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Kerr, Curry pay tribute to basketball icon Bill Walton, who died at 71

Kerr, Curry pay tribute to basketball icon Bill Walton, who died at 71 originally appeared on NBC Sports Bay Area

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.

The NBA said Walton was surrounded by his family.

“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."

Warriors coach Steve Kerr, who was a friend of Walton's, released a statement a few hours after the news was made public.

"Bill Walton was a legendary player, a hilarious, colorful broadcaster and most of all a wonderful person," Kerr wrote. "I fell in love with basketball watching Bill dominate at UCLA in front of packed crowds at Pauley Pavilion, and I was blessed to get to know him later in our lives when he covered the NBA as an analyst on TV.

"Most of all, I will cherish getting to know him when he would visit the Warriors when his son, Luke, was on our coaching staff. His incredible energy, passion, love and zest for life was never turned off. Our hearts are broken today as we mourn Bill’s passing and grieve with his family."

Steph Curry also paid tribute to Walton with a post on his Instagram story/

A La Mesa, California, native, Walton earned legend status at both the college and pro level. He 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 seasons in 1972 and 1973.

"It's very hard to put into words what [Bill Walton] has meant to UCLA's program, as well as his tremendous impact on college basketball," UCLA head coach Mick Cronin said in a statement. "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.

"I will miss him very much. It's hard to imagine a season in Pauley Pavilion without him. Our athletics department, our team and this university will miss him dearly."

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

Walton was named NBA MVP the following season, where he averaged 18.9 points, 13.2 rebounds, 5.0 assists and 2.5 blocks per game.

Walton's career was then disrupted by chronic foot injuries. Following his MVP-winning 1977-78 campaign, he played in just 14 games over the next four seasons. He logged four seasons with the Clippers before joining the Boston Celtics for what would be the final stop of his career.

In his debut season with Boston, Walton won Sixth Man of the Year and helped the Celtics beat the Houston Rockets in the 1986 NBA Finals.

The following 1986-87 campaign, where Walton appeared in just 10 games, marked his final NBA season.

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. 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 Basketball Hall of Fame as part of the Class of 1993. He was a member of both the NBA’s 50th anniversary and 75th anniversary teams.

After retiring from the NBA, Walton 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.

“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,” Walton told The Oregonian newspaper in 2017. “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 beloved for his on-air tangents.

He 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.

“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.

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

The Associated Press contributed to this story.