Hall of Famer Bill Walton dies at 71

May 28, 2024 - 10:04 AM
NBC basketball announcers Bill Walton and Marv Albert pose before the start of Game 4 of the NBA Finals in East Rutherford, New Jersey June12, 2002. (Reuters/Mike Blake/File Photo)

Hall of Fame center Bill Walton, a two-time national champion at UCLA and two-time NBA champion, died Monday after a prolonged battle with cancer. He was 71.

Walton, who overcame a stuttering problem to become a beloved broadcaster, was surrounded by family when he passed away.

“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. 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.

“As a cherished member of the NBA family for 50 years, Bill will be deeply missed by all those who came to know and love him. My heartfelt condolences to Bill’s wife, Lori; his sons, Adam, Nate, Luke and Chris; and his many friends and colleagues.”

Walton was the No. 1 overall pick in the 1974 NBA Draft by the Portland Trail Blazers, who he led to their only NBA championship in 1976-77. Named the league MVP in 1977-78 and the Sixth Man of the Year in 1985-86, he added a second ring as a member of the 1985-86 Boston Celtics.

Walton was inducted into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame in 1993 and the College Basketball Hall of Fame in 2006. His No. 32 is retired by UCLA and the Trail Blazers.

The two-time All-Star and 1977 NBA Finals MVP averaged 13.5 points, 10.4 rebounds, 3.4 assists and 2.2 blocks in 468 games during an injury-plagued 10-year career with the Blazers (1974-78), San Diego/Los Angeles Clippers (1979-80, 1982-85) and Celtics (1985-87).

“Bill Walton was a true legend — an extraordinary player, talented broadcaster and vital part of the Blazers organization,” the Trail Blazers said in a statement. “His mastery of the game not only established him as one of the greatest centers in history, but also led the Blazers to a championship in 1977, where he earned NBA Finals Most Valuable Player.

“But Bill was so much more than basketball, he was larger than life. His upbeat and vibrant personality will forever be remembered and cherished, and he will be deeply missed by our organization, Rip City and all who experienced him.”

The 6-foot-11 Walton, known as “Big Red” for his size and hair color, missed several entire seasons with foot and back injuries that required multiple surgeries.

Born in La Mesa, Calif., on Nov. 5, 1952, Walton led Helix High School to 49 consecutive wins and two state titles before heading to UCLA to play for legendary coach John Wooden.

There, he became a three-time national college player of the year and helped the Bruins win a record 88 straight games, including NCAA Tournament victories in 1972 and 1973. In the 1973 final against Memphis State, he tallied 44 points on 21-of-22 shooting.

Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, who preceded Walton at UCLA and was his contemporary in the NBA, posted a farewell to social media.

“My very close friend, fellow Bruin and NBA rival Bill Walton died today. And the world feels so much heavier now,” Abdul-Jabbar wrote. “On the court, Bill was a fierce player, but off the court he wasn’t happy unless he did everything he could to make everyone around him happy. He was the best of us.”

UCLA’s athletic department also paid respects to Walton.

“A true Bruin legend that will forever be missed. We send our condolences to the Walton family,” the school said on social media.

Off the court, Walton was also known for his political activism and passion for the Grateful Dead.

Walton overcame his speech impairment in his 20s to become a broadcaster for CBS and NBC in 1990 before moving on to Los Angeles Clippers broadcasts and eventually ABC/ESPN in 2002. He left broadcasting in 2009 because of severe back issues as a result from injuries during his playing days.

After back surgery, Walton returned in 2012 and called college basketball games for ESPN and the Pac-12 Network, which is set to cease operation in June. He had a significantly reduced broadcasting schedule this past season.

—Field Level Media