Two-time NBA champion Bill Walton dead at 71

Two-time NBA champion Bill Walton, who dominated the hard court during a 13-year pro basketball career and later excelled as a broadcaster who both delighted and dismayed sports fans with his sometimes zany color commentary, died after a “prolonged battle with cancer,” the league announced Monday.

Walton, who was 71, was with his family when he died, NBA spokesperson Mark Broussard said in a statement.

Bill Walton at a game between the Los Angeles Clippers and the Phoenix Suns in Los Angeles on April 20, 2023. Allen Berezovsky / Getty Images file “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.”

Walton led the Portland Trail Blazers to an NBA championship in 1977 and won a second NBA title as a member of the Boston Celtics in 1986.

And after a 13-year career on the hardwood, Walton “translated his infectious enthusiasm and love for the game to broadcasting, where he delivered insightful and colorful commentary which entertained generations of basketball fans,” Silver said.

Born Nov. 5, 1952, in La Mesa, California, Walton was a 6-11 high school basketball phenom before he went to play for coach John Wooden and the UCLA Bruins.

There, Walton won three consecutive National College Player of the Year awards from 1972 to 1974 and helped lead the Bruins to NCAA championships in 1972 and 1973.

Walton was selected for the 1972 U.S. Olympic basketball team but opted not to play.

Off the court, Walton became one of the most polarizing athletes in the country with his outspoken opposition to the Vietnam War, the Nixon administration and the FBI. He was even arrested at a war protest during his junior year.

Walton also broke the mold for what a college athlete should look like with his shock of flame red hair and flannel shirts. He declared himself a vegetarian, practiced meditation and became a lifelong fan of The Grateful Dead.

“Your generation has screwed up the world,” he said in a statement after his arrest. “My generation is trying to straighten it out. Money doesn’t mean anything to me. It can’t buy happiness, and I just want to be happy.”

Being happy to Walton meant pursuing an NBA career.

Selected as the first overall pick in the 1974 NBA draft, he led the Trail Blazers to a championship three years later and also won the NBA Finals Most Valuable Player award.

Bill Walton in 1974. Bettmann Archive In 1978, Walton won the NBA’s Most Valuable Player award.

But starting in high school and for the rest of his career, Walton was dogged by foot and leg injuries that forced him to play through the pain. He missed three seasons because of injuries that required some three dozen operations to correct.

At age 34, Walton retired after having played just 10 games of the 1986-87 season.

In his autobiography, he wrote that his biggest regret was playing hurt.

“I didn’t let pain be my guide,” Walton wrote. “I didn’t say, ‘If it hurt a lot, don’t play.'”

But he was not done with basketball.

A stutterer, Walton overcame his speech impediment to become one of the country’s best-known — and sometimes controversial — basketball commentators.

Walton called games for NBC, ABC, CBS, Fox, ESPN, Turner Sports and, most recently, ESPN broadcasts of Pac-12 basketball. In 2001, he received an Emmy for best live sports television broadcast.

Along the way, he built a collection of outlandish quips, some of which were compiled online by an outfit called Awful Announcing.

“Come on, that was no foul,” Walton once declared midgame. “It may be a violation of all the basic rules of human decency, but it’s not a foul.”

Walton once likened a player to a mosquito.

“If you ever think you’re too small to make a difference, you’ve never spent a night in bed with a mosquito or you’ve never played basketball against Taylor from Utah — No. 11 in your program, No. 1 in your heart.”

Walton could also go over the top with praise. For example:

“John Stockton is one of the true marvels, not just of basketball or in America, but in the history of Western civilization!”

While doing a live broadcast of another college game in 2015, Walton posed a head-scratching question: “Have you ever been milked?”

He is survived by his second wife, Lori, and his sons from his first marriage: Adam, Luke, Nate and Chris, according to the NBA.

Corky Siemaszko

Corky Siemaszko is a senior reporter for NBC News Digital.

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