Bill Walton, NBA Hall of Famer and free spirit, dead at 71


FILE PHOTO: Dec 9, 2023; Salt Lake City, Utah, USA; Bill Walton speaks with Brigham Young Cougars athletic director Tom Holmoe before the game between the Utah Utes and the Brigham Young Cougars at Jon M. Huntsman Center. Mandatory Credit: Rob Gray-USA TODAY Sports/File Photo

(Reuters) -Bill Walton, a two-time NBA champion and member of the basketball Hall of Fame, whose brilliant but injury-riddled career led to a second act as a free-spirited broadcaster who waxed philosophical on the air, died on Monday at the age of 71, the National Basketball Association announced.

Walton, who had a prolonged battle with cancer, was surrounded by his family when he died, the National Basketball Association said.

"Bill Walton was truly one of a kind," NBA Commissioner Adam Silver said in a statement that recalled his many accomplishments on the court and his "insightful and colorful commentary" as a broadcaster. "But what I will remember most about him was his zest for life."

Walton, a 6-foot-11 (211-cm) center who moved gracefully despite his height, rose to stardom in college where he was part of the University of California, Los Angeles, dynasty under Coach John Wooden, winning National Collegiate Athletic Association championships in 1972 and 1973.

The first overall pick of the 1974 NBA Draft by the Portland Trail Blazers, Walton established himself as a force early in his professional career, leading Portland to the championship in the 1976-77 season, and he was named Most Valuable Player the following year.

But with brittle bones in his feet, Walton missed three of the next four seasons, mostly as a member of the San Diego Clippers, and later came back as a bench player for the Boston Celtics, helping them win the NBA championship in 1985-86.

In the years following his NBA career, Walton turned to sports broadcasting and was involved with multiple charitable and philanthropic organizations, clinics and camps. He served as both a studio analyst and a color commentator.

'TREMENDOUS IMPACT'

Multiple injuries, including from a bicycle accident, continued to afflict him after his playing days, interrupting his career as a whimsical broadcaster who could intersperse criticism of the officiating of a game with riffs on human consciousness.

He was also known as an avid fan of the Grateful Dead, going on the road with the psychedelic band, often wearing a tie-dye T-shirt common with the group's fan base.

Walton suffered from myriad injuries throughout his life, requiring 38 orthopedic surgeries, according to an interview with the Advanced Medical Technology Association.

In his 2016 autobiography "Back from the Dead," Walton begins in the summer of 2009 when he was in so much pain from his injuries that he was forced to live on the floor of his San Diego home for most of the previous 2-1/2 years. He wrote, "If I had a gun, I would use it."

But with time, as well as inspiration from thinkers as diverse as Coach Wooden, George Bernard Shaw and the Grateful Dead, he was able to convalesce from spine surgery and resume broadcasting, Walton wrote.

While at UCLA, Walton broke multiple school records and stands atop the school's career rebounding list while also ranking among the top 10 leaders in program history in multiple statistical categories.

"It's very hard to put into words what he has meant to UCLA's program, as well as his tremendous impact on college basketball," UCLA's men's head basketball coach Mick Cronin said in a statement.

"Beyond his remarkable accomplishments as a player, it's his relentless energy, enthusiasm for the game and unwavering candor that have been the hallmarks of his larger than life personality."

(Reporting by Daniel Trotta; Additional reporting by Frank Pingue; Editing by Jonathan Oatis)

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