Basketball legend, San Diego native Bill Walton dies at age 71

bill walton ucla
Bill Walton, Dan Issel
Bill Walton
Posted at 10:38 AM, May 27, 2024

(KGTV) — Bill Walton, a San Diego native considered to be one of the greatest players in the history of college and professional basketball, has died at the age of 71.

In a statement, NBA Commissioner Adam Silver confirmed the passing of the 2-time NBA champion and Basketball Hall of Famer:

"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.

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.

As a cherished member of the NBA family for 50 years, Bill will be deeply missed by all those who came to know and love him. My heartfelt condolences to Bill's wife, Lori; his sons, Adam, Nate, Luke and Chris; and his many friends and colleagues."

Walton was born on Nov. 5, 1952, in La Mesa. He went on to star in basketball at Helix High School before making his way to UCLA to play under legendary coach John Wooden.

During his time at UCLA, Walton was named National Player of the Year three times and led the Bruins to two NCAA basketball national championships in 1972 and 1973.

The big man entered the NBA Draft in 1974 and was selected first overall by the Portland Trail Blazers. He went on to lead the Trail Blazers to their only NBA championship in 1977.

Walton then spent six seasons with the San Diego/Los Angeles Clippers.

Jim Brogan, who played for the Clippers with Walton, told ABC 10 he was an amazing teammate — and an even better person.

"When I got to the Clippers, I realized I was going to get to play with a guy named Bill Walton who was the best college basketball player, just four, five years removed that and he won a championship already with the Portland Trail Blazers," Brogan said. "He would always ask questions about how you were doing."

Brogan said Walton, a rabid Grateful Dead fan, was incredibly energetic.

"He was eccentric and that's what made him so special," Brogan said. "In practice, he would bring music in. You know, he was a big dead head, Grateful Dead fan...He would somehow get music into practices."

Walton loved to boast that he attended nearly 1,000 Grateful Dead concerts, and his home near the San Diego Zoo had numerous pictures and memorabilia of the iconic rock band. In fact, Walton even had a full drum kit in his living room so that he could play along to their songs.

Walton was traded to the Boston Celtics in 1985, and he was part of the 1986 squad that won the NBA title.

Walton retired after the 1987-88 season. Following his playing career, he joined CBS, and later NBC and ABC/ESPN, to broadcast college and NBA games.

In 1993, Walton was inducted into the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame.

After his playing days, Walton returned to San Diego where he became an icon in the community.

Among his passions was fighting the homeless crisis.

He partnered with Coronado Mayor Richard Bailey and other regional leaders to promote Sunbreak Ranch, a plan to house the homeless in tents outside of San Diego and to provide them with social services to get them on their feet.

George Mullen, co-founder of Sunbreak Ranch, had become close with Walton the past few years as they worked together.

"He was perfect coming on board," Mullen told ABC 10. "He was our center. He was very visible, but he was very vocal. I would have to say he was one of the purest, passionate people I have ever met. It could be basketball. It could be the homelessness issue. Whatever it is, if Bill's in, he's 1,000 percent in."

Mullen added that despite Walton's celebrity status, he never acted like a star.

"He always treated everyone equally and found ways to compliment me and others," Mullen said. "You would think a guy that successful in basketball and then announcing that he would be all full of himself, like you see a lot celebrities. But, he was not...He was an incredible person."

Walton also was a vocal critic of San Diego Mayor Todd Gloria, a one-time friend, over how the mayor handled the city's homeless crisis.

Gloria, like many others across the country, spent Monday sending heartfelt condolences to the Walton family.

"San Diego mourns the loss of the legendary Bill Walton today. He was a towering figure in basketball and broadcasting as well as a civic icon who loved his hometown. Our city's thoughts are with his wife, Lori, and the entire Walton family. Godspeed, Bill," Gloria said in a statement to ABC 10.

YMCA of San Diego County President and CEO Todd Tibbits issued this statement on Monday: 

"Today, the YMCA of San Diego County mourns the significant loss of Bill Walton, along with many charitable organizations impacted by the legendary athlete, inspirational community leader, donor, volunteer, and charismatic motivator. Walton has left an incredible mark on San Diego by being a passionate force for boundless generosity and unwavering determination to inspire those around him. Our Y team is grateful to have had his light shined upon us.

Walton's legacy at the Y is profound. He always took great pride in fostering community, imparting wisdom, and inspiring individuals of all ages with his words and actions. Bill was an active member of our Mission Valley YMCA for many years, enjoying aqua therapy regularly, which he attributed to his well-being. Members often recall how his infectious enthusiasm and positive attitude had the power to uplift everyone around him.

In addition to his significant contributions to the community spirit, Bill's unique sense of humor left an indelible mark at the Mission Valley YMCA. A testament to his playful side is the extra tall showerhead installed within the locker room, complete with a sign per Bill's request, reading, 'Only tall people use the shower.' This quirk brings smiles to the faces of many members and stands as a lasting tribute to his fun-loving nature.

In honor of Bill Walton's memory, we reaffirm our commitment to uphold his values of community service, passion, and empathy for youth development through sports. His legacy will continue to thrive through the countless lives he touched and the positive changes he inspired. We are deeply grateful to have had Bill as part of our Y family and extend our heartfelt condolences to his entire family and community of friends."