Bill Walton Versus San Diego Mayor Todd Gloria

OPINION: The NBA legend publicly dunked on the mayor–who clapped back–but nobody's winning this battle over homelessness

It's been a wild week since basketball superstar Bill Walton shot, scored and committed a few fouls while charging hard at San Diego Mayor Todd Gloria.

Let's recap the "highlight reel."

On September 27, 2022, The 69-year-old NBA and NCAA champion mercilessly pounded the mayor in a press conference held by the nonprofit Lucky Duck Foundation at the University of San Diego's Kroc Institute for Peace and Justice.

Walton was fired up about the state of homelessness in San Diego. He was focused on the proliferation of people experiencing homelessness near his home on the east side of Balboa Park.

The 6-foot-11 native son and graduate of Helix High School has been a winner throughout his storied sports career. He led the UCLA Bruins on an 88-game winning streak while netting three NCAA titles under legendary coach John Wooden.

From 1972-74, Walton was named the NCAA Basketball Player of the Year three years in a row.

In the NBA, Walton won two championships–with the Portland Trail Blazers in 1977 and the Boston Celtics in 1986. He was named to the NBA's 50th- and 75th-anniversary teams.

After his career ended, Walton became a studio analyst and color commentator for ESPN and other networks.

One reason Walton's playing career came to an end was a string of foot injuries that required numerous surgeries.

He walks with something of a limp and often bicycles around town. Walton says he frequently rides on roads and bike paths near Balboa Park. And that's where, he says, unsheltered people have harassed and attacked him.

The September 27 press conference at USD, with Bill Walton and Luck Duck Foundation's Dan Shea and Drew Moser. (This photo, and cover photo, by Sal Giametta)

Walton made his concerns known to Mayor Gloria in a series of emails, which were made public by Voice of San Diego.

Subsequently, Walton spoke at the September 27 press conference and unleashed on the mayor.

Famously a devotee of the rock band Grateful Dead, Walton essentially labeled Gloria a "Friend of the Devil." Walton said the mayor was "less than useless" on the issue of homelessness. He nicknamed homeless encampments "Todd Gloria-villes," and called on the mayor to "step aside."

Walton's celebrity status helped his "we're-not-going-to-take-it-anymore" message hit a nerve.

On social media and in conversations all over downtown San Diego, residents aligned with Walton's frustration.

On East Village sidewalks, in particular, the number of camping tents and small-to-medium-sized encampments has ballooned.

Without exaggeration, 92101 is currently experiencing the worst state of homelessness over the last three decades.

Monthly polling done by the Downtown San Diego Partnership counted 1,623 people living unsheltered (just in the city) in September. That's a record high. And there's no way it's undercounted; some believe the number could be twice as large.

The problem is real.

Walton's primary focus was on enforcement of legal methods to curtail public homelessness.

While some applauded Walton's broadside on the mayor, others expressed dismay at Walton's lack sympathy for people within the unsheltered population.

He had nothing to say about those with addictions, mental or physical health issues, or individuals who have suffered financial or personal setbacks and are in legitimate need of assistance.

Concurrently, opinions expressed about what exactly the mayor has done, and what he plans to do to combat the problem, drew a mix of responses.

Mayor Todd Gloria in a separate press conference focusing on homelessness. (Photo by Sal Giametta)

The mayor's communications department went on a full-court offensive after Walton's verbal shooting spree.

A mayoral tweet described Walton's press conference as "a tantrum of self-aggrandizing hyperbole and outright lies." That post concluded, "It's unfortunate Bill Walton is quitting on San Diego, but you can be damned sure Todd Gloria never will."

That's some hard-lined political smack. You can be damned sure. It's on par with notorious NBA trash-talker Draymond Green, who famously called LeBron James a "bitch" during the 2016 NBA Finals.

Low-bar war of words aside, It's not accurate to say Mayor Gloria has been sitting on the sidelines of the homelessness fray during the two years he's been in office.

Recent tweets from his office refer to legitimate action steps. Last month, an 18-part Twitter thread pointed to: outreach, shelter and housing policies; a new 150-bed shelter in Midway; efforts to convert the Old Central Library into housing; extended hours for a safe-parking program; and other specifics (and some generalities) about initiatives to address homelessness.

Mayor Gloria is not "useless" on homelessness; but he could be more useful. On the daily. Especially regarding his oft-stated number-one priority for the city.

To reiterate: The mayor is not doing nothing. He's more engaged than his predecessor.

Unfortunately, that's faint praise.

A hepatitis-A outbreak in 2017 (primarily within the homelessness community), gave previous Mayor Kevin Faulconer a national black eye. Twenty people died; nearly 600 were hospitalized.

The negative publicity served to goad his administration into the bare minimum of proactive measures (more public bathrooms, handwashing stations, etc.).

Faulconer turned minor accomplishment into a major platform plank in a run for governor in the 2021 recall election. (That gall deserves admission into the Political Campaign Marketing Hall of Shame.)

Camping tents on Market Street on October 5, 2022, set up despite an order by the mayor for them to be taken down during the day.

Back to present day: In October, Mayor Gloria directed the San Diego Police Department to renew a policy of demanding homeless tent dwellers take their tents down during the day.

During the day.

This is a policy based on city encroachment laws–and a similar action that was implemented during Faulconer's administration. During the hep-A outbreak.

It's an approach that was criticized by Gloria when he ran for office in 2020.

At best, you could see that 48 hours after the "No Day Tents" policy was re-introduced, some areas of downtown were noticeably clear of sidewalk obstructions.

However, during an afternoon check on October 5 in the "Low Bottoms" section of East Village (on Sixteen and Seventeenth streets), tents were still omnipresent.

That night, tents were observed back in place on several other urban streets.

At worst, No Day Tents is a public relations façade. The homelessness problem still exists. It just may be less visible in the light of day.

Resorting to enforcement of No Day Tents can be viewed as a passive admission that homelessness has swelled to an issue of epic proportion.

It's time for the mayor to coach the city toward a realistic, comprehensive, winning game plan. One that's elucidated regularly and is both urgent and long-sighted.

At the moment, everybody's losing.


During his press conference, Walton publicly invited members of the media to join him for a day. To see the situation through his eyes.

It's been difficult to follow up with Walton, but I accept the invitation and have made that clear to his associates. We can bike around Balboa Park together. Or just talk. I'm sure he's busy; I'll free my schedule for any window in his.

A similar invitation goes to Mayor Gloria. I welcome the opportunity to walk downtown sidewalks with him to discuss the problem laid out in front of us. SD Sun


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