Kareem Abdul-Jabbar pays tribute to Bill Walton in touching statement: 'He was the best of us'

Though the two were never teammates, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Bill Walton have been linked for much of their lives.

The two men, both centers, achieved national stardom at UCLA, where they helped sustain the Bruins’ basketball dynasty of the 1960s and 1970s. From there, they were No. 1 overall NBA draft picks who won multiple titles at the professional level and went on to earn enshrinement in the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame.

On Monday, Walton died at the age of 71 after a lengthy fight with cancer. In the hours after news of Walton’s death was announced by the NBA on behalf of Walton’s family, Abdul-Jabbar paid tribute to his friend and fellow basketball legend.

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“My very close friend, fellow Bruin and NBA rival Bill Walton died today. And the world feels so much heavier now,” Abdul-Jabbar wrote in a statement he posted Monday on X, the social media platform formerly known as Twitter. “On the court, Bill was a fierce player, but off the court, he wasn’t happy unless he did everything he could to make everyone around him happy. He was the best of us.”

The post included a picture of the two standing side-by-side, with their arms locked around one another.

Abdul-Jabbar is among the many on Monday — including Julius Erving — who memorialized Walton as a kind, gregarious soul whose on-court feats were matched by his friendliness away from it.

Abdul-Jabbar and Walton, however, had a deeper, more profound connection than most. They combined to win five NCAA championships at UCLA, with the former accounting for three. While they both played for coach John Wooden, they never played for the Bruins together, as Abdul-Jabbar graduated in 1969, roughly one year before Walton arrived at the school’s Westwood campus.

They are universally regarded as two of the greatest college basketball players ever.

REQUIRED READING: Social media reacts to news of Bill Walton's passing: "One of a kind. Rest in peace."

Once Walton’s NBA career began in 1974 — and he, like Abdul-Jabbar, established himself as one of the league’s best big men — the two regularly squared off.

They met in the 1977 Western Conference finals, with Walton’s Portland Trail Blazers sweeping Abdul-Jabbar’s Los Angeles Lakers on their way to an NBA title. They would match up again in the playoffs, this time in the 1987 NBA Finals, with Walton then playing for the Boston Celtics. Walton and the Celtics won the 1986 NBA Finals vs. the Houston Rockets before Abdul-Jabbar and the Lakers defeated them the following year.

Away from basketball, Walton was mentioned by Abdul-Jabbar in the 1980 movie “Airplane” when Abdul-Jabbar, playing himself, told a heckling young fan to “Tell your old man to drag Walton and (Bob) Lanier up the court for 48 minutes.”

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Kareem Abdul-Jabbar pays tribute to Bill Walton in touching statement