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Bill Walton represented a day when college athletes were legendary, not temporary | Commentary

When basketball legend Bill Walton passed away on Memorial Day, I didn’t think about him as the former No. 1 overall draft pick, an NBA champion and a league MVP.

I didn’t think of him as a Hall of Fame broadcaster renowned for his eloquent, rambling commentary and philosophical musings in which he might be talking about how the game of basketball has evolved over the years and suddenly break into a rendition of Bob Dylan’s “The Times They Are A-Changin’ “

And I didn’t think about him as the fun-loving, colorful, counterculture hippie and Deadhead who would wear bandanas and tie-dye T-shirts and recite Zen-ful quotes such as, “The past is history, the future is a mystery, and this moment is a gift. That’s why it’s called the present.”

No, on the day Bill Walton died, I thought back to when I was kid living amid the scrub oaks and piney woods in the sticks of North Florida, where my older brother James (we called him Moochie, or Moo for short) and my younger brother Sam would play basketball on a dirt court in the front yard and shoot at a bent rim, attached to an old wooden tabletop backboard nailed to a scraggly, mossy oak tree. And the three of us would argue over who would get to be Pistol Pete Maravich or David Thompson or Artis Gilmore or Rick Mount or some other college basketball star of the day.

But mostly we all wanted to be Bill Walton.

This might seem foreign in today’s one-and-done world of college basketball, but I remember Bill Walton — The Big Redhead — as a college basketball player first and foremost. It was another day and when four-year college basketball stars were actually more popular than their NBA counterparts.

And Walton, at least in my house, was the biggest star of all. He led UCLA to two national titles and an 86-4 record in his three years (freshmen couldn’t play back then), including two 30-0 seasons. He produced what is commonly considered the greatest college basketball game of all time in the 1973 NCAA final when he scored 44 points on 21-of-22 shooting in a victory over Memphis State.

Let’s take a timeout now and do what Walton would do and quote his favorite Dylan song:

“Come mothers and fathers
Throughout the land
And don’t criticize
What you can’t understand
Your sons and your daughters
Are beyond your command
Your old road is rapidly agin’
Please get out of the new one
If you can’t lend your hand
For the times they are a-changin’ ”

Yes, all of us old-school fans must acknowledge and accept that the landscape in college athletics has forever changed. With one-and-dones, unlimited transfers and the ability to get paid to play, college athletes of today are much better off than were not only 50 years ago but 5 years ago. Today’s college stars have more freedom, more empowerment … more money.

But what they don’t have is the adoration and emotional attachment with college fans. The lifelong love affair we had with players like Walton has turned into a one-night stand.

When Grant Hill and J.J. Redick played for the Magic. I asked them once how staying and playing four years at Duke turned them into household names.

“Of the 120 games I played at Duke, 115 of them were on national TV,” Hill said at the time. “For four years, it was us and The Cosby Show. People saw us once or twice a week and that allowed me to come into the NBA with a splash.”

Said Redick: “When you stay in school for more than a year or two, the fans feel like they know you. A special bond is formed.”

That bond has almost completely disappeared. College basketball players have become as nameless and faceless as department-store mannequins. How many casual sports fans even know that two of the NBA’s brightest young superstars — Minnesota Timberwolves guard Anthony Edwards and Oklahoma City Thunder guard Shai-Gilgeous Alexander — had a cup of coffee at the University of Georgia and the University of Kentucky, respectively, before jumping to the NBA?

Undoubtedly, college athletes are much better off today in many ways, but sometimes I wonder if they are missing out on something even bigger than their NIL paychecks. Walton, throughout his life, spoke about the lessons he learned playing for the great John Wooden for four years at UCLA.

“Playing for Coach Wooden was a privilege and an honor. He taught us to value teamwork, integrity and discipline,” Walton once said. “His ‘Pyramid of Success’ wasn’t just about basketball; it was a blueprint for living a meaningful and successful life … He always told us that the true test of a man’s character is what he does when no one is watching. That principle has guided me throughout my career and life.”

My big brother Moo passed away several months ago.

And now Bill Walton is gone, too.

I miss ’em both.

And I miss that old dirt court, the bent rim, the frayed net and the tabletop backboard nailed to the mossy oak tree.

College stars were everlasting mythical figures back then.

Now they are momentary gusts of wind; gone as quickly and insignificantly as when they arrived.

Email me at mbianchi@orlandosentinel.com. Hit me up on X (formerly Twitter) @BianchiWrites and listen to my Open Mike radio show every weekday from 6 to 9:30 a.m. on FM 96.9, AM 740 and 969TheGame.com/listen