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Bill Walton, NBA great and former Portland Trail Blazer, dies at 71

NBA announces former player/broadcast had been fighting cancer

By TIM REYNOLDS, Associated Press
Published: May 27, 2024, 10:43am
8 Photos
Bill Walton raises his hands as he stands with fellow recipients of the annual National Civil Rights Museum Sports Legacy Award before the annual Martin Luther King Jr. Celebration Game between the New Orleans Pelicans and the Memphis Grizzlies Monday, Jan. 21, 2019, in Memphis, Tenn. Wayne Embry, Candace Parker, and Chris Bosh were also honored.
Bill Walton raises his hands as he stands with fellow recipients of the annual National Civil Rights Museum Sports Legacy Award before the annual Martin Luther King Jr. Celebration Game between the New Orleans Pelicans and the Memphis Grizzlies Monday, Jan. 21, 2019, in Memphis, Tenn. Wayne Embry, Candace Parker, and Chris Bosh were also honored. (AP Photo/Brandon Dill) Photo Gallery

Bill Walton was never afraid to be himself.

Larger than life, only in part because of his nearly 7-foot frame, Walton was a two-time NCAA champion at UCLA, a two-time champion in the NBA, a Basketball Hall of Fame inductee, an on-court icon in every sense of the word. And off the court, Walton was a chronic fun-seeker, a broadcaster who adhered to no conventional norms and took great joy in that, a man with a deeply serious side about the causes that mattered most to him.

“Bill Walton,” NBA Commissioner Adam Silver said, “was truly one of a kind.”

Walton died Monday at the age of 71 after a prolonged fight with cancer, the league announced on behalf of his family. He was the NBA’s MVP in the 1977-78 season, the league’s sixth man of the year in 1985-86 and a member of the league’s 50th anniversary and 75th anniversary teams. That followed a college career in which he blossomed while playing under coach John Wooden at UCLA, becoming a three-time national player of the year.

“I am sad today hearing that my comrade and one of the sports world’s most beloved champions and characters has passed,” Julius “Dr. J” Erving, a fellow Hall of Famer, wrote on social media. “Bill Walton enjoyed life in every way. To compete against him and to work with him was a blessing in my life.”

Tributes immediately began pouring in, and the NBA was planning a moment of silence to commemorate Walton’s life before Game 4 of the Boston-Indiana matchup in the Eastern Conference finals on Monday night.

Walton, who entered the Hall of Fame in 1993, was one of the game’s most celebrated figures. His NBA career — disrupted by chronic foot injuries — lasted only 468 games combined with the Portland Trail Blazers, the San Diego/Los Angeles Clippers and the Boston Celtics. He averaged 13.3 points and 10.5 rebounds in those games, neither of those numbers exactly record-setting.

Still, his impact on the game was massive.

“It’s a legend lost when you talk about basketball and what he brought to the media side,” Dallas Mavericks coach Jason Kidd said. “As an ex-player, to be able to be successful not just on the court but also on TV.”

Walton’s most famous game was the 1973 NCAA title game, UCLA against Memphis, in which he shot 21 for 22 from the field and led the Bruins to another national championship.

“One of my guards said, ‘Let’s try something else,’ ” Wooden told The Associated Press in 2008 for a 35th anniversary retrospective on that game.

Wooden’s response during that timeout: “Why? If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.”

They kept giving the ball to Walton, and he kept delivering in a performance for the ages.

“It’s very hard to put into words what he has meant to UCLA’s program, as well as his tremendous impact on college basketball,” UCLA coach Mick Cronin said Monday. “Beyond his remarkable accomplishments as a player, it’s his relentless energy, enthusiasm for the game and unwavering candor that have been the hallmarks of his larger-than-life personality.

“It’s hard to imagine a season in Pauley Pavilion without him.”

When Walton retired from the NBA he turned to broadcasting, something he never thought he could be good at — and an avenue he sometimes wondered would be possible for him, because he had a pronounced stutter at times in his life.

Turns out, he was excellent at that, too: Walton was an Emmy winner, eventually was named one of the top 50 sports broadcasters of all time by the American Sportscasters Association and even appeared on The New York Times’ bestseller list for his memoir, “Back from the Dead.” It told the story of a debilitating back injury suffered in 2008, one that left him considering taking his own life because of the constant pain, and how he spent years recovering.

“I lived most of my life by myself. But as soon as I got on the court I was fine,” Walton told The Oregonian newspaper for a story published in 2017. “But in life, being so self conscious, red hair, big nose, freckles and goofy, nerdy looking face and can’t talk at all. I was incredibly shy and never said a word. Then, when I was 28 I learned how to speak. It’s become my greatest accomplishment of my life and everybody else’s biggest nightmare.”

The last part of that was just Walton hyperbole. He was known for his on-air tangents and sometimes appeared on-air in Grateful Dead T-shirts; Walton was a huge fan of the band and referenced it often, even sometimes recording satellite radio specials celebrating what it meant to be a “Deadhead.”

And the Pac-12 Conference, which has basically evaporated in many ways now because of college realignment, was another of his many loves. He always referred to it as the “Conference of Champions” and sang its praises all the way to the end.

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“It doesn’t get any better than this,” he once said on a broadcast, tie-dyed T-shirt on, a Hawaiian lei around his neck.

Walton was involved in the broadcasts of college and NBA games for CBS, NBC and ABC/ESPN in his career, along with stints working for the Clippers and Sacramento Kings as an analyst. He returned to ESPN and the Pac-12 Network, further touting the roots of his league, in 2012.

“Bill Walton was a legendary player and a singular personality who genuinely cherished every experience throughout the journey of his extraordinary life,” ESPN Chairman Jimmy Pitaro said. “Bill often described himself as ‘the luckiest guy in the world,’ but anyone who had the opportunity to interact with Bill was the lucky one. He was a truly special, giving person who always made time for others. Bill’s one-of-a-kind spirit captivated and inspired audiences during his second career as a successful broadcaster.”

But Walton will always be synonymous with UCLA’s dominance.

He enrolled at the school in 1970, before freshmen could play on the varsity team. Once he could play for Wooden, the Bruins were unbeatable for more than two years — Walton’s UCLA teams won their first 73 games, the bulk of the Bruins’ extraordinary 88-game winning streak. It was snapped against Notre Dame in 1974, a 71-70 loss in which Walton shot 12 for 14 from the field.

“Bill Walton’s passing is a sad tragedy. One of the great ones in UCLA basketball history,” Digger Phelps, who coached that Notre Dame team, posted Monday on social media. “We were great friends over the years. It won’t be the same without him.”

UCLA went 30-0 in each of Walton’s first two seasons, and 86-4 in his career on the varsity team.

“My teammates … made me a much better basketball player than I could ever have become myself,” Walton said at his Hall of Fame speech in 1993. “The concept of team has always been the most intriguing aspect of basketball to me. If I had been interested in individual success or an individual sport, I would have taken up tennis or golf.”

Walton led Portland to the 1977 NBA title, then got his second championship with Boston in 1986.

“Bill Walton was an icon,” said Jody Allen, the chair of the Trail Blazers. “His leadership and tenacity on the court were key to bringing a championship to our fans and defined one of the most magical moments in franchise history. We will always treasure what he brought to our community and the sport of basketball.”

The Celtics released a statement saying: “Bill Walton was one of the most consequential players of his era. … Walton could do it all, possessing great timing, complete vision of the floor, excellent fundamentals and was of one of the greatest passing big men in league history.”

Walton considered himself fortunate to have been guided by two of the game’s greatest minds in Wooden and Celtics patriarch Red Auerbach.

“Thank you John, and thank you Red, for making my life what it has become,” Walton said in his Hall of Fame speech.

Walton was the No. 1 pick by Portland in the 1974 draft. He said Bill Russell was his favorite player and found Larry Bird the toughest and best he played with, so it was appropriate that his playing career ended as a member of the Celtics. “Playing basketball with Larry Bird,” Walton once said, “is like singing with Jerry Garcia,” referencing the co-founder of the Grateful Dead.

In his final years, Walton spoke out about issues that mattered most to him, such as the problem of homelessness in his native San Diego, urging city leaders to take action and create shelter space to help those in need.

“What I will remember most about him was his zest for life,” Silver said in a statement. “He was a regular presence at league events — always upbeat, smiling ear to ear and looking to share his wisdom and warmth. I treasured our close friendship, envied his boundless energy and admired the time he took with every person he encountered.”

Walton died surrounded by his loved ones, his family said. He is survived by wife Lori and sons Adam, Nate, Chris and Luke — a former NBA player and now a coach.

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