players were dwarfed by Walton, who started them on their day's effort with a warning "Safety first. Take care of yourselves."