Bill Walton loved his bike and his hometown of San Diego. He died of cancer at age 71

SAN DIEGO (AP) — Bill Walton might have been the ultimate San Diegan.

While he went away to play basketball at UCLA and the bulk of his NBA career, he never missed a chance to celebrate his hometown.

Long after his playing days ended, the Hall of Famer was an unofficial goodwill ambassador for San Diego, with his disposition matching the perennial sunny weather.

While most people around the country knew Walton for his off-the-wall broadcasting style, many San Diegans knew him as the really tall guy who often rode his bike around town and once provided some unintentional comedic relief at a Padres game.

“I love my bike, I love San Diego and I love solar power,” Walton was fond of saying at the many appearances he made for various causes.

Walton died of cancer at 71 on Monday, the NBA announced. The Big Redhead, as he was called then, won two NCAA championships under John Wooden at UCLA before an NBA career that included winning league MVP in the 1977-78 season and championships with Portland and Boston. He played parts of four seasons with the Clippers in San Diego and Los Angeles.

Social media was filled with posts Monday from people who remembered seeing Walton at games, concerts or in airports, and getting a smile and an autograph, and sometimes long conversations.

The foot and back injuries that marred his NBA career didn’t slow him down later in life even as he began to show a touch of gray. He loved riding his bike and brought a custom high-backed chair with him to some concerts and basketball games.

In 2016, he was so stoked to hear that the Amgen Tour of California would start in San Diego that he rode his custom bike — with a Grateful Dead paint job — from his home near Balboa Park to the news conference on the waterfront.

He described himself as a “joyrider,” and one year rode the entire tour, completing as much of each leg as possible before dark.

There’s a life-size bronze sculpture of Walton and his bike at Ski Beach Park in Mission Bay.

At 6-foot-11, he was believed to be the world’s tallest Deadhead. He once stated that he had seen his beloved Grateful Dead 849 times. The house where he lived for more than four decades near Balboa Park was practically a tie-dyed shrine to the Dead and had a teepee in the backyard.

Some Padres fans will probably never forget Grateful Dead Night on Aug. 8, 2019. Walton played bongos with local tribute band Electric Waste Band on a stage beyond center field at Petco Park and then threw out a ceremonial first pitch that was wide left by several feet. He asked for a second chance and made a nice throw to reliever Trey Wingenter.

Wearing a Padres-themed Grateful Dead shirt, Walton then joined managers Bud Black of the Colorado Rockies and Andy Green of the Padres for the lineup card exchange at home plate. His fist-bumped the umpires and chatted them up to the point that the game was delayed for four minutes.

Walton grew up in suburban La Mesa and was a phenom at Helix High. All four of Walton’s sons played college basketball, including Chris at San Diego State for Steve Fisher. Luke Walton played at Arizona and both played and was a head coach in the NBA.

Walton’s older brother, Bruce, who died in 2019, had a brief career with the Dallas Cowboys.