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NBA Hall of Famer Bill Walton dies at 71

Bill Walton, the dominant college big man who won two NBA championships and later enjoyed a successful career as a colorful sports broadcaster, has died, the NBA announced on Monday. He was 71.

Walton died after a prolonged battle with cancer, the league said. He 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 at UCLA and led to an NBA regular-season and Finals MVP, two NBA championships and a spot on the NBA's 50th and 75th Anniversary Teams."

Walton was the No. 1 overall pick in the 1974 draft by the Portland Trail Blazers, and he led the team to its only NBA title in 1977. Named the league MVP in 1978, the 6-foot-11 Walton won another title as a member of the Boston Celtics in 1986, when he earned the Sixth Man of the Year award.

Bill Walton attends a basketball game between the Los Angeles Clippers and the Phoenix Suns at Crypto.com Arena on April 20, 2023 in Los Angeles, California. / Credit: / Getty Images
Bill Walton attends a basketball game between the Los Angeles Clippers and the Phoenix Suns at Crypto.com Arena on April 20, 2023 in Los Angeles, California. / Credit: / Getty Images

That season proved to be his last hurrah. Walton, who battled injuries throughout his career, would play just 22 more games between the regular season and playoffs before retiring in 1988, according to CBS Sports.

Before his pro career, Walton earned a legendary status at UCLA, leading the Bruins to titles in 1972 and 1973 and an 88-game winning streak. His 44 points in the national championship game in 1973 remain a record. Walton was also a three-time national player of the year at UCLA while playing for iconic coach John Wooden.

Amid his standout college career, Walton was arrested in 1972 while protesting on UCLA's campus against the Vietnam War. According to UCLA Library, Wooden himself bailed Walton out of jail.

According to Walton's memoir "Back From the Dead," he told Wooden, "Coach, you can say what you want. It's my classmates and friends who are coming home in bodybags and wheelchairs."

"On behalf of everyone with the UCLA men's basketball program, we are deeply saddened to learn of Bill Walton's passing," UCLA head coach Mick Cronin said in a statement, adding: "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."

Walton's activism didn't stop in college. He was outspoken about making marijuana legal long before many states decriminalized or legalized the drug.

In 1975, while with the Portland Trailblazers, he also denounced the FBI and the U.S. government after he had been interviewed by the bureau — which at the time had been looking for his friends and activists Jack and Micki Scott for helping members of the Symbionese Liberation Army, including Patty Hearst, evade law enforcement.

Walton never knew where Hearst was, and, speaking with Geraldo Rivera in 1975, said he was "not really sure" how he even got involved in that story to begin with.

"They're gonna do their trip, unless we don't let 'em," Walton said of the FBI's aggressive surveillance tactics and statements to the media. "That's why I take the position that I'm not gonna deal with those people ever again."

After his playing career, Walton overcame a pronounced stutter to become a successful sportscaster known for his colorful language, which often included catchphrases and hyperbole.

"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."

A self-professed "Deadhead," Walton sometimes appeared on TV wearing Grateful Dead T-shirts. He was also known to wear tie-dyed T-shirts while delivering his tangent-filled commentary, which could be equal parts entertaining and bewildering.

Bill Walton watches the action during the second half of the college basketball game between the Arizona Wildcats and the New Mexico Lobos at McKale Center on December 20, 2016 in Tucson, Arizona.  / Credit: Chris Coduto/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images
Bill Walton watches the action during the second half of the college basketball game between the Arizona Wildcats and the New Mexico Lobos at McKale Center on December 20, 2016 in Tucson, Arizona. / Credit: Chris Coduto/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Dave Pasch, who handled play-by-play duties alongside Walton for ESPN and ABC and was often the butt of Walton's jokes, said Monday that the two of them had a "special friendship."

"He used to tell me a lot, he'd take the headset off during a commercial break and just say to me, 'I love you, but don't tell anybody,'" Pasch said on ESPN. "Because he just enjoyed the fact that I was a sparring partner and that he could have fun with me and just take shots at me. I knew that it was all part of the game and that, off the air, we had a great friendship."

And Walton didn't just attend Grateful Dead shows as a fan — he got to get up onstage from time to time with spinoff acts like RatDog and Dead and Co. to play percussion.

On New Year's Eve in 2015, Walton appeared at a Dead and Co. show dressed as Father Time while Trixie Garcia, the daughter of the late Grateful Dead guitarist Jerry Garcia, descended from the rafters in a giant joint — ringing in the new year by mimicking the band's friend and legendary promoter Bill Graham's entrance on New Year's Eve at the closing of the Winterland Ballroom in 1978.

Trixie Garcia and Bernie Cahill ride a joint during the Dead and Company performance at The Forum on December 31, 2015 in Inglewood, California. / Credit: Jeff Kravitz/FilmMagic
Trixie Garcia and Bernie Cahill ride a joint during the Dead and Company performance at The Forum on December 31, 2015 in Inglewood, California. / Credit: Jeff Kravitz/FilmMagic
Bill Walton appears on stage during the Dead and Company performance at The Forum on December 31, 2015 in Inglewood, California. / Credit: Jeff Kravitz/FilmMagic
Bill Walton appears on stage during the Dead and Company performance at The Forum on December 31, 2015 in Inglewood, California. / Credit: Jeff Kravitz/FilmMagic

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

"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."

He is survived by his wife Lori and sons Adam, Nate, Chris and Luke, a former NBA player and now an assistant coach for the Cleveland Cavaliers.

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