Wednesday, June 19, 2024
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Bill Walton dies at 71: ‘Truly one of a kind’ Basketball Hall of Famer succumbs to cancer

Bill Walton, who was one of the best college basketball players ever, won the 1978 NBA MVP award and a two NBA championships with the Portland Trail Blazers and Boston Celtics, has died Monday at the age of 71. Walton passed after a prolonged bout with cancer, the NBA announced. 

“Bill Walton was truly one of a kind. As a Hall of Fame player, he redefined the center position,” NBA commissioner Adam Silver said in a press release. “… 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.”

Born on Nov. 5, 1952 in La Mesa, California, Walton’s basketball career began in grade school at Blessed Sacrament in San Diego, where he learned from a fireman named Frank Graziano, who eventually convinced him to forget about football and focus on basketball. 

“I was a skinny, scrawny guy,” Walton would tell ESPN decades later. “I stuttered horrendously, couldn’t speak at all. I was a very shy, reserved player and a very shy, reserved person. I found a safe place in life in basketball.”

Walton went to Helix High School in La Mesa, where he played basketball with his older brother, Bruce, who eventually went on to play for the Dallas Cowboys and would often serve as an enforcer when opponents got too rough with Bill. Together, they remain the only brothers to play in the Super Bowl and NBA Finals. 

Early in his high school career, Walton broke his ankle, leg and multiple bones in his foot and underwent knee surgery, which began his lifelong battle with injuries. After his sophomore year, he had a growth spurt that shot him from 6-foot-1 to 6-foot-7 (he would eventually grow to be 6-foot-11), which turned him into a big man instead of a guard. 

Walton got his first brush with the NBA when players from the then-San Diego Rockets would come play pick-up games at Helix. In order to get into the gym, they would contact Walton, who had his own key. Once, Hall of Famer Elvin Hayes even called Walton’s house and spoke to his mother. 

“Here’s this grown man calling she’s never talked to, and she said, ‘Who’s this?'” Walton recalled. “And Elvin says, ‘Is Billy there?’ And my mom says, ‘I’m Billy’s mother. Who is this?’ And Elvin says, ‘Tell Billy, Big E is calling and we need him to open the gym tonight.’ I’m on the floor, and my mom puts her hand over the phone and says, ‘Billy, who is this guy Biggie? He sounds old. Is everything OK?’ I said, ‘Mom, that’s Big E! Give me the phone!'”

Over his final two high school seasons, Walton led Helix to two California Interscholastic Federation championships and a 49-game winning streak. As a senior, he shot 78.3% from the field, which remains a national high school record for field goal percentage. 

Hall of Fame coach Denny Crum, who was then an assistant at UCLA under John Wooden, called Walton “the best high school player I’d ever seen” after scouting him. Wooden admonished Crum for such a statement, telling him “it makes you look like an idiot.” 

The Bruins signed Walton anyway, and Crum was proven wholly correct. 

At that time, freshman were not allowed to play on the varsity team, so he had to begin his career on the freshman team and led that group to a 20-0 record. He was moved up to varsity at the start of the 1972-73 season, which began one of the greatest careers in college basketball history. 

In three seasons, Walton was named Naismith College Player of the Year three times (a feat matched only by Ralph Sampson), led UCLA to two national championships and was awarded Final Four Most Oustanding Player twice. His 44 points against Memphis State in 1973 remain a national championship game record. 

The Bruins went 86-4 over Walton’s three seasons, and he played a part in what is still a Division I record 88-game winning streak. That run ended in Walton’s senior campaign with a loss to Notre Dame, a game Walton was playing in a back brace due to a broken spine he suffered earlier in the season. The Bruins went on to make the national championship game again, but fell to David Thompson and North Carolina State in double-overtime. 

Walton made just as many waves off the court while he was in Los Angeles. During his junior season, he was arrested at a Vietnam War protest, one of the first indications of his politics, and had to be bailed out by Wooden. “Your generation has screwed up the world. My generation is trying to straighten it out,” Walton said in a statement after the incident. “Money doesn’t mean anything to me. It can’t buy happiness, and I just want to be happy.” 

Walton and Wooden often clashed throughout their years together, but formed a lifelong bond. When Wooden passed away in 2010, Walton joked that he “drove the poor guy to an early grave when he was 99.” 

“Coach Wooden never talked about winning and losing, but rather about the effort to win,” Walton said. “He rarely talked about basketball, but generally about life. He never talked about strategy, statistics or plays, but rather about people and character. Coach Wooden never tired of telling us that once you become a good person, then you have a chance of becoming a good basketball player.”

As the best prospect on the planet, Walton had options when looking to begin his professional career. He had actually first been drafted in 1973 by the ABA’s Dallas Chaparrals, who failed to convince him to leave college early. In 1974, he had the chance to join the ABA and play for his hometown San Diego Conquistadors under head coach Wilt Chamberlain, but went the NBA route instead, and was selected No. 1 overall by the Portland Trail Blazers. 

Sam Gilbert, Walton’s attorney at the time, said one ABA group offered more money than Portland, but “I believe he was influenced by people in the NBA like Jerry West and Sidney Wicks, who spoke to him. I think he wanted to play against the best.”

Though Walton’s talent easily translated to the NBA, he was hampered by injuries in his first two seasons. At various points, he had problems with his fingers, wrist, toes and ankle. He even broke his toe on a water sprinkler and injured his leg in a jeep accident. All told, he was limited to 86 games over his first two seasons. 

In his third season, everything clicked into place. The Trail Blazers added Maurice Lucas, hired Jack Ramsay as their new head coach and Walton stayed healthy. Walton led the league in rebounding (14.4 per game) and blocks (3.2), and the Trail Blazers won 49 games to make the playoffs for the first time in franchise history. They swept Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and the Los Angeles Lakers in the Western Conference finals, then beat Julius Erving and the Philadelphia 76ers to win the title — still the only one in franchise history. 

“Bill Walton is the best player, best competitor, best person I have ever coached,” Ramsay said after the victory. Erving declared him an “inspiration.” Walton, who averaged 18.5 points, 19 rebounds, 5.2 assists and 3.7 blocks in the series, was named Finals MVP. 

Walton and Co. carried “Blazermania” into the 1978 season and went 50-10 through their first 60 games. Then, Walton broke his foot in February and was sidelined for the remainder of the regular season. He was named MVP despite playing in just 58 games, which is still the fewest of any MVP winner in a full 82-game season. Walton attempted a comeback for the playoffs, but re-injured his foot in Game 2 of the Trail Blazers’ first-round series against the Seattle SuperSonics and never played for the team again. 

In the summer of 1978, Walton requested a trade out of Portland and accused the organization of medical malpractice. He later sued the team physician for $5.6 million, and the matter was settled out of court. 

“This was the most difficult decision I’ve ever had to make regarding my basketball career,” Walton said in a statement about his trade request at the time. “The tremendous loyalty and support of my teammates and the Trail Blazer fans have made that decision much tougher.” 

Nothing transpired, and Walton sat out of the entire 1978-79 season. When he became a free agent that summer, he signed a seven-year, $7 million deal with the San Diego Clippers, which made him the highest-paid player in the league. At that time, league rules required that teams who signed veteran free agents had to pay compensation to the other team. As a result, the Clippers sent Kermit Washington, Kevin Kunnert, a first-round draft pick and $350,000 to the Trail Blazers, which annoyed his new teammates. 

“It destroys the team,” Clippers guard Lloyd B. Free (later World B. Free) said at the time. “It’s like someone died in the family.”

So began a frustrating six seasons with the Clippers in which Walton played a total of 169 games and missed the entire 1980-81 and 1981-82 seasons. Desperate to play again, Walton underwent a risky surgery to try and fix his left foot, which had been the biggest source of trouble throughout his career. He also used the time off to go to law school at Stanford and stayed in shape by playing beach volleyball and cycling with his close friend, Grateful Dead drummer Mickey Hart. Walton was devoted lifelong Deadhead and even once played drums with the band during a concert in Egypt.

Walton made his return at the start of the 1982-83 campaign, though he was restricted to one game per week on doctor’s orders in order to make sure that the procedure worked. Walton played 33 games that season and 55 the next, which proved to be the end of professional basketball in San Diego. The team’s now-disgraced then-owner Donald Sterling moved the team to Los Angeles ahead of the 1984-85 season without league approval. Walton appeared in 67 games in his lone season in L.A., a career-high to that point. 

While Walton built himself back into a productive player by the end of his tenure with the Clippers, he was no longer a dominant force on both sides of the ball, and the team was never competitive during that era. Upon reflection decades later, Walton blamed himself for the team’s relocation.

“When you fail in your hometown, that’s as bad as it gets, and I love my hometown,” Walton said. “I wish we had NBA basketball here, and we don’t because of me. It’s my greatest failure as a professional in my entire life. I could not get the job done in my hometown. It is a stain and stigma on my soul that is indelible. I’ll never be able to wash that off, and I carry it with me forever.”

In the summer of 1985, Walton went in search of a winning environment and contacted both the Los Angeles Lakers and Boston Celtics. The Clippers eventually traded him to the Celtics in exchange for Cedric Maxwell and a first-round pick that later became Arvydas Sabonis. In order to complete the deal, Walton had to pass a physical, which he did so with the help of Red Auerbach.

Here’s how Walton told the story to Adrian Wojnarowski:

“And then I got to the Boston Celtics, and the biggest problem was that I still had to pass a physical because there’s no way I’d ever been able to pass a physical. But Red Auerbach, he showed up at the hospital. And the doctors are all looking at my X-rays. And I could hear them talking. And I had just left everything back in California, and I’m coming here, moving to Boston, with no idea how it was all going to play out. And so I could hear the doctors talking among themselves: ‘What are we going to tell Red? We can’t pass this guy. Look at his feet. Look at his knees. Look at his hands and wrists. Look at his spine. Look at his face. There’s no way we can pass this guy.’

“And then Red, he bursts in through the double doors at Mass. General hospital there at the east end of Storrow Drive. And he’s smoking his cigar in the hospital, and he walks in and says, ‘Who are you guys and what are you doing with my player?’ And they’re saying, ‘Red, come here. Look at this. Look at his feet. Look at his face. We can’t pass this guy.’ And Red says, ‘Shut up. I’m in charge here.’ And Red pushes his way through all the doctors, comes over. I’m lying on the table there in the doctors examining room. Red looks down at me. He says, ‘Walton, can you play?’ And I looked up at him with the sad, soft eyes of a young man who just wanted one more chance. One more chance to be part of something special, to be part of the team, to be with the guys one more time. And I looked up at him, and I said, ‘Red, I think I can. I think I can, Red.’

“And Red took a step back, folded his arms, and took a drag on that cigar. Oh my gosh. And he held that smoke in as long as he possibly could, and you could just see all the machinations going on, all the calculations, all the deliberations as to how this is all going to play out. Finally he just exhaled, and I swear that smoke came out green, Adrian. And it was shamrocks and leprechauns up against the white LED lights on the wall. And Red, through the smoke, with a big, cherubic grin on his face, looked at the doctors, looked at me, and he said, ‘He’s fine. He passes. Let’s go. We’ve got a game.'”

Walton’s first season with the Celtics was magical. He received a standing ovation in his first game at the Boston Garden, played in a career-high 80 games, won Sixth Man of the Year and helped the team win its second championship in three seasons, and the last of the Larry Bird era. Walton’s presence is in part why the 1986 Celtics are still regarded as one of the best teams of all time. 

That title turned out to be Walton’s last hurrah. He played just 22 more games, and made his final appearance during Game 6 of the 1987 Finals, when the Celtics were eliminated by the Lakers. A short-lived comeback attempt in 1990 went nowhere. 

Walton finished his career with two championships, an MVP, a Finals MVP, a Sixth Man of the Year award, two All-Star appearances, two All-NBA Team nods (one First, one Second) and two All-Defensive First Team honors. Additionally, his No. 32 was retired by the Trail Blazers in 1989. He was inducted into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame in 1993, and was selected to the NBA’s 50th Anniversary Team in 1996 and 75th Anniversary Team in 2021. 

Following his retirement, Walton became a successful broadcaster, working with CBS, NBC, ESPN and the Los Angeles Clippers before stepping away in 2009 due to back problems. A few years later, he returned to work with the Sacramento Kings on a part-time basis, then re-joined ESPN and the Pac-12 Network, where he had still been calling games this season. He won an Emmy in 2001 and was known for his entertaining, and at times incoherent, style.

“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 said 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.”

Tributes flooded in for Walton following the news of his death. None had a negative word to say, and the love and affection for the big man was perhaps best summed up by his friend Abdul-Jabbar’s note, which read, in part: “the world feels so much heavier now… he was the best of us.” 

But even in death, the last word should be reserved for Walton, given his propensity for language:

“The perfect thing about basketball is that it is the most complete, surreal and special game of all, where all you have to do is wait for the opening tip and then each and every player, each and every component, has a chance to make a contribution on every single play. Basketball, yeah, shine a light.”

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