Basketball legend Bill Walton dead at 71

The two-time NBA champion and Hall of Famer died of cancer, the NBA said.

May 27, 2024, 2:48 PM

Bill Walton, the legendary basketball player and sportscaster, died Monday at 71, according to the NBA.

The two-time NBA champion -- first for the Portland Trail Blazers in 1977, and then for the Boston Celtics in 1986 -- died of cancer and was surrounded by family, the NBA said. He is survived by his wife and four sons.

Standing at 6 feet, 11 inches tall, topped off with a mop of red hair and an encyclopedic knowledge of ‘60s counterculture, few athletes have ever stood out as much as Walton -- and that was before he stepped on the basketball court.

Walton, the successor to Lew Alcindor’s legacy at UCLA under head coach John Wooden, was one of the winningest players in NCAA history -- possibly even outpacing the man who would become Kareem Abdul-Jabbar.

Like Abdul-Jabbar, Walton won three national player of the year awards in college, where he was a star player on the UCLA Bruins. He also won national titles in 1972 and ‘73, both undefeated seasons, and a still-record 88-game winning streak.

Walton’s performance in the 1973 title game against Memphis -- 21-of-22 from the field for 44 points, as well as 13 rebounds -- may be the finest single game performance in NCAA history. The 44 points is still the record for most points in an NCAA title game, and would’ve been higher if four shots hadn’t been waved off as dunks — still illegal in the sport at the time.

Walton became the No. 1 overall pick in the 1974 NBA draft by the Portland Trail Blazers and, now with a fiery red beard to match his tousled hair, led the Blazers to a title in 1977. He earned NBA Finals MVP as well.

The center earned league MVP honors the following year, but broke his foot late in the season. Despite attempting to come back for the postseason, he was re-injured and Portland lost in the first round.

The injuries weren’t his first -- he spent much of his first two NBA seasons injured -- and were far from his last. Walton had criticized the treatment from Portland doctors and demanded a trade. He was rebuffed and sat out the 1978-79 season in protest.

Walton never got a chance to show his true potential as a pro due to a laundry list of foot, ankle, knee and back injuries.

He had one last brush with greatness during the 1985-86 season when he signed with the Boston Celtics to be Robert Parish’s backup. He stayed healthy enough to play in 80 games and won the NBA’s sixth man of the year award. The team, led by that year’s NBA MVP, Larry Bird, went on to win the title over Houston.

Walton also played for the Los Angeles Clippers, then called the San Diego Clippers, and played on the NBA's 50th and 75th Anniversary Teams.

After several years of injuries, Walton officially retired in 1990. He was inducted into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame in 1993.

Walton found post-career success as a basketball commentator, becoming well-known for his "infectious enthusiasm and love for the game," according to NBA Commissioner Adam Silver.

"He delivered insightful and colorful commentary which entertained generations of basketball fans," Silver said.

Silver remembered Walton as a "truly one of a kind" man who "redefined the center position."

"But what I will remember most about him was his zest for life," Silver said. "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," Silver added.

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