Walton’s life story is in great hands with director James, who has a rare touch for sports and the people who play them (“Hoop Dreams,” “Prefontaine”). In long drives, James nerds out about specific matches with those who shared the spotlight with Walton, especially when Walton made his way to the NBA Finals with the Blazers in ’77, and later the Celtics in ’86. But the interest in this formal but compelling project is primarily about emotional memorabilia, and so we are treated with a bounty of off-the-cuff remembrances from his peers like Larry Bird, Abdul Jabbar, World B. Free, and others. James creates the kind of meetings in which friends, family, and teammates are one and the same, and anecdotes abound. It makes you giddy to hear what was shared off the record, but in this rare case, it’s obvious there wasn’t anything bad said about Walton.
James tells this on-court career in loving detail, with a great focus on his emotional downfall when foot and knee injuries began to cause him to sit out for hundreds of total games, while contracts ensured he made money in the process. The documentary doesn’t quite complete the thought about how a bike-riding hippie could also become the highest-paid player at the time, but it does get at the emotional core of how those deals didn’t make Walton’s lack of playing, and the guilt from letting down his teammates, any easier to accept. In less jovial moments, Walton has a stark seriousness on-camera that hints at how he felt during his darkest years.
Throughout James’ docuseries, Walton is adorned in tie-dye shirts, proclaiming a love for the Grateful Dead that has been long-lasting and soul-filling. He discovered the music of Jerry Garcia and company while ascending as a basketball phenomenon, and he has only sought to pass on the vibes. (“Bill turned us all into Grateful Dead fans,” Larry Bird remarks.) And the band helps tell his story: James places a full trove of Grateful Dead songs over Walton’s gameplay footage, and puts a tie-dye framing to the doc’s more typical photo-driven sections. As “The Luckiest Man in the World” goes back and forth in his career, highlights fellow teammates like Maurice Lucas, and shows off Walton’s rocker-themed bedrooms, the Dead’s presence here becomes instructive. This four-hour docuseries is just jamming, man.