Hall of Famer Bill Walton, 2-time champ at UCLA and in NBA, dies

ByABC News
May 27, 2024, 4:39 PM

Basketball legend Bill Walton, who led the UCLA Bruins to two national titles before winning two championships during his NBA career, has died at the age of 71 after a prolonged battle with cancer.

Walton died Monday while surrounded by his loved ones, his family said in a statement released by the NBA.

"Bill Walton was truly one of a kind," NBA commissioner Adam Silver said in a statement.

He was the NBA's MVP in the 1977-78 season and a member of the league's 50th and 75th anniversary teams. That all followed a college career in which he was a two-time champion at UCLA and a three-time national player of the year under iconic coach John Wooden.

"What I will remember most about him was his zest for life," Silver said in his 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.

"As a cherished member of the NBA family for 50 years, Bill will be deeply missed by all those who came to know and love him."

The 6-foot-11 Walton, who was enshrined in the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame in 1993, was larger than life on the court, off the court and during his broadcasting career.

His NBA career -- disrupted by chronic foot injuries -- lasted only 468 games with the  Portland Trail Blazers, LA (and formerly San Diego)  Clippers and Boston Celtics. He averaged a double-double in those games -- 13.3 points and 10.5 rebounds.

Though neither of those numbers is near record-setting, his impact on the game was massive.

"Bill Walton was a true legend -- an extraordinary player, talented broadcaster, and vital part of the Blazers organization," the Trail Blazers said in a statement. "... Bill was so much more than basketball. He was larger than life. His upbeat and vibrant personality will forever be remembered and cherished, and he will be deeply missed by our organization, Rip City and all who experienced him."

His most famous game was the 1973 NCAA title matchup, UCLA against Memphis State, in which he shot an incredible 21-for-22 from the field and led the Bruins to another national championship.

The Bruins kept giving the ball to Walton, and he kept delivering in a performance for the ages.

"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 coach Mick Cronin said Monday. "Beyond his remarkable accomplishments as a player, it's his relentless energy, enthusiasm for the game and unwavering candor that have been the hallmarks of his larger-than-life personality.

"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."

Walton became a charter member of the UCLA Athletics Hall of Fame in 1984, and his No. 32 was joined by the No. 33 of former UCLA great Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (known in college as Lew Alcindor) as the first two men's basketball jersey numbers to be retired by the Bruins in 1990.

"My very close friend, fellow Bruin, and NBA rival Bill Walton died today," Abdul-Jabbar posted to X. "And the world feels so much heavier now. On the court, Bill was a fierce player, but off the court he wasn't happy unless he did everything he could to make everyone around him happy.

"He was the best of us."

Walton retired from the NBA and turned to broadcasting, something he never thought he could be good at -- and an avenue he sometimes wasn't sure would be possible for him -- because he had a pronounced stutter at times in his life.

Turns out, he was excellent at that, too: Walton was an Emmy winner.

"As a Hall of Fame player, he redefined the center position," Silver said. "Bill then translated his infectious enthusiasm and love for the game to broadcasting, where he delivered insightful and colorful commentary which entertained generations of basketball fans."

Walton originally joined ESPN and ABC in 2002 as a lead analyst for NBA games before shifting to college basketball in 2012. He also worked for CBS and NBC and was named one of the top 50 sports broadcasters of all time by the American Sportscasters Association in 2009.

"Bill Walton was a legendary player and a singular personality who genuinely cherished every experience throughout the journey of his extraordinary life," ESPN chairman Jimmy Pitaro said in a statement. "Bill often described himself as 'the luckiest guy in the world,' but anyone who had the opportunity to interact with Bill was the lucky one. He was a truly special, giving person who always made time for others.

"Bill's one-of-a-kind spirit captivated and inspired audiences during his second career as a successful broadcaster. We at ESPN extend our deepest condolences to Bill's loved ones, including the entire Walton family."

Walton was beloved for his on-air tangents. He sometimes appeared on-air in Grateful Dead T-shirts; Walton was a huge fan of the band and referenced it often, even sometimes recording satellite radio specials celebrating what it meant to be a Deadhead.

"In life, being so self-conscious, red hair, big nose, freckles and goofy, nerdy-looking face and can't talk at all. I was incredibly shy and never said a word," Walton told The Oregonian in 2017. "Then, when I was 28, I learned how to speak. It's become my greatest accomplishment of my life and everybody else's biggest nightmare."

The Pac-12 Conference, which has basically evaporated in many ways now because of college realignment, was another of his many loves. He always referred to it as the "Conference of Champions" and loved it all the way to the end.

"It doesn't get any better than this," he once said on an ESPN broadcast, tie-dyed T-shirt on, a Hawaiian lei around his neck.

Walton even appeared on The New York Times' bestseller list for his memoir, "Back from the Dead." It told the story of a debilitating back injury suffered in 2008, one that left him considering taking his own life because of the constant pain, and how he spent years recovering.

In his final years, Walton spoke out about the issues that mattered most to him, such as the problem of homelessness in his native San Diego, urging city leaders to take action and create shelter space to help those in need.

The first overall pick of the 1974 NBA draft by the Trail Blazers, Walton played 10 seasons in the NBA, winning championships with the Blazers (1977) and Celtics (1986). He totaled 6,215 points, 4,923 rebounds, 1,034 blocks and 1,590 assists.

"Bill Walton was one of the most consequential players of his era," the Celtics said in a statement. "... Walton could do it all, possessing great timing, complete vision of the floor, excellent fundamentals and was of one of the greatest passing big men in league history."

Walton said Bill Russell was his favorite player and found Larry Bird the toughest and best he played with, so it was appropriate that his playing career ended as a member of the Celtics.

"Playing basketball with Larry Bird," Walton once said, "is like singing with Jerry Garcia," referencing the co-founder of the Grateful Dead.

"I am very sorry about my good friend, Bill Walton. I love him as a friend and teammate," Bird said in a statement. "It was a thrill for me to play with my childhood idol and together we earned an NBA Championship in 1986. He is one of the greatest ever to play the game.

"I am sure that all of my teammates are as grateful as I am that we were able to know Bill, he was such a joy to know and he will be sorely missed." 

The family of Garcia, who died in 1995, paid tribute to Walton in a social media post, writing, "We will miss that big smile and bigger infectious spirit! Bill will be greeted with a joyous guitar riff and big smiles as he arrives on the other side."

The NBA held a moment of silence to commemorate Walton's life before Game 4 of the Boston-Indiana matchup in the Eastern Conference finals on Monday night.

"To me, he was a living, breathing event in history just walking around,"  Pacers coach Rick Carlisle, who was Walton's teammate in Boston, said before Game 4. "He played drums for the Grateful Dead at the Pyramids in Egypt. He was a guy who did everything and there's been a lot of talk today about how he speaks in hyperbole and stuff, but he just defiantly competed for every moment in life to be the greatest it could possibly be."

A two-time All-Star, Walton led the NBA in rebounding and blocks in 1977 and was the league's Sixth Man of the Year in 1986 -- the only player other than James Harden to have won both MVP and the Sixth Man award.

"They talk about [Nikola] Jokic being the most skilled center but Bill Walton was first!" Hall of Famer Magic Johnson posted to X. "From shooting jump shots to making incredible passes, he was one of the smartest basketball players to ever live. Bill was a great ambassador for college basketball and the NBA, and he will be sorely missed."

Walton will always be synonymous with UCLA's dominance.

"Bill Walton's passing is a sad tragedy. One of the great ones in UCLA basketball history," former Notre Dame coach and ESPN college basketball analyst Digger Phelps posted Monday on social media. "We were great friends over the years. It won't be the same without him."

He enrolled at UCLA in 1970, before freshmen could play on the varsity team. Once he could play for Wooden, the Bruins were unbeatable for more than two years -- Walton's UCLA teams won their first 73 games, the bulk of the Bruins' extraordinary 88-game winning streak.

UCLA went 30-0 in each of his first two seasons, and 86-4 in his career on the varsity.

"My teammates ... made me a much better basketball player than I could ever have become myself," Walton said at his Hall of Fame speech in 1993. "The concept of team has always been the most intriguing aspect of basketball to me. If I had been interested in individual success or an individual sport, I would have taken up tennis or golf."

ESPN's Tim Bontemps and The Associated Press contributed to this report.