Bill Walton Was a Star With a 'Zest for Life'

Hall of Famer won championships in high school, college, and the NBA
By Bob Cronin,  Newser Staff
Posted May 27, 2024 3:08 PM CDT
Bill Walton Was a Star With a 'Zest for Life'
Television analyst Bill Walton stretches before an NCAA college basketball game between Oregon and Colorado in January 2020, in Boulder, Colo.   (AP Photo/David Zalubowski, File)

Bill Walton, a Hall of Fame center who won basketball championships in high school, college, and the NBA before becoming a celebrated broadcaster, died Monday. He was 71 and had been battling cancer, the Washington Post reports. He was rated as one of the best ever players at each level, and in making the announcement, NBA Commissioner Adam Silver said Walton "redefined the center position." But what Silver said he'll remember most was Walton's "zest for life." In retirement, Silver said, Walton "was a regular presence at league events—always upbeat, smiling ear to ear and looking to share his wisdom and warmth."

Walton's teams at Helix High School in La Mesa, California, won two state titles and their final 49 games, per the Athletic. Playing for coach John Wooden at UCLA, Walton won national titles in 1972 and 1973 on teams with perfect 30-0 records, per USA Today. He was named the NCAA's player of the year three times. His most famous performance came in the 1973 NCAA title game victory over Memphis State: Walton had 44 points, 13 rebounds, and seven blocks, while hitting 21 of 22 shots. Wooden clashed with his star over politics, hair length, and the Vietnam War, per CNN. But the coach remained a lifelong mentor. "Always positive, always constructive, John Wooden drives us in ways and directions that we are not aware of, always with the goal of making us better," Walton later wrote.

The Portland Trail Blazers made Walton their No. 1 pick in the 1974 draft, and he led them to an NBA championship in 1977. He was named the Finals MVP and was twice the leagues MVP for the regular season. The 6-foot-11 center was considered one of the most dominant players of all time despite dealing with one injury after another. Walton had surgery 39 times as a player, and more later. He told CNN that back pain in 2008 almost pushed him into suicide. "More people commit suicide from back pain than from any other malady," he said. "It's just overwhelming. It destroys every aspect of your life." Spinal surgery in 2009 alleviated much of the pain, allowing him to continue broadcasting and even ride a bike.

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After retiring as a player, Walton turned to broadcasting, which required overcoming a stutter and allowed him to digress into life beyond basketball, including his love of the outdoors and the Grateful Dead. He won an Emmy in his new career. As a player, Walton was named to the NBA's 50th and 75th anniversary teams and inducted into the Hall of Fame. In 1997, the NBA named him one of the Top 50 players of all time. He also was inducted into the Naismith Hall of Fame. Walton once took several members of the Boston Celtics to a Dead concert, celebrating two organizations he admired. "They both have the ability to inspire, encourage and to allow you to be you and to become something that is bigger and better and more important than you as an individual," Walton said. (More obituary stories.)

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