Bill Walton, NBA Star, ESPN Commentator and Grateful Dead Superfan, Dies at 71

Bill Walton, the gregarious NBA star who became an ESPN commentator and was well known as a dedicated fan of the Grateful Dead, has died after battling cancer, the NBA confirmed Monday. He was 71.

A towering figure who stood 6 feet 11 inches, Walton played for three NBA teams and won two championships during his 13 years in the league, which ended in 1987 after numerous injuries. He was a college superstar at UCLA and was inducted into the NBA Hall of Fame in 1993.

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“Bill Walton was truly one of a kind. As a Hall of Fame player, he redefined the center position. His unique all-around skills made him a dominant force at UCLA and led to an NBA regular-season and Finals MVP, two NBA championships and a spot on the NBA’s 50th and 75th Anniversary Teams,” NBA commissioner Adam Silver said in a statement.

“Bill then translated his infectious enthusiasm and love for the game to broadcasting, where he delivered insightful and colorful commentary which entertained generations of basketball fans. But what I will remember most about him was his zest for life. He was a regular presence at league events – always upbeat, smiling ear to ear and looking to share his wisdom and warmth. I treasured our close friendship, envied his boundless energy and admired the time he took with every person he encountered,” Silver said.

Walton joined ESPN’s roster of commentators in 2002, covering NBA and college basketball games. Before ESPN, Walton also covered NBA and college hoops for ABC and NBC. He was named one of the 50 greatest sportscasters of all time in 2009 by the American Sportscasters Assn.

In 2023, Walton’s life and career was celebrated with the documentary “The Luckiest Guy in the World,” which aired as part of ESPN’s “30 for 30” series.

Born in San Diego, Walton began his professional career with the Portland Trailblazers as the NBA’s No. 1 draft pick in 1974. He segued to what was then the San Diego Clippers in 1979 and made the move with the team to Los Angeles in 1984. He wrapped his NBA career with two seasons with the Boston Celtics from 1985-87. He won his rings with the Celtics in 1986 and Trailblazers in 1977. He was voted the league’s MVP in 1978 and NBA Finals MVP in 1977.

During his UCLA days, Walton was voted national college player of the year three times and his teams took the NCAA championship twice.

In the 1980s, as the Grateful Dead enjoyed a career resurgence, Walton’s longstanding fandom for the band became known — standing so tall, he was hard to miss at their shows — and celebrated.

“It’s similar in that it requires, first of all, tremendous discipline,” Walton said, comparing playing in a band to playing with a team, in an undated 1980s TV interview.

Walton’s survivors include his wife Lori and four sons: Adam, Nate, Luke and Chris. Luke Walton followed his father into the NBA player and is now an assistant coach with the Cleveland Cavaliers.

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