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Bill Walton, NBA Great and Beloved Commentator, Dead at 71

Bill Walton at a college basketball game between the Syracuse Orange and the Gonzaga Bulldogs at the Allstate Maui Invitational on Nov. 21, 2023 in Honolulu, Hawaii.  - Credit: Photo by Mitchell Layton/Getty Images
Bill Walton at a college basketball game between the Syracuse Orange and the Gonzaga Bulldogs at the Allstate Maui Invitational on Nov. 21, 2023 in Honolulu, Hawaii. - Credit: Photo by Mitchell Layton/Getty Images

BILL WALTON, THE Hall of Fame NBA center, broadcaster, and public devotee of the Grateful Dead, has died at age 71. His death on Monday was announced by the National Basketball Association, who released a statement from commission Adam Silver calling Walton “truly one of a kind… He redefined the center position.” The cause of death was cancer.

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“The world feels so much heavier now,” Walton’s friend, former rival, and fellow UCLA alum Kareem Abdul-Jabbar wrote on X. “On the court, Bill was a fierce player, but off the court he did everything he could to make everyone around him happy. He was the best of us.”

Walton grew up in San Diego, the son of a librarian and social worker. Throughout his decade-plus career from 1974 to 1988, Walton won two NBA championships as well as both a regular-season and Finals MVP. When the NBA celebrated its 75th anniversary in 2021, The Athletic named him the 64th greatest NBA player of all time, but Walton bristled at such accolades, declining an interview on the grounds that he was more of a team player.

But Walton achieved his outstanding individual milestones in the sport (the rings, the MVPs) despite struggling mightily (and missing several full seasons) due to injuries that dated back to Walton fracturing his spine in college at age 21. He was hit hard in a game in what Walton once called “a despicable act of intentional violence…I broke two bones in my spine that night, and things were never the same for me again.”

But at UCLA, Walton still managed to lead his team to two NCAA titles.

After Walton’s time in the NBA came to an end, he began a decorated career in broadcasting and color commentary, beginning with a tenure at CBS in 1990.

But with his nearly seven-foot stature, fresh insight on air, and colorful tie-dye getups that communicated his Deadhead allegiances, Walton’s influence and presence extended beyond the basketball court: He was referenced (by former rival and UCLA successor Kareem Abdul-Jabbar) in the movie Airplane! and appeared in movies that ranged from Ghostbusters to Little Nicky. As recently as last year, James Austin Johnson spoofed Walton’s verbose and eccentric commentary on SNL. 

Walton’s love for music made him a recognizable and beloved figure at classic rock shows, and he was known to occasionally pepper college basketball broadcasts with minutes-long monologues about Bob Dylan.

Walton’s great non-basketball love was the Grateful Dead. He once stated that he’d seen the band perform 849 times, he titled his best-selling 2016 memoir Back From the Dead,  and he wore tie-dye at any given opportunity. He met the band in 1974, and as he recounted in an interview in 2022, he used to have the band’s live recordings broadcast throughout the Portland coliseum when Walton played on the Trailblazers.

“All the things that I saw at that first concert in 1967 — happiness, interesting people, love, peace, and compassion,” he said of his first Dead Show, in 2017,  “are all the things I believe in and try to incorporate into my life.

Walton, who suffered lifelong spine issues and pain (he underwent 37 different orthopedic operations throughout his life), went through several years around 2008 when he “years, literally, lying on the floor.”

“I just kept asking myself, ‘What am I going to do with my life if I ever get up again?’” he said in 2016. “Here I am today. I am the luckiest guy in the world.”

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