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Bill Walton dead at 71: Three-time Player of the Year was part of historic run at UCLA under John Wooden

Former UCLA star Bill Walton, who blossomed at UCLA in the early 1970s under legendary coach John Wooden, died at the age of 71 after a prolonged battle with cancer, the NBA announced Monday. Walton, a three-time Naismith Award winner and a two-time national champion, is considered one of the greatest college basketball players ever. 

After a historic college career at UCLA, the Portland Trail Blazers selected Walton with the No. 1 pick in the 1974 NBA Draft. Walton became a two-time NBA champion (1977 and 1986) and won NBA MVP in 1978. He retired from the NBA after the conclusion of the 1987-88 season.

Walton became a fixture on college basketball broadcasts after his playing career ended by serving as a color commentator at CBS, NBC and ABC/ESPN. While Walton was known for witty humor on Pac-12 basketball broadcasts, he helped call NBA games for the Los Angeles Clippers and the Sacramento Kings.

Walton’s individual accolades at UCLA

Walton is one of the most accomplished college basketball players ever. Walton helped UCLA capture national championships in 1972 and 1973. Walton was named the NCAA Final Four Most Outstanding Player in both tournaments. In the 1973 title game against Memphis State, Walton scored 44 points on 21 of 22 shooting to give the Bruins their seventh consecutive national title. His 44 points in the title game remain an NCAA record.

“We couldn’t contain Walton,” Memphis State coach Gene Bartow told the New York Times after the game. “I’ve never seen a player so dominating as Walton.”

Walton played at UCLA before freshman student-athletes could compete on the varsity team. Walton played on UCLA’s freshman team during the 1970-71 season before becoming a three-year starter for Wooden. Walton averaged 20.3 points and 15.7 rebounds during his career on the varsity squad. 

Walton would later be inducted into the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame and College Basketball Hall of Fame. Walton and former UCLA star Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (formerly known as Lew Alcindor) became the first two UCLA men’s basketball players to have their jersey numbers retired. 

UCLA’s historic run with Walton

During Walton’s playing career, he helped guide the program to an 86-4 mark. UCLA had back-to-back 30-0 seasons in 1972 and 1973 and capped an unprecedented seventh consecutive national title. UCLA won consecutive titles during the 1964 and 1965 seasons before going on a historic run that included cutting down the nets every season from 1967 (when the Alcindor era began) to 197 (when the Walton era ended). 

Walton’s team at UCLA won its first 73 games and finished the streak by winning 88 games in a row, which remains the NCAA men’s basketball record. The Bruins went 49-0 inside Pauley Pavilion as part of a 98-game home winning streak that started during the 1970-71 campaign.

UCLA is the only program in men’s college basketball history to win three or more consecutive titles and the only program to accomplish the feat twice. Oklahoma State, Kentucky, San Francisco, Cincinnati, Duke, Florida, and most recently, UConn are the only other teams that have repeated as champions.

Broadcasting career with the Pac-12, NBA

Walton became a fan favorite because of his broadcasting style. Walton is best known for calling Pac-12 basketball games, but he also assisted with coverage of the Olympic Games in 1996 and 2000 and joined ESPN and ABC as an NBA analyst in 2002.

Walton worked side-by-side with Dave Pasch calling Pac-12 basketball games for ESPN. Pasch opened up about his relationship with Walton during an interview with Arizona Sports 98.7 on Tuesday. 

“As I look back, going to Syracuse (for school) … you’re taught a very professional manner of how to broadcast a game,” Pasch said. “It’s traditional. We all kind sound a lot alike if you listen to a lot of the Syracuse guys in terms of their cadence and how they call the game. But I think I didn’t really let my personality out. First of all, I didn’t have a choice with Bill. It was good. He made me a better broadcaster because I had to think on my feet. I had to react. I had to determine when to stop him, when to play along, when to nudge him, when to go back at him.”

Walton stepped away from broadcasting Clippers games in 2009 due to back problems before returning to work calling Sacramento Kings games part time. Walton won an Emmy in 2001.

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