Hall of Fame basketball legend Bill Walton dies at 71

Walton won two college national championships and two NBA titles during his career

The world of basketball has lost one of its most colorful characters. Hall of Fame basketball legend Bill Walton has died at 71, the NBA announced Monday, after battling cancer in recent years.

Born on Nov. 5, 1952, in La Mesa, Calif., just east of San Diego, Walton had a renowned college career at UCLA under iconic coach John Wooden. During his career in Westwood, the 6-foot-11 center won two national championships (in 1972-73) and three national college player of the year awards, and was a three-time All-American. His teams lost only four games in his three seasons as a varsity player (freshman were not allowed to play back then), going 86–4 overall.

His success continued in the NBA. The No. 1 overall pick in the 1974 NBA Draft by the Portland Trail Blazers, he won an NBA championship in 1977 and MVP award (averaging 18.9 points and 13.2 rebounds) in 1978. But he struggled with chronic foot injuries that limited him to 209 games (out of a possible 328) played in four seasons.

After sitting out the entire 1978-79 season to protest how his and his teammates' injuries had been treated, Walton signed with the San Diego Clippers as a free agent. He played in only 169 games over six seasons, missing two full campaigns due to foot injuries.

In 1985, Walton was traded to the Boston Celtics. He played a career-high 80 games during the 1985-86 season and won another NBA championship and Sixth Man of the Year honors for a team with Larry Bird, Kevin McHale and Robert Parish. Walton played 10 games the following season and retired after injuries prevented him from playing the 1986-87 campaign.

"Bill Walton was truly one of a kind," NBA commissioner Adam Silver said in a statement. "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."

"What I will remember most about him was his zest for life," Silver added. "Always upbeat, smiling ear-to-ear and looking to share his wisdom and warmth."

Walton was inducted into the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame in 1993 and the College Basketball Hall of Fame in 2006.

Los Angeles, CA - January 05:  Two-time NBA champion and Hall of Famer Bill Walton has died of cancer at the age of 71. Former UCLA Bruins Bill Walton showing off his CFP Championship teams TCU and Georgia eye black stickers as the UCLA Bruins defeated the USC Trojans 60-58 during a Men's NCAA basketball game at Pauley Pavilion in Los Angeles on Thursday, January 5, 2023. (Photo by Keith Birmingham/MediaNews Group/Pasadena Star-News via Getty Images)
Two-time NBA champion and Hall of Famer Bill Walton has died of cancer at the age of 71. (Photo by Keith Birmingham/MediaNews Group/Pasadena Star-News via Getty Images)

"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," said UCLA head coach Mick Cronin in a statement.

"As a passionate UCLA alumnus and broadcaster, he loved being around our players, hearing their stories, and sharing his wisdom and advice. For me as a coach, he was honest, kind, and always had his heart in the right place. I will miss him very much. It's hard to imagine a season in Pauley Pavilion without him."

Generations of basketball fans likely know Walton better as an eccentric basketball broadcaster. For the first 20 years of his broadcasting career, he called college and NBA games for CBS, NBC, the Clippers and ESPN/ABC.

After a three-year absence while recovering from back surgery (alleviating injuries that went back to his playing career), Walton returned as a full-time analyst for ESPN. He also called NBA games on NBC with Marv Albert, Greg Gumbel and Steve "Snapper" Jones.

Frequently going on tangents that had little or nothing to do with the action on the court — which sometimes referenced recreational drug use, bizarre trivia, his love of the Grateful Dead and his political beliefs — Walton became an enormously popular color commentator. Play-by-play partners including Dave Pasch and Jason Benetti had to frequently maintain a deadpan sense of humor knowing that Walton could go anywhere with storytelling and analysis.

In 2009, Walton was named as one of the top 50 sports broadcasters of all time by the American Sportscasters Association.

"Bill often described himself as 'the luckiest guy in the world,' but anyone who had the opportunity to interact with Bill was the lucky one," ESPN president Jimmy Pitaro said in a statement. "He was a truly special, giving person who always made time for others. Bill's one-of-a-kind spirit captivated and inspired audiences during his second career as a successful broadcaster."