Plaschke: Bill Walton's kindness and wonderful wackiness made us the grateful ones

Legendary UCLA basketball coach John R. Wooden, right, hugs his former player Bill Walton.
Legendary UCLA basketball coach John R. Wooden, right, hugs his former star player at UCLA, Bill Walton, after a game at the John R. Wooden Classic in Anaheim on Dec. 9, 2006. Walton died Monday at age 71. (Kevork Djansezian / Associated Press)

Fittingly, my favorite Bill Walton encounter involved only his voice.

It was in October 2000, the day before John Wooden’s 90th birthday. I was visiting with Coach in his modest Encino condo when the phone rang and the answering machine picked up.

Suddenly the room was filled with a familiar deep and gravelly singing from across the globe.

“Happy birthday to you ... happy birthday to you ... happy birthday from Australia...”

Wooden smiled.

“Oh, that’s Bill Walton,” he said.

Read more: Bill Walton, UCLA legend, NBA star and Pac-12 advocate, dies at age 71

The song ended, but Walton was just getting started. Still on the answering machine, just a voice coming from a box, he began describing the weather and his vacation and all sorts of ordinary things when it finally became apparent, he wasn’t just making small talk.

Walton was determined to stay on the line for as long as it took for Wooden to make the slow walk from his family room down the hall to pick up the phone.

Twice a week, he would call, and twice a week, he would patiently kill time until his aging coach could answer.

A simple act of thoughtfulness, breathtaking in its beauty.

It was pure Bill Walton.

On that day, when Wooden finally reached the phone, he cradled the receiver with a smile.

“Bill, Bill, I love you too,” he said to Walton. “Yep, it’s me, I’m here.”

UCLA's Bill Walton plays during a game against Washington State on Feb. 21, 1972.
UCLA's Bill Walton plays during a game against Washington State on Feb. 21, 1972. (George Long / Sports Illustrated via Getty Images)

Fifteen minutes later, their conversation ended, Wooden hung up the phone, returned to his chair and explained.

“Bill calls me twice a week, and I love talking to him,” he said, still smiling. “Although, it is safe to say, I don’t do much of the talking.”

An eternally kind and genuinely quirky soul, Bill Walton died Monday at 71, leaving the sports world a noticeably lesser place.

Walton had battled cancer after winning two NBA titles, two NCAA championships, and the hearts of fans captivated by the energy and eccentricity displayed during his 22 years as an NBA and later college basketball television analyst.

Yes, he was a gangly giant who was quite possibly the best college player in history — UCLA was 86-4 in his varsity career and won his first 73 games.

Read more: How the Grateful Dead inspired Bill Walton and shaped his life's perspective

Yes, he was a dominating big man who played vastly different roles on two NBA title teams nine years apart — he starred for the 1977 Portland Trail Blazers and was sixth man for the 1986 Boston Celtics.

But what I’ll remember most is the size of his heart.

Check out the extraordinary story from the spring of 2008, when Walton’s body finally broke after 39 surgeries and he was spending entire days on his injured back while contemplating suicide.

At the same time, his son, Luke, was playing for the Lakers in a tense postseason, and Bill desperately wanted to inspire him.

So he would phone Luke before every series and leave a message on his voicemail pretending to be an opposing player talking trash.

You read that right.

For the first four-minute message, he pretended to be Carmelo Anthony promising to kick the Lakers’ butt.

San Diego Clippers center Bill Walton defends in front of Lakers center Kareem Abdul-Jabbar.

In a second four-minute message, he pretended to be Carlos Boozer promising to kick the Lakers butt.

“I played the voice mails for my teammates, they’re really pretty funny,” Luke said at the time.

When the Lakers advanced to the Western Conference finals against the San Antonio Spurs, Walton called his son again, and initially pretended to be one of the Spurs stars, but then stopped.

“He said he wanted to imitate Tim Duncan, but Tim Duncan doesn’t talk trash so he couldn’t,” Luke recalled.

Bill Walton settled for simply telling Luke he loved him. And nobody loved like Bill Walton loved, colorfully, richly, bright eyes staring at you, deep laugh encouraging you, smothering you with a personality that matched his loud and loopy Grateful Dead T-shirts.

The only thing cooler than listening to Walton broadcast a UCLA basketball game was actually attending the game and watching him work the sidelines.

His bony frame was so frail, yet his grip was so strong as he shook hands and patted backs and embraced all who approached. He was so tall he usually spoke down to people, but he never spoke down to anyone, dishing out compliments and encouragement the way he once passed the ball out of the post.

Read more: Bill Walton claims Chewbacca was modeled after him after auditioning for 'Star Wars'

Did you know I was the best writer in the history of journalism? Walton told me that once. He also said the same thing to virtually every other scribe he met.

We were all the best. The fans, the media, the officials and, yes, absolutely, the players.

As reported by the Athletic, the Awful Announcing website curated some of Walton’s wild on-air pronouncements, and a couple of them described the most anonymous of athletes, all stars in his eyes.

There was this ...

“Yesterday he celebrated Sir Isaac Newton’s discovery of gravity. Today, Fabricio Oberto is defying it.”

And there was this ...

“If you ever think you’re too small to make a difference, you’ve never spent a night in bed with mosquitos or you’ve never played basketball against Taylor from Utah — No. 11 in your program, No. 1 in your heart.”

Walton didn’t just sell hyperbole, he also acted hyperbole, a regular sideline circus, once covering himself in dirt, another time eating a cupcake with the candle still lit, and occasionally taking off an ordinary shirt to put on a Grateful Dead garb.

He was wacky. He was wild. He was wonderful. Even with all his greatness as an athlete, he will equally be remembered as a trailblazing broadcaster.

Yet, I will honor him most for that heart.

Bill Walton acknowledges the crowd after throwing a ceremonial first pitch at Petco Park.
Bill Walton acknowledges the crowd after throwing a ceremonial first pitch before a game between the San Diego Padres and Colorado Rockies at Petco Park on Aug. 8, 2019. (Denis Poroy / Getty Images)

A couple of years ago we were together at the annual California Sports Hall of Fame induction ceremony. Walton went out of his way to engage with my starstruck family and friends while unknowingly giving me the reinforcements to give my speech.

As you probably know, Walton once battled a stuttering problem. As some of you also know, I have battled the same issues, and throughout my adulthood I have taken inspiration from listening to the precise confidence with which Walton spoke.

I never thanked him for that. I never had a chance. He was always thanking me.

Bill Walton’s philosophy of life can be found in the title of an ESPN 2023 documentary on his life.

“The Luckiest Guy in the World.”

Except it’s all wrong.

We were the lucky ones.

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This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.