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Bill Walton was as magical with words as he was with basketball

Written by on May 27, 2024

I once left Bill Walton a voice message regarding a story I was working on about Larry Bird. When he telephoned back, I didn’t even have to ask him a question. I just pressed a button on my tape recorder.

He must have gone on for an hour. It was one of the great joys of my career. An hour was all you needed, if that, to fall in love with the man. By then, Walton would have given you a lesson on basketball and life.

“Larry’s story, coming from where he came from in Terre Haute,” he said in a breath as long as his 6 feet, 11 inches. “It is just a classic journey of this comet, this meteor, just searing across the universe, and bam — just so much light, so much heat, so much radiating brilliance, and it just said, ‘Larry Bird, I was there.’”

With the NBA’s announcement of Walton’s death from “a prolonged battle with cancer” at age 71 on Memorial Day, I could not say it better about his story. Nobody could. Everything he said was very Bill Walton. He was one of a kind and lived life to its fullest, even more than his résumé as one of the game’s greatest, because a career’s worth of foot injuries and back pain in retirement nearly took it all away.

He loved bike riding and the Grateful Dead. He loved life, because he almost lost it.

HONOLULU, HI - NOVEMBER 21: ESPN college basketball announcer Bill Walton poses for a photo during a college basketball game between the Syracuse Orange and the Gonzaga Bulldogs on day two of the Allstate Maui Invitational at the SimpliFi Arena at Stan Sheriff Center on November 21, 2023 in Honolulu, Hawaii.  (Photo by Mitchell Layton/Getty Images)

Bill Walton poses for a photo during a game between Syracuse and Gonzaga on November 21, 2023, in Honolulu, Hawaii. (Photo by Mitchell Layton/Getty Images)

“I have been living on the floor for most of the last two-and-a-half years, unable to move, unable to get up,” Walton wrote for his 2016 autobiography, “Back from the Dead,” of the spinal collapse that sent him into a depression in San Diego in the summer of 2009. “I’ve cut myself off from Jerry, Bob, Neil, and the rest, just as I’ve disconnected from most everybody and everything else. The only people I see, talk, or hear from are the few who refuse to leave me alone — my wife, Lori; my brother Bruce; our four sons; the most obstinate of my closest friends, like Andy Hill, Jim Gray, my guys in the Grateful Dead — and the one person I refuse to leave alone, John Wooden, now almost one hundred years old. Everybody else has been turned away. My mom doesn’t even know about any of this. She only gets the good news.”

It is with that, that word of Walton’s bout with cancer came as a surprise to so many. His recovery from excruciating back pain gifted us 15 more years of his wisdom and wit. We could see Walton at Dead & Company and on Pac-12 broadcasts until recently, raving about Beethoven, Hugo Chávez or Al Franken.

Oh, and that basketball career. How great a man must you be for me to be 500 words into this and not have mentioned his two NCAA championships at UCLA and two NBA titles nine years apart — one as the league’s MVP on the Portland Trail Blazers and another as its Sixth Man of the Year on the Boston Celtics. Chronic foot problems derailed his NBA career in between, when he was mired on the San Diego Clippers.

He credits Bird’s Celtics for giving him the gift of basketball — of life — again. And, man, was it beautiful. My brother probably sends me this five-minute YouTube clip of Walton and Bird’s dynamic once a year:

And every year I would share this St. Patrick’s Day rant that was lost to radio in 2011, when Walton joined Boston’s WEEI-FM to promote Guinness. I transcribed every glorious word of it for the station’s website and never let it go. That was Walton. You never knew what he would say next, so he held your rapt attention.

He was as magical with words as he was with a basketball:

“The young people, the children, they don’t care that you have red hair and a big nose and a goofy, nerdy looking face and you stutter all the time and you’re a Deadhead and you’re drinking Guinness every minute. They’re going to care that you’re there, and when you care about them, they will care about you. Through practice and through a lifetime of experimentation, maybe you have a chance to play in the game of life one more time — that opportunity that Red [Auerbach] and Larry and Celtics Nation gave me.”

So much heart. So much hyperbole. It is hard to imagine any reason not to love Bill Walton.

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