Basketball Hall of Famer Bill Walton dies at 71 after cancer battle

<p>Hall of Fame center Bill Walton, who won two NCAA championships at UCLA and two NBA championships before becoming a quirky broadcaster in retirement, died Monday following a battle with cancer. He was 71.</p> <p>NBA Commissioner Adam Silver announced Walton’s death, hailing the redheaded, free-spirited, bicycle-riding, Grateful Dead-loving California native as a “one of a kind” player who “redefined the center position.”</p> <p>“What I will remember most about him was his zest for life,” Silver said in a statement. “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.”</p> <p>Walton, a 6-foot-11 center who could score, rebound and block shots and loved to pass, followed in Kareem Abdul-Jabbar’s footsteps at UCLA, leading the Bruins to national titles in 1972 and 1973 and being named the Final Four most outstanding player both years. Before he was selected with the first pick in the 1974 NBA draft by the Portland Trail Blazers, Walton led the Bruins to an 86-4 record over three seasons under the watchful eye of legendary coach John Wooden. His dominant performance in the 1973 championship game against Memphis State - 44 points on 21-for-22 shooting and 13 rebounds - is still regarded as one of the best in NCAA history.</p> <p>“The concept of team has always been the most intriguing aspect of basketball to me,” Walton said at his Basketball Hall of Fame induction in 1993. “If I had been interested in individual success or individual sport, I would have taken up tennis or golf. I chose basketball - a place where I could run up and down the court with the wind blowing through my hair and screaming at the referees for making the wrong call and yelling at the coach to put some rebounders in here so I don’t have to do it all.”</p> <p>With Portland, Walton turned a recent expansion franchise into the 1977 NBA champion, still the only title the Trail Blazers have won in franchise history. He averaged 18.6 points and led the league with 14.4 rebounds and 3.2 blocks per game during the regular season before claiming 1977 Finals MVP honors in a six-game series against the Philadelphia 76ers.</p> <p>“Bill Walton was an icon,” Trail Blazers owner Jody Allen said in a statement. “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.”</p> <p>Walton went on to win MVP honors in 1978, though a foot injury cut short Portland’s bid to repeat as champion and led to his departure from the Rose City. After spending several seasons battling injuries with the Clippers, who moved from San Diego to Los Angeles during his tenure, he resurfaced as a sixth man for the Boston Celtics. Walton won his second championship with the famed 1986 Celtics before retiring in 1988.</p> <p>“Bill Walton was one of the most consequential players of his era,” the Celtics said in a statement.</p> <p>At a 2009 news conference in Portland, Walton, then 56, said he had undergone 36 “orthopedic operations” during his life and he had “two fused ankles; knees, hands and wrists that don’t work; [and] least 11 bolts in my body.” He recounted a recent battle with “relentless, unrelenting, excruciating and debilitating nerve pain from my chest to my knees” that left him “lying on the floor, a pitiful, helpless ball of flesh. I couldn’t walk, think, talk, sit, stand, sleep or do anything.”</p> <p>Yet Walton’s spirit remained unbroken.</p> <p>“I’m the luckiest guy on Earth,” he said. “For more reasons than you can ever imagine, I did not think I would ever be standing here today.”</p> <p>Despite persistent injury issues that limited him to relatively modest averages of 13.3 points and 10.5 rebounds across just 468 career games, Walton was named to the NBA’s 50th and 75th anniversary teams and inducted to the Hall of Fame. His No. 32 jersey was retired by UCLA and the Trail Blazers.</p> <p>“His relentless energy, enthusiasm for the game and unwavering candor have been the hallmarks of his larger than life personality,” UCLA Coach Mick Cronin said in a statement. “As a passionate UCLA alumnus and broadcaster, he loved being around our players, hearing their stories, and sharing his wisdom and advice. For me as a coach, he was honest, kind, and always had his heart in the right place. I will miss him very much. It’s hard to imagine a season in Pauley Pavilion without him.”</p> <p>For decades, Walton was a color commentator for college and NBA games, often waxing nostalgic about his love of the great outdoors and 1970s-era music in extended riffs. ESPN executive Jimmy Pitaro hailed Walton’s work on the network, noting in a statement that his “one-of-a-kind spirit captivated and inspired audiences during his second career.”</p> <p>Walton is survived by his wife, Lori, and four sons: Adam, Nate, Luke and Chris. Luke Walton spent 10 years playing in the NBA before serving as coach of the Los Angeles Lakers and Sacramento Kings.</p> <p>“They talk about [Nikola] Jokic being the most skilled center but Bill Walton was first! From shooting jump shots to making incredible passes, he was one of the smartest basketball players to ever live,” Lakers legend Magic Johnson said in a statement. “Bill was a great ambassador for college basketball and the NBA, and he will be sorely missed.”</p>