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Basketball legend Bill Walton dies at 71 after battle with cancer

Basketball Hall of Famer Bill Walton, who was a two-time national champion at UCLA before winning two titles in the NBA, died Monday following a prolonged battle with cancer, the NBA announced. He was 71.

Walton was surrounded by his family, the NBA said.

“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 skills made him a dominant force.

“What I will remember most about him was his zest for life. 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.”

A La Mesa, California, native, Walton achieved legend status as a player at both the college and pro level before becoming a beloved broadcaster.

Walton was named national player of the year in each of his three seasons at UCLA as the Bruins went a combined 86-4. Playing for legendary coach John Wooden, Walton powered the Bruins to consecutive 30-0 championship seasons in 1972 and 1973.

The Portland Trail Blazers selected Walton with the first overall pick in the 1974 NBA Draft. In just his third season, the 6-foot-11 center led the franchise to its first and only championship as Portland defeated the Philadelphia 76ers in the 1977 Finals. Walton, the NBA MVP runner-up that season, was awarded Finals MVP.

“Bill Walton was a true legend — an extraordinary player, talented broadcaster, and vital part of the Blazers organization,” the Trail Blazers said in a statement. “His mastery of the game not only established him as one of the greatest centers in history, but also led the Blazers to a championship.

“But Bill was so much more than basketball, he was larger than life. His upbeat and vibrant personality will forever be remembered and cherished, and he will be deeply missed by our organization, Rip City and all who experienced him.”

Walton earned the NBA MVP award in the subsequent 1977-78 season where he averaged 18.9 points, 13.2 rebounds, 5.0 assists and 2.5 blocks per game. But his career was then disrupted by chronic foot injuries.

A foot injury knocked Walton out of the 1978 playoffs and he would play just 14 games over the next four seasons combined. He was on the court for four seasons with the Clippers — first in San Diego and then in Los Angeles — before joining the Boston Celtics for what would be the final stop of his career.

In his first season with Boston, Walton won Sixth Man of the Year and captured his second NBA championship as the Celtics defeated the Houston Rockets in the 1986 Finals. The following 1986-87 campaign, where Walton appeared in just 10 games, marked his final NBA season.

“Bill Walton was one of the most consequential players of his era,” the Celtics said in a statement. “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. He derived great joy from basketball and music, and deeply cherished his moments with teammates and friends.

“As a Celtic, Bill overcame years of debilitating injuries, regained his zest for the game, and helped guide the 1986 Boston Celtics championship with both his play and his spirit.”

Walton, who played in 468 games over 10 NBA seasons, averaged 13.3 points, 10.5 rebounds, 3.4 assists and 2.2 blocks per game for his career. He logged four seasons with both the Blazers and Clippers before a two-year tenure on the Celtics. In addition to his MVP and Sixth Man of the Year honors, Walton also made two All-Star Games, two All-Defensive First Teams, one First Team All-NBA and one Second Team All-NBA.

Walton was inducted into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame in 1993. He was named to both the NBA’s 50th anniversary and 75th anniversary teams.

“My very close friend, fellow Bruin and NBA rival Bill Walton died today. And the world feels so much heavier now,” fellow UCLA legend and Hall of Famer Kareem Abdul-Jabbar said. “On the court, Bill was a fierce player, but off the court he wasn’t happy unless he did everything he could to make everyone around him happy. He was the best of us.”

In his post-playing career, Walton became a star in the broadcast booth while calling college and NBA games. He was an Emmy winner, was eventually 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.

Walton was beloved 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 loved it all the way to the end.

“Bill was a special, kind, and genuine person,” ESPN broadcaster Dave Pasch, a longtime on-air partner of Walton, said. “I’m incredibly grateful for our close friendship, and the time we spent together on the air, out to dinner after the game, or in his teepee in his backyard. An iconic athlete and broadcaster, but more important, a legendary person who always made me smile.”

The Associated Press contributed to this story.