NBA MVP, UCLA legend, Hall of Famer Bill Walton dies at 71

Portland Trail Blazer Bill Walton
Portland Trail Blazer Bill Walton

Bill Walton — one of the greatest college players ever who went on to lead Portland to its one and only NBA title and eventually became a legendary broadcaster with NBC — has died at the age of 71 after a prolonged battle with cancer, the NBA has announced.

“Bill Walton was truly one of a kind,” NBA Commissioner Adam Silver said in a statement announcing Waltons passing. “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. Bill then translated his infectious enthusiasm and love for the game to broadcasting, where he delivered insightful and colorful commentary which entertained generations of basketball fans.

“But 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…

“My heartfelt condolences to Bill’s wife, Lori; his sons, Adam, Nate, Luke and Chris; and his many friends and colleagues.”

Walton will be missed by everyone who knew him because of how he embraced life. He was one of those people who, even if you were more acquaintances than friends, treated you like you were his best friend in the world when you talked to him. He was as genuine and warm as anyone you will ever meet.

Walton was born November 5, 1952, and grew up in La Mesa, just outside San Diego, California. He went to Helix High School, where two of the trends of his basketball career started: His Helix teams won 44 straight games and consecutive CIF titles — he averaged 25 rebounds a game and shot 78% his senior year — but he also missed time with a fractured ankle, then had knee surgery.

Walton went on to UCLA where he became one of the greats ever to play the college game — a legend on the court who embraced the counter-culture revolution of the time off it.

Walton’s Bruins won 88 straight games and two national championships under the tutelage of John Wooden. Walton was a three-time national player of the year who averaged 20.3 points and 15.7 rebounds a game in his four years in Westwood.

Off the court, Walton embodied the times: He publicly criticized President Richard Nixon as well as the FBI, was arrested for taking part in an anti-Vietnam War rally, and that’s when his lifelong love of the Grateful Dead started. He brought his clothes to the gym in an onion bag and wore multi-colored headbands on the court.

The Portland Trail Blazers took him with the No. 1 pick in the 1974 NBA Draft, and his rookie year summed up his NBA career in many ways: He was dominant when healthy, but he played in just 35 games that season due to foot problems. Those foot issues would plague his career, and he played in just 44% of the available games over his 13 NBA seasons.

When he played, there was nobody like him with his all-around game and gifted passing for a big man — he led the Blazers to the 1977 NBA title and was named MVP of the league in 1978.

He was excited to play for his hometown San Diego Clippers, but foot issues kept him out for consecutive seasons, and he was never the player he hoped to be.

Walton had a resurgence with the 1986 Boston Celtics, coming off the bench and winning Sixth Man of the Year in a season Boston won another title.

After he retied, Walton’s big personality was a natural fit in the broadcast booth, where he worked for both NBC and later ABC/ESPN calling NBA and college games.

While he was broadcasting, he was elected to the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame in 1993.

Health issues followed Walton into later life, with debilitating back issues that he later admitted had him contemplating ending his life. Fortunately for all, modern surgery techniques had him up and around again — and around the sport of basketball again for years near the end of his life.

Our thoughts are with the family and friends of Bill Walton.