Perspective | Bill Walton, brilliant on the court, became basketball’s bard


Everybody who met Bill Walton has a story about him.

Walton, who died Monday at 71 after a bout with cancer that he never talked about publicly, was, without question, one of the best basketball players of all time, even though his career was interrupted by foot and ankle injuries that dated from his days as a 6-foot-11 center at Helix High near San Diego. At one point in his career, despite the various injuries he dealt with, teams Walton played on went through four consecutive undefeated seasons: Helix his senior year (33-0), the UCLA freshman team (which went 20-0 at a time when freshmen couldn’t play varsity ball) and the John Wooden-led UCLA dynasty, which went 30-0 in both his sophomore and junior years.

His senior season, the Bruins finished 26-4, losing in double overtime in the Final Four to North Carolina State, a loss Walton blamed on himself. In fact, on the rare occasions when one of his teams lost, Walton would always blame himself.

He was the No. 1 pick in the 1974 NBA draft, and in 1977, he led the Portland Trail Blazers to the NBA title, beating a Philadelphia 76ers team with Julius Erving and George McGinnis in six games. A year later, the Blazers were 50-10 and seemed on their way to a second straight title when Walton broke his foot. Even though he played in only 58 games, he was still named the league’s MVP.

But that injury changed his career forever. In the next four years, he played a total of 14 games. He left the Blazers in a dispute over his medical treatment and went to the San Diego Clippers but was never healthy there. He eventually landed with the Boston Celtics as the backup to center Robert Parish and had two almost-healthy seasons, being voted the NBA’s sixth man of the year in 1986 when he was part of a Celtics championship team.

“I’ll always wonder how great he would have become,” said Red Auerbach, then the Celtics’ general manager. “He could score and rebound, but what separated him from most big guys was how great a passer he was.”

More injuries and more surgeries ended Walton’s career, but he found a new life as a broadcaster, remarkable given that he had stuttering issues until he was 28. He always credited broadcasting legend Marty Glickman — Auerbach’s close friend — with helping him overcome that problem.

As great as he was as a player — often considered no worse than the third-best big man of all time behind (perhaps) Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Bill Russell — there has never been anyone like him as a broadcaster.

The only other color commentator who was even close to being as off-the-wall as Walton was Al McGuire. The difference was McGuire almost made it a point of sounding unprepared to make his brilliant shtick with Billy Packer work. Walton was always prepared but often took broadcasts in directions no one would imagine.

He loved to talk about the Grateful Dead and made no bones about his lifestyle. “I’m not a very good catcher,” he said once during a stint in a baseball broadcast booth. “I’m much better at getting high than getting lower.”

McGuire had Packer, and Walton had Dave Pasch, the perfect play-by-play man because his lack of ego allowed Walton to be the star and, more importantly, to be himself. Some found Walton’s style distracting, but most loved him because he was so different.

He loved cheerleading for UCLA and for the Pac-10 and then the Pac-12 (and now the Pac-2). He would no doubt have been a brilliant change of pace for the ever-so-serious Big Ten.

He would be the first to tell you that he was difficult for Wooden to coach, even though the Bruins were 86-4 and won two national titles while he played for UCLA’s varsity team.

“It has been 36 years since I graduated from UCLA,” Walton said when Wooden died in 2010 at 99. “I have spent those years trying to duplicate that incredible period in my life.”

The only evidence that he wasn’t well came when he didn’t do the last couple of weeks of Pac-12 games this season. Word was he was dealing with a “health issue.” Few people knew how serious it was until Monday.

I never covered Walton as a player; I was too young to cover him at UCLA and was focused on college ball when he was in the NBA. According to older friends of mine, he was difficult to cover as a player — to put it politely.

That all changed when he got into broadcasting. Not only was he completely comfortable with his unique persona, he became one of those people who would talk to anyone — and who went out of his way to be kind.

That was when I got to know him, and like anyone whose path he crossed, I have a number of Walton stories. My favorite involved an argument we had about my seat a couple of hours before a Final Four game. I always liked to find my seat early, put my computer down and wander around to talk.

On this particular day, I found Walton sitting in my seat, going through pregame notes. When I walked up, he saw me and jumped up. “Sorry, John,” he said. “Let me get out of your way.”

“Bill, the game’s two hours away,” I said. “I just want to drop my computer off. Stay right there.”

“No, no,” Walton said. “It’s your seat. I can move. I should move.”

“No, you shouldn’t,” I said.

“Why not?” he answered.

“Because,” I said, “you’re Bill Walton.”

He laughed and (finally) sat down.

A couple of weeks later, I got a package at home. In it was a Bill Walton “Grateful Dead” T-shirt. There was a note with it: “John, thanks for the seat. Next one’s on me … Bill.”

I never did collect. I wish I still could.

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