Bill Walton, two-time NBA champion and Hall of Fame center, dead at 71 after cancer battle

Bill Walton, the game-changing Hall of Fame center whose larger-than-life charisma later endeared him to audiences as a basketball broadcaster, died Monday after a long battle with cancer, the NBA announced.

He was 71.

Walton won two NCAA championships under John Wooden at UCLA and two more titles in the NBA, first with the Portland Trail Blazers in 1977 and then with the Boston Celtics in 1986.

“Bill Walton was truly one of a kind,” NBA Commissioner Adam Silver said. “As a Hall of Fame player, he redefined the center position. His unique all-around skills made him a dominant force.”

Born in the San Diego suburb of La Mesa, Calif., the 6-11 Walton played a starring role for much of UCLA’s run as the most dominant team in NCAA history. He won his first 73 games on the Bruins’ varsity roster, including undefeated seasons in 1971-72 and 1972-73 that ended with championships.

Walton famously scored 44 points on 21-of-22 shooting in the 1973 national championship game against Memphis to clinch his second title.

His first loss came in January 1974 as a senior. The defeat by Notre Dame ended UCLA’s record streak of 88 consecutive victories that began before Walton was on the roster.

Walton averaged 20.3 points and 15.7 rebounds per game during his UCLA career, winning national player of the year in all three seasons. His back-to-back championships were the final two of Wooden’s seven consecutive titles.

“I was John Wooden’s easiest recruit,” Walton told GQ in 2016. “I became his worst nightmare. I drove the poor guy to an early grave when he was 99. I had three different periods of my life in my relationship with him: (1) when I was a high school student and he was recruiting me; (2) when I played for him when I was 17 to 21; (3) and then 36 years of being his friend.”

Drafted first overall by the Trail Blazers in 1974, Walton dealt with foot injuries early in his NBA career and totaled 86 games over his first two seasons.

His breakout campaign came in 1976-77, his third year in the league, when he averaged 18.6 points and led the NBA with 14.4 rebounds and 3.2 blocks over 65 games.

Walton finished as the runner-up for MVP that season, then led Portland to what remains the franchise’s only championship. Walton averaged 18.5 points, 19.0 rebounds, 5.2 assists and 3.7 blocks in the 1977 NBA Finals, beating Julius Erving’s Philadelphia 76ers in six games.

Walton then won NBA MVP for the 1977-78 season by averaging 18.9 points, 13.2 rebounds and 5.0 assists over 58 games. His regular season ended early that year with a broken foot, and while Walton returned for the playoffs, he underwent an X-ray after his second postseason game that showed a break just below the ankle.

Walton sat out the subsequent 1978-79 season in protest of the Trail Blazers’ medical treatment of players, then signed with the then-San Diego Clippers during the 1979 offseason. Foot issues would continue to plague Walton, who appeared in only 14 games over the next three seasons and never played in more than 67 in any of his six years with the Clippers.

He spent his final three seasons with Boston, winning Sixth Man of the Year in 1985-86 and contributing to the Celtics’ championship run. He would only appear in 10 games over the next two seasons, including none in 1987-88, however, and ultimately retired. He averaged 13.3 points, 10.5 rebounds, 3.4 assists and 2.2 blocks per game for his NBA career.

In 1990, Walton became a color commentator, calling NCAA and NBA games for CBS and NBC before joining ESPN/ABC in 2002. He served as the network’s lead NBA analyst for a decade, regularly delighting with his trademark enthusiasm. He then moved to ESPN’s Pac-12 Network in 2012.

Walton’s influence towered over more than basketball. As a UCLA sophomore, Walton was arrested on May 10, 1972, for partaking in a Vietnam War protest that started on the university’s campus. He had won his first NCAA title with the Bruins less than two months earlier.

The arrest of Walton, who was 19, commanded national attention, and ended with Wooden picking him up from jail.

“Protesting is what gets things done,” Walton told author Tom Shanahan in October 2020, months after Black Lives Matter demonstrations became prominent throughout the U.S. “The drive for positive change requires action. The forces of evil don’t just change their ways.”

After Wooden suggested that Walton protest by writing letters, Walton sent one on UCLA letterhead to President Nixon, according to Shanahan’s account.

“Coach, you can say what you want,” Walton told Wooden at the time. “It’s my friends and classmates who are coming home in body bags and wheelchairs.”

The Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame inducted Walton in 1993, while the National Collegiate Basketball Hall of Fame did the same in 2006. The NBA included Walton on its 50th and 75th anniversary teams that honored the greatest players in league history.

UCLA retired Walton’s No. 32 in 1990, making him, along with Lew Alcindor, the first players to receive the honor from the university.

“It’s very hard to put into words what he has meant to UCLA’s program, as well as his tremendous impact on college basketball,” UCLA men’s basketball coach Mick Cronin said Monday.

Others to pay tribute included Erving, who in a social-media post remembered Walton as one of sports’ “most beloved champions & characters,” and Earvin “Magic” Johnson, who hailed him “a great ambassador for college basketball and the NBA.”

“They talk about (Nikola) Jokic being the most skilled center but Bill Walton was first!” Johnson wrote on X. “From shooting jump shots to making incredible passes, he was one of the smartest basketball players to ever live.”

Walton is survived by his wife, Lori, as well as four sons, including former NBA player and current Cleveland Cavaliers assistant coach Luke Walton.