Bill Walton, NBA Hall of Famer and broadcasting star, dies at 71

Bill Walton is pictured in 2011 in New York. (Earl Wilson/The New York Times)

Bill Walton, a center whose extraordinary passing and rebounding skills helped him win two national college championships with UCLA and one each with the Portland Trail Blazers and Boston Celtics of the NBA, and who overcame a stutter to become a loquacious commentator, died Monday at his home in San Diego. He was 71.

The NBA said he died of colon cancer.


A redheaded hippie and devoted Grateful Dead fan, Walton was an acolyte of UCLA coach John Wooden and the hub of the Bruins team that won NCAA championships in 1972 and 1973 and extended an 88-game winning streak that had begun in 1971. He was named the national player of the year three times.

Walton’s greatest game was the 1973 national championship against Memphis State, played in St. Louis. He got into foul trouble in the first half, but went on to score a record 44 points on 21-for-22 shooting and had 11 rebounds in UCLA’s 87-66 victory. It was the school’s ninth title in 10 years.

Walton — not yet known for his often hyperbolic, stream of consciousness speaking skills — refused to say much after the game. As he left the locker room, he told reporters, “Excuse me, I want to go meet my friends. I’m splitting.”

He played one more year at UCLA before being selected by Portland first overall in the 1974 NBA draft. He weathered injuries, two losing seasons under coach Lenny Wilkens and criticism over his vegetarian diet and his red ponytail and beard before winning the 1977 championship under coach Jack Ramsay.

“I think Jack Ramsay reached Walton,” Eddie Donovan, the New York Knicks general manager, told New York Times columnist Dave Anderson. “Of all the coaches in our league, Jack Ramsay is the closest to being the John Wooden type — scholarly, available. I think Walton responded to that.”

But the question that lingered throughout Walton’s NBA career was how good he would have been if not for his many injuries. Better than Bill Russell? Wilt Chamberlain? Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, one of his predecessors at UCLA?

Walton never played more than 70 games in a season — even in the 1977-78 season, when he was named most valuable player, he played in just 58 games — and he missed four full seasons (1978-79, 1980-81, 1981-82 and 1987-88).

“When I’m healthy,” he said early in his Portland career, “I play real good, I think.”

He was asked whether anyone had seen the real Bill Walton.

“I don’t think so,” he said.

He had a knee injury as a teenager during a playground game. But, as he wrote in one of his memoirs, “Back From the Dead: Searching for the Sound, Shining the Light and Throwing It Down” (2016), it was “my malformed feet — my faulty foundation, which led to the endless string of stress fractures which ultimately brought on the whole mess I’m in now.”

He underwent about 40 orthopedic surgeries, mostly on his feet and ankles.

“My feet were not built to last — or to play basketball,” he added. “My skeletal, structural foundation — inflexible and rigid — could not absorb the endless stress and impact of running, jumping, turning, twisting and pounding for 26 years.”

William Theodore Walton III was born Nov. 5, 1952, in La Mesa, California, near downtown San Diego. His father, Ted, was a social worker and adult educator, and his mother, Gloria (Hickey) Walton, was a librarian. Bill was extremely shy because of his stutter and wrote that in school he almost never spoke in class and was glad when teachers did not call on him.

He recalled in his memoir that his “basketball fever spiked” after the family next door dismantled its backboard and basket and he and his father reassembled it at their home.

“I was in heaven,” he wrote. “I could play whenever I wanted, and I did.”

It was the start of a long love affair with basketball that led to two state championships for his Helix High School team, in La Mesa. The squad won 49 consecutive games at one point. He moved on to UCLA, recruited when it was the dominant team in college basketball. With Walton, the Bruins had two 30-0 seasons and finished 86-4 in his three varsity campaigns.

With his injuries derailing his career, Walton left the Blazers to sign with the San Diego (now Los Angeles) Clippers in 1979, but, again, injuries prevented him from playing in many of their games over four seasons. In 1985, the Clippers traded him to the Boston Celtics, where he found joy as a reserve player, winning the Sixth Man of the Year Award, as the Celtics won the 1986 NBA title, defeating the Houston Rockets.

“The Celtics’ jigsaw had been missing a giant piece — a center to spell Robert Parish — and Walton nestled snugly into place,” Sports Illustrated wrote in 1986, referring to the team’s starting center.

But foot injuries limited Walton to 10 games the next season, the last he would play. Over 10 seasons, he averaged 13.3 points and 10.5 rebounds a game.

He was elected to the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame in 1993.

Last year, ESPN’s “30 for 30” documentary series told Walton’s life in four parts. Despite his injury-limited career, the series was titled “The Luckiest Guy in the World.”

His first marriage, to Susan Guth, ended in divorce. He is survived by his wife, Lori (Matsuoka) Walton; his sons from his first marriage, Adam, Nate, Chris and Luke, who is a former coach of the Los Angeles Lakers and the Sacramento Kings; his sister, Cathy Walton; his brother Andy; and nine grandchildren. His brother Bruce died in 2019.

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