NBA Hall of Famer and Trail Blazers legend Bill Walton dies at 71 after prolonged fight with cancer

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NBA Hall of Famer and Trail Blazers legend Bill Walton dies at 71 after prolonged fight with cancer

Enormous, if only slightly due to his almost 7-foot stature, Walton was a two-time NCAA champion at UCLA, a two-time NBA champion, an induction into the Basketball Hall of Fame, and an all-around on-court legend.

Aside from the court, Walton was an insatiable fun-seeker, a broadcaster who defied convention and enjoyed it immensely, and a man who was profoundly concerned about the most important things to him. 

NBA Commissioner Adam Silver stated, “Bill Walton was truly one of a kind.”

On behalf of his family, the league confirmed that Walton passed away on Monday at the age of 71 following a protracted battle with cancer.

details of of how the NBA Hall of Famer and Trail Blazers legend Bill Walton dies at 71 after prolonged fight with cancer

NBA Hall of Famer and Trail Blazers legend Bill Walton dies at 71 after prolonged fight with cancer
NBA Hall of Famer and Trail Blazers legend Bill Walton dies at 71 after prolonged fight with cancer

As a part of the league’s 50th and 75th-anniversary teams, he was named the NBA’s MVP in 1977–1978 and the league’s sixth man of the year in 1985–86. That came after a stellar collegiate career at UCLA under coach John Wooden when he won three national Player of the Year awards. 

“I am sad today hearing that my comrade and one of the sports world’s most beloved champions and characters has passed,” Julius “Dr. J” Erving, a fellow Hall of Famer, wrote on social media. “Bill Walton enjoyed life in every way. To compete against him and to work with him was a blessing in my life.”

Tributes immediately began pouring in, and the NBA was planning a moment of silence to commemorate Walton’s life before Game 4 of the Boston-Indiana matchup in the Eastern Conference finals on Monday night.

One of the most renowned players in history, Walton’s NBA career—which was cut short by a series of foot injuries—lasted just 468 games with the Portland Trail Blazers, San Diego/Los Angeles Clippers, and Boston Celtics.

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Although he didn’t exactly set records for points or rebounds in those games, Walton’s impact on the game was enormous. “It’s a legend lost when you talk about basketball and what he brought to the media side,” Dallas Mavericks coach Jason Kidd said.

“As an ex-player, to be able to be successful not just on the court but also on TV.”

Walton’s most well-known matchup was the 1973 NCAA championship game between UCLA and Memphis, as he guided the Bruins to yet another national championship while shooting 21 of 22 from the field.

For a 35th anniversary perspective on that game, Wooden told The Associated Press in 2008, “One of my guards said, ‘Let’s try something else.'”

In that brief moment, Wooden’s unwavering confidence shone through as he responded, ‘Why? Don’t fix it if it ain’t broke.’

Walton continued to provide a performance fit for a king as long as they gave him the ball. 

UCLA coach Mick Cronin stated on Monday, “It’s tough to put into words what he has meant to UCLA’s programme, as well as his tremendous impact on college basketball.”

“Apart from his outstanding athletic achievements, his infectious energy, passion for the game, and unfailing honesty have been the defining characteristics of his larger-than-life attitude.

“It is difficult to envision Pauley Pavilion during a season without him.”

Following his NBA retirement, Walton pursued a career in broadcasting, an endeavour he never imagined he could succeed at. One he occasionally questioned would be feasible given his severe stutter. 

It turns out he was also very good at that: Walton won an Emmy, was later listed by the American Sportscasters Association as one of the top 50 sportscasters of all time, and his biography “Back from the Dead” even made it onto The New York Times bestseller list.

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It described his crippling back injury from 2008—which made him think about ending his life due to the excruciating pain—and his years-long recovery. 

For most of my life, I was alone. However, as soon as I was on the court, I felt good,” Walton said in a 2017 interview with The Oregonian newspaper. “But in real life, having red hair, a large nose, freckles, and a silly, nerdy-looking face makes me extremely self-conscious, and I can’t even talk.”

I was so shy that I didn’t say anything. Then, at the age of 28, I picked up speech. It’s now everyone else’s worst nightmare and my finest achievement.

That last bit was just hyperbole from Walton. Walton was well-known for his on-air digressions and occasionally appeared wearing Grateful Dead t-shirts. The band was very popular with Walton, who frequently mentioned it and occasionally recorded satellite radio specials celebrating what it meant to be a “Deadhead.”

In his career, Walton was involved in the broadcasts of college and NBA games for CBS, NBC, and ABC/ESPN, as well as stints working for the Clippers and Sacramento Kings as an analyst. He returned to ESPN and the Pac-12 Network, further touting the roots of his league, in 2012.

“Bill Walton was a legendary player and a singular personality who genuinely cherished every experience throughout the journey of his extraordinary life,” ESPN Chairman Jimmy Pitaro said.

“Bill often described himself as ‘the luckiest guy in the world,’ but anyone who had the opportunity to interact with Bill was lucky. He was an extraordinary, giving person who always made time for others. Bill’s one-of-a-kind spirit captivated and inspired audiences during his second career as a successful broadcaster.”

However, Walton will always be synonymous with UCLA’s dominance.

He enrolled at the school in 1970, before first-year students could play on the varsity team. Once he could play for Wooden, the Bruins were unbeatable for more than two years — Walton’s UCLA teams won their first 73 games, the bulk of the Bruins’ extraordinary 88-game winning streak. It was snapped against Notre Dame in 1974, a 71-70 loss in which Walton shot 12 for 14 from the field.

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“Bill Walton’s passing is a sad tragedy. One of the great ones in UCLA basketball history,” Digger Phelps, who coached that Notre Dame team, posted Monday on social media. “We were great friends over the years. It won’t be the same without him.”

UCLA went 30-0 in each of Walton’s first two seasons and 86-4 in his career on the varsity team.

“My teammates … made me a much better basketball player than I could ever have become myself,” Walton said in his Hall of Fame speech 1993.

“The team concept has always been the most intriguing aspect of basketball. If I had been interested in individual success or an individual sport, I would have taken up tennis or golf.”

Walton led Portland to the 1977 NBA title, then got his second championship with Boston in 1986.

“Bill Walton was an icon,” said Jody Allen, the chair of the Trail Blazers. “His leadership and tenacity on the court were key to bringing a championship to our fans and defined one of the most magical moments in franchise history. We will always treasure what he brought to our community and the sport of basketball.”

The Celtics released a statement saying: “Bill Walton was one of the most consequential players of his era. … Walton could do it all, possessing great timing, complete vision of the floor, excellent fundamentals and was of one of the greatest passing big men in league history.”