Bill Walton: Basketball Hall of Famer and colorful commentator dies of cancer at 71


Bill Walton, the Basketball Hall of Fame center who won two national titles at UCLA, two NBA championships in Portland and Boston and later put “color” in color as a commentator, died Monday in following a prolonged battle with cancer, the NBA announced.

Walton was 71 years old. He was surrounded by his family, according to the NBA.

“Bill Walton was truly one of a kind,” NBA Commissioner Adam Silver said in a statement. “As a Hall of Fame player, he redefined the center position. His unique all-around skillset made him a dominant force at UCLA and earned him the NBA Regular Season and Finals MVP, two NBA championships, and a spot on the 50th and 75th teams. NBA anniversary.

“Bill then took his infectious enthusiasm and love for the game to broadcasting, where he delivered insightful and colorful commentary that entertained generations of basketball fans.

“But what I will remember most about him is his joy of life. He was a regular presence at league events – always upbeat, smiling from ear to ear and looking to share his wisdom and warmth. I cherished our close friendship, envied his boundless energy, and admired the time he took with each person he met.

Walton’s basketball journey began at UCLA, where the 6-foot-11 red-haired center played under legendary coach John Wooden and led the Bruins to national championships in 1972 and 1973, both in the During perfect seasons of 30-0. In the 1973 title game, Walton made 22 shots and missed only one, scoring a championship record 44 points.

At one point, the team won 88 consecutive games, a men’s record that still stands. In his three college seasons, Walton was the National College Player of the Year and an All-American each year.

Yet Walton and Wooden clashed repeatedly over cultural and political issues, including over Walton’s long hair and his protests against the Vietnam War.

The big man with the nifty hook shot was the No. 1 pick in the 1974 NBA draft by the Portland Trail Blazers and led the team to its only NBA championship in 1977. He was named Most Valuable Player useful in the NBA Finals in those playoffs, and the following season he was named NBA regular season MVP.

However, his career was derailed due to a series of injuries. He left Portland to play for the San Diego/Los Angeles Clippers from 1979 to 1985, but never reached the heights of those earlier seasons and suffered from foot and knee injuries, which led to nearly 40 orthopedic surgeries during his life, according to his count.

He then joined the Boston Celtics, where he rejuvenated his career and won the 1986 NBA Sixth Man of the Year award as a reliable backup to stars Robert Parish and Kevin McHale. Together, the group won the 1986 NBA title against the Houston Rockets, the second of Walton’s career.

Bob Riha, Jr./Getty Images

Bill Walton of the Boston Celtics faces Kareem Abdul-Jabbar of the Los Angeles Lakers in the 1985 NBA Finals.

He was inducted into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame in 1993.

Despite growing up with a stutter, Walton went on to have a successful career in broadcasting as a sometimes wacky commentator for NBA and NCAA basketball games, most recently working for ESPN.

He was known for bringing a sense of joy, wonder and madness to his coverage of the game. A well-known fan of the Grateful Dead, he was often seen wearing tie-dye shirts and references to the band sprinkled throughout his coverage.

He once said during a show: “Come on, it wasn’t a mistake! This may be a violation of all the basic rules of human decency, but it is not a fault.”

On another: “A lot of people understand what it means to say nothing, so, actually, saying nothing is really saying a lot. »

He also liked to show off his intelligence. According to Awful Announcing, one of his best quotes was: “Yesterday we celebrated Sir Isaac Newton’s discovery of gravity. Today, Fabricio Oberto challenges him.

Mike Blake/Reuters

NBC basketball announcers Bill Walton and Marv Albert pose before the start of Game 4 of the NBA Finals in East Rutherford, New Jersey, June 12, 2002.

He struggled with the consequences of all those injuries and told David Axelrod on CNN’s podcast “The Ax Files” in 2016 that back pain nearly drove him to suicide in 2008.

“When you’re in that space, more people commit suicide because of back pain than because of any other illness. It’s just overwhelming. It destroys every aspect of your life. It destroys every aspect of everyone around you,” he said.

“And here’s this situation where I had nothing, but then I had this surgery and I’m better. I don’t take any medication. I have no pain. I’m moving full speed ahead now. I’ve never been so busy. I have never been so happy. I haven’t been this healthy since I was 13. In all these years, I never thought I would be free from pain, I never thought I would be happy in love, and I have both today. I am the luckiest man in the world.

He also explained to Axelrod how he deals with his stutter.

“I couldn’t say hello. I couldn’t say thank you. I couldn’t say a single word without the stutter, the stutter, the hesitation, and I just couldn’t express myself,” he said. “I express myself through sport. I express myself through reading. I am simply expressing myself by being part of a larger world that I only dreamed of one day being able to be a part of.

Marty Glickman, famous and former track and field star, helped Walton overcome his speech impediment when Walton was 28 years old.

“He took over from me in the corner. We stood behind a potted plant and in five minutes he simply arranged it. Boom! Boom! Boom! That’s how you learn to speak,” he said.

Jay Blakesberg/Invision for the Grateful Dead/AP

Bill Walton dances during one of the Grateful Dead’s “Fare Thee Well” shows at Levi’s Stadium on June 28, 2015, in Santa Clara, California.

Following Walton’s death, Axelrod praised the fact that Walton was more than a basketball player.

“He was a universal human being, with a huge heart and a contagious enthusiasm for life. He experienced intolerable pain and yet, as an announcer, he managed to relieve us and make us smile,” he posted on X.

UCLA men’s basketball coach Mick Cronin offered his condolences and praised Walton’s legacy in a statement.

“It’s very difficult to express in words what he meant to the UCLA program, as well as his enormous impact on college basketball,” he said. “Beyond his remarkable achievements as a player, it is his unwavering energy, enthusiasm for the game and unwavering candor that characterize his larger-than-life personality.”

Walton is survived by his wife, Lori, and four boys, all of whom played college basketball. Luke Walton won two NBA titles with the Los Angeles Lakers, meaning he and his father were the first father-son combination to own multiple NBA rings.

Bill Walton’s brother Bruce, who died in 2019, played in the Super Bowl with the Dallas Cowboys in January 1976, and they were the first siblings to appear in the NFL and NBA championship games.

This story has been updated with additional information.

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