May 27, 2024 - Sports

Basketball legend and civic icon Bill Walton dies at 71

Bill walton with the San Diego Clippers

Bill Walton playing for the San Diego Clippers in 1982. Photo by Andy Hayt/Sports Illustrated via Getty Images

Basketball Hall of Famer Bill Walton, a San Diego sports legend, civic activist and music lover died Monday following a prolonged battle with cancer, the NBA announced.

He was 71 years old.

What they're saying: "Bill Walton was truly one of a kind," NBA commissioner Adam Silver said in a statement.

The big picture: Walton's life and personality were colorful and huge, matching his nearly 7-foot frame and trademark wild red hair.

Flashback: Born and raised in La Mesa, Walton began his legendary basketball career at Helix High, where he won two California Interscholastic Federation titles and 49 consecutive games.

  • He continued his career under John Wooden at UCLA, where he won the NCAA Player of the Year award three times, two championships and an NCAA record 88 straight games.
  • The Portland Trail Blazers made him the top pick in the 1974 NBA draft, and he won a championship with the team in 1977 and the league MVP in 1978.

Zoom in: Walton played for the San Diego Clippers from 1979 through 1984, and won another championship with the Boston Celtics in 1986.

Bill Walton after throwing out the first pitch at a Padres game
Bill Walton player throws out the first pitch before a Padres game in 2019. Photo: Denis Poroy/Getty Images

State of play: For another generation, he's perhaps most known for his baritone voice that was ubiquitous on basketball broadcasts beginning in the 1990s.

  • Walton's color commentary was one of a kind, as likely to dissect a pick-and-roll as reference a Renaissance painter, quote a Grateful Dead or Bob Dylan lyric or describe a memory of an obscure Oregon river.
  • Or, he would simply unfurl his catchphrase, "Throw it down, big man!"

Friction point: Most Walton sightings around town included the large, unwieldy personal chair he carried with him everywhere — a necessity due to his extreme height and numerous injuries from his playing days.

Worthy of your time: ESPN released a documentary on Walton's life, "The Luckiest Guy in the World," last year.

  • Walton's autobiography, "Back from the Dead: Searching for the Sound, the Light, and Throwing it Down," begins with him contemplating suicide due to chronic pain from the injuries that plagued his life and career.
  • "I've spent half of my adult life in the hospital," he told the New York Times in 2016.
Bill Walton broadcasting a game
Ralph Lawler and Bill Walton broadcasting a game in 2000.Photo: Juan O'Campo/NBAE via Getty Images

Living in San Diego meant encountering Bill Walton throughout the city he loved.

  • Walton for years worked out daily at the Mission Valley YMCA, where his bronze statue (with a bike, wearing a Grateful Dead tie-dye) now stands behind a sign reading "The Y saved my life!"
  • He was an easy-to-spot regular at concerts around town, including at a Neil Young and Crazy Horse show in April.
  • Fellow San Diegan Eddie Vedder interrupted a 2022 Pearl Jam concert to treat the crowd to his best Walton impression.
  • Walton could often be seen biking around Balboa Park and his Hillcrest home, or kayaking at La Jolla Shores.
Bill Walton in 1974
Bill Walton in 1974. Photo: Bettmann/Getty
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