Bill Walton, N.B.A. Hall of Famer and Broadcasting Star, Dies at 71

The basketball world lost a legend with the passing of Bill Walton, a remarkable center known for his exceptional passing and rebounding abilities.

His illustrious career saw him clinch two national college championships with U.C.L.A and one each with the Portland Trail Blazers and Boston Celtics in the N.B.A. Despite battling a stutter, Walton’s eloquence shone through in his later career as a commentator.

He passed away at the age of 71 at his home in San Diego due to colon cancer.

A distinctive figure with his red hair and a devoted fan of the Grateful Dead, Walton was deeply influenced by U.C.L.A. coach John Wooden. His pivotal role in the Bruins team led to consecutive N.C.A.A. championships in 1972 and 1973, contributing to their remarkable 88-game winning streak. His outstanding performance in the 1973 national championship game against Memphis State, where he scored a record 44 points on 21-for-22 shooting, solidified his status as a basketball great.

After a successful college career, Walton was selected first overall by the Portland Trail Blazers in the 1974 N.B.A. draft. Despite facing challenges such as injuries, criticism over his vegetarian diet, and unconventional appearance with his red ponytail and beard, he ultimately triumphed by winning the 1977 championship under Coach Jack Ramsay, solidifying his legacy in the sport.

“I think Jack Ramsay reached Walton,” Eddie Donovan, the Knicks general manager, told the columnist Dave Anderson of The New York Times. “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 N.B.A. 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 U.C.L.A.?

Walton never played in more than 65 games in a season during his years in Portland — even in the 1977-78 season, when he was named most valuable player, he appeared 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 on Nov. 5, 1952, in La Mesa, Calif., near downtown San Diego. His father, called 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 U.C.L.A., 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.

While at U.C.L.A., Walton was arrested during a protest against the Vietnam War. He was also politically aware of his status as a white player with mostly Black teammates.

“The Blacks have gotten a raw deal for a long time,” he told the sportswriter Bill Libby after his arrest, according to The Nation. “A lot of my teammates are Black, and I really admire the way they’ve risen above their raw deal. They’re my friends, and I feel for them. I know I’ve gotten twice as much as I deserve because I’m white.”

Walton was friendly with the leftist radicals Jack and Micki Scott and appeared with them at a news conference in San Francisco in 1975. The Scotts had been in hiding and resurfaced amid accusations that they had sheltered Patricia Hearst (Scott later admitted that he had) after she had been kidnapped by members of the Symbionese Liberation Army.

Walton had briefly shared a home in Portland with the Scotts and had been questioned about them by the F.B.I. Speaking to the Scotts at the news conference, Walton said, “I am sorry for any inconvenience I may have caused you, and you can rest assured that I will never talk to the enemy again.”

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 N.B.A. title, defeating the Houston Rockets.

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