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Remembering the Iconic Life of Bill Walton

Looking back at the remarkable life of one of basketball’s most fascinating personalities

Bill Walton passed away this week at the age of 71 following a long battle with cancer. Walton was a basketball institution, whether you watched him play in the 70s and 80s or if you enjoyed his commentary of games in the 90s and 2000s. As a player, Walton was one of the most decorated players in the game’s history whose career was cut drastically short by a slew of injuries. As a broadcaster, he was filled with joy, exuberance, and hyperbole that were so profoundly unique.

Walton often came off as an extremely grateful person for all the opportunities that were presented to him in this life. He had that gratitude through his countless injuries, his chronic pain because of surgeries later in life, and ultimately in his battle against cancer. He would often say that he was “the luckiest guy in the world” (also the name of his multipart ESPN documentary about his career), despite more than enough ammunition and adversity for him to believe otherwise. His playing style helped to inspire a generation of centers after him and his broadcasting style allowed fans of my generation to get hooked on the NBA. Bill Walton was iconic in a way that few others have been throughout the history of basketball.

A Profound Talent

In today’s NBA, a center must exhibit versatility to be relied on consistently. The great ones can execute in a multitude of different ways to show their value to their team. These players need to be able to score in a variety of ways, rebound the ball, and have high level passing ability. In the 1970s, this was not the case. Most centers were physical specimens that lived in the post. Bill Walton was a player that defied the norms of his era. He had great touch around the basket, was an excellent rebounder, and incredibly skilled as a passer.

Walton’s greatest asset was his ability to spark a break by grabbing a defensive rebound and firing off an outlet pass to start the break. It is a skill that he perfected in college at UCLA and brought to the pro game. We see the remnants and inspiration of his passing ability in modern big men like Nikola Jokic, Domantas Sabonis, and others. For the Blazers when he played, Walton was the engine that ran the entire offense, a symphony with him as its unexpected conductor.

Walton’s basketball resume in both college and the NBA are simply staggering considering that he appeared in less than 600 games during his career. In three years at UCLA, Walton averaged 20.3 points, 15.7 rebounds, and 5.5 assists per game while shooting 65.1% from the field. During his three years at the school, the team won two national championships and had a combined record of 86-4 with two undefeated seasons. Here are his other collegiate accolades:

·        3-time Naismith Award winner

·        3-time All-Pac-12

·        3-time consensus All-American

·        2-time AP Player of the Year

With all those achievements it is no surprise that Walton was selected as the number one overall pick in the 1974 Draft to the Portland Trail Blazers. His pro career was defined in three stages. There were his Portland years where he was one of the most dominant big men to ever grace an NBA floor. After Portland he signed with the San Diego Clippers and was derailed by foot injuries that forced him to miss three seasons. His final act as a player was in Boston where he helped the Celtics win a championship as one of the most fascinating sixth men in NBA history. During his NBA career Walton achieved the following accolades:

·        Basketball Hall of Famer

·        2-time All-Star

·        2-time NBA champion

·        2-time All-Defense selection

·        1976-77 Rebound and Block champion

·        1977-78 League MVP winner

·        1976-77 NBA Finals MVP winner

·        1985-86 Sixth Man of the Year

Walton only played in Portland for four seasons. During that time, he averaged 17.1 points, 13.5 rebounds, 4.4 assists, 1.0 steals, and 2.6 blocks per game while shooting 51% from the field on 14 attempts per game. He was so dominant and efficient that many still regard him as the greatest Trail Blazer of all-time. Walton’s playing career will always have added speculation placed upon it, however. He missed three full seasons before he was 30 years old, years that robbed him of his athletic prime.

Coping With Injuries

Injuries are a part of any professional sport. They create adversity and we are often shocked at the ability of a player to rehabilitate from being sidelined to come back with full force and without fear to continue dominating their sport. Bill Walton played basketball at a time when sports medicine was not as sophisticated as it is today. Being 7-feet tall presents a higher likelihood for injury, with players missing 24% of their games on average when they are that height. Walton dealt with injuries his entire playing career. Before he finished high school he had broken an ankle, a leg, and several bones in his feet.

While at UCLA, the injuries continued, and Walton dealt with tendinitis in his knees and injured his back. Then as a professional, he injured both of his feet multiple times leading to surgeries that sidelined him from four seasons. Walton last played in the NBA at the age of 34, and it stands to reason that with modern medicinal advancements Walton may have been able to have a longer playing career to be remembered alongside the most dominant centers in NBA history.

The flip side to that argument is the fact that without the injuries, Walton would have never had the opportunity to have the career renaissance that he enjoyed with the Boston Celtics in 1985-86 that led to him being named the Sixth Man of the Year and winning his second NBA championship. By this point, Walton was diminished physically but his playmaking ability in conjunction with Kevin McHale and Larry Bird led to one of the best NBA teams ever assembled.

The 1986 Celtics squad set history with a 40-1 home record, an achievement that still stands today. The team was impressive in the playoffs going 15-3 en route to defeating Houston in the Finals. Walton was a huge part of this success as his playmaking and high basketball IQ gave opposing teams fits and it showed that he was able to adapt his game as a role player and still execute at the highest level. It is a skill that many great players fail to grasp, and it is one that Walton took to immediately, a testament to his ability as a player but also an indication of his character as a human being.

Walton’s injuries would go on to plague him in his post-playing career as well, but he would always insist that he was the luckiest guy in the world with an infectious smile that filled everyone with joy. He brought that energy to the broadcasting world where he covered basketball for various outlets. This is where I first encountered Walton, behind the mic as a high energy color commentator that had a flair for mixing basketball knowledge, pop culture, and random tangents.

A Most Unique Broadcaster

There are numerous iconic calls and catchphrases that have come from play-by-play announcers over the years that resonate with sports fans. There is Kevin Harlan’s “no regard for human life” and Mike Breen’s “bang” that come to mind immediately. Bill Walton in his time as a broadcaster had an iconic line that many have overlooked as the years have gone by. Picture a center or power forward barreling down the lane and finishing with an emphatic slam dunk, only to hear the jubilant voice of Walton bellowing “throw it down big man”. It was a simple call with as much personality as the man who said it. Walton approached broadcasting with the same tremendous preparation and unbridled joy as he did when he was a player.

Broadcasts with Bill Walton were often a celebration of basketball and individuality. They gave Walton an opportunity to share bits and pieces of himself and his vibrant personality with the world. These moments were filled with jokes, props, and hyperbolic statements that were equal parts ridiculous and entertaining. There was always something that was so infectious about the way he presented a game, where it felt like you were at Bill’s house on the couch next to him just watching a game and listening to him tell stories.

The action sometimes became secondary to him going off on a tangent about something that simply struck him in the moment. There have been fans that didn’t like this style and felt that Walton was taking away from the game and not providing enough insight. I think that those fans are missing the point. To Bill, life was amazing. And basketball was equally amazing. He lived for the game and it became an important part of his life. So as the two blended together his commentary became a ride through the thoughts of a man that was a student of the game and a lover of life.

Walton on broadcasts gave us a small glimpse into the fascinating human being that he was. A man that loved with everything that he had. He was notably a huge fan of the Grateful Dead and had a deep appreciation for music, going as far as to name certain rooms in his house after famous musicians. He also stood for what he believed in and was a fierce opponent of the Vietnam War, one of the few prominent white athletes that opposed the war at the time.

He was a ball of positive energy for all that interacted with him over the years. The irony is that he could have been bitter and cursed fate for saddling him with injuries that shortened his career and brought him discomfort later in life. But he was always a beacon of light, a humble boisterous man that was energized by life. The basketball world lost a shining star this week, Bill Walton was as unique of a player and person as they come, and we were all so lucky to have experienced what he had to give to the world.

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