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Bill Walton's legacy bigger than basketball: 'He was a great human being'

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Curly red hair. Competitive scowl. Feathery shooting touch. Socially conscious. Cannabis advocate. Tie-dye shirts. Unconventional analyst. Winner.

All of the above and more describe Bill Walton, the Trail Blazers and UCLA legend and longtime broadcaster who died Monday at the age of 71.

Across the sports world, those who knew Walton, played with and against him, as well as worked with him, remembered and mourned the 'The Big Red-Head,' who dominated with the Bruins before leading the Blazers to their only championship during the 1976-77 season.

"It is a rough time, a sad time, a very shocking time," former Blazers teammate and long-time friend Lionel Hollins said. "But it illuminates memories that we shared together for a long time."

Walton, who died from cancer, spent just five seasons with the Blazers appearing in 209 games. But given that he led the team to its only NBA title, and was named league MVP the following season, Walton remains in the running for the title of "Greatest Blazers player ever" with Clyde Drexler and Damian Lillard.

Without a doubt, Walton is the biggest "what if" in Blazers history when it comes to players who actually played for the team.

Had Walton remained healthy, the Blazers could have carried a dynasty into the 1980s. Instead, that championship team fizzled without a healthy Walton who ultimately left town as a free agent.

"He would have played 15-to-20 years and he would have had multiple MVPs, maybe multiple championships," Hollins said. "And I'm sure if he hadn't gotten hurt in Portland, we would have won a championship that second year."

RISING LEGEND

Walton, out of Helix High School in San Diego, California, went to UCLA in 1970 and picked up where another great center, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (then named Lew Alcindor) had left off.

Abdul-Jabbar, under legendary coach John Wooden, led the Bruins to three consecutive national championships (1967, 1968 and 1969). Walton arrived on campus in 1970, but like Abdul-Jabbar before, could not play as a true freshman per NCAA rules.

UCLA's Bill Walton (32) fights Notre Dame's Adrian Dantley (44) for a rebound during an NCAA college basketball game in South Bend, Ind., Jan. 19, 1974. Walton, who starred for John Wooden's UCLA Bruins before becoming a Basketball Hall of Famer and one of the biggest stars of basketball broadcasting, died Monday, May 27, 2024, the league announced on behalf of his family. He was 71.AP Photo, File

Walton joined the varsity in 1971 and led the Bruins to consecutive national championships (1972, 1973). The Bruins went undefeated both seasons. During Walton's senior season, UCLA lost in the semifinals of the NCAA tournament to North Carolina State.

All told, UCLA went 86-4 overall with Walton in the lineup.

While at UCLA, Walton's social consciousness evolved. Walton later recalled how he drove Wooden nuts with his antics and activism. Especially when he was arrested while protesting the Vietnam War during his junior season.

According to a 2018 article written by Dick Weiss, Walton recounted when a disappointed Wooden bailed him out of jail. Wooden told Walton he agreed with his stance against the war but told him that protesting wasn't the way to go about it.

OFF TO PORTLAND

The Blazers selected Walton No. 1 overall during the 1974 NBA draft. Foot injuries limited Walton to 86 games over his first two seasons. He managed to play 65 games during the 1976-77 season and led the NBA in rebounds (14.4) and blocked shots (3.2) per game while scoring 18.6 points.

PHILADELPHIA, PENNSYLVANIA - MAY 26, 1977: George McGinnis #30 and Caldwell Jones #11 of the Philadelphia 76ers and Bill Walton #32,Dave Twardzik #13 and Maurice Lucas #20 of the Portland Trailblazers in action during Game Two of the NBA Finals at The Spectrum on May 26, 1977 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. (Photo by James Drake/Getty Images)Getty Images

With a healthy Walton, the Blazers captured their first and only NBA title. They defeated the Los Angeles Lakers, led by Abdul-Jabbar, in the Western Conference Finals before taking down the Philadelphia 76ers 4-2 in the finals.

On Monday, Abdul-Jabbar posted on X: "My very close friend, fellow Bruin, and NBA rival Bill Walton died today. And the world feels so much heavier now. 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."

Leading the 76ers was superstar Julius Erving, who, on Monday, posted about Walton's death on X.

"I am sad today hearing that my comrade & one of the sports world's most beloved champions & characters has passed," Irving said. "Bill Walton enjoyed life in every way. To compete against him & to work with him was a blessing in my life. Sorry for your loss Walton family. We'll miss him too."

Walton credited his teammates whenever he could, especially power forward Maurice Lucas and Hollins.

"The leader of the team was Maurice Lucas," Walton said during an interview for the Trail Blazers. "He was such a powerful and spiritual force of nature. Not only was he the greatest Blazer ever, he was just the coolest dude ever. Nobody made me a better player than Maurice Lucas."

That type of humility and love for his teammates shined each day, according to Hollins.

"He was a great teammate," Hollins said. "He played to win. He elevated his teammates and made them better. He didn't want the credit. He wanted to pass it on to the guys that he felt like deserved as much as him."

Walton, Hollins added, relished close games which he thought brought out the best in the team. Seven of the Blazers' 14 wins during the 1977 playoffs came by five points or less. That included clinching Game 6 of the finals won 109-107. Walton went for 20 points, 23 rebounds and seven assists with eight blocked shots in the game.

"He loved when the games were tight and we would win at the end because we executed and made all the right plays," Hollins said.

During those early years, Walton made his presence felt around town. Hollins recalled going on runs with Walton to Mount Tabor, then to lift weights, and next to find a gym to play pickup games.

"We would take on anyone who wanted to play against us," Hollins said. "It was the competition and the love of the game … We just played and we competed. And we tried to beat all comers. And that was Bill's competitiveness."

That Blazers had the look of a dynasty with a young Walton as the centerpiece. They began the next season 50-10 before Walton was lost for the remainder of it. The Blazers went 8-14 the rest of the way.

Walton returned for the playoffs and had 17 points and 16 rebounds in Game 1 of the

Western Conference semifinals against the Seattle Supersonics. But Seattle won 104-95. Walton played just 15 minutes in Game 2 before being lost for the remainder of the playoffs with a broken ankle. The Blazers won that game 96-93 before falling 4-2 in the series.

As it turned out, despite missing much of the regular season, Walton received league MVP honors after scoring 18.9 points per game with 13.2 rebounds.

Walton playing on an injured ankle led to a dispute between him and the franchise. He accused the Blazers of providing him with improper medical advice and care.

Walton ultimately demanded a trade. This came after he had ignited what became Blazermania. The franchise, which began in 1970, had won a title, had a league MVP as its superstar, with games selling out and being shown in local theaters in order to feed the demand.

Now, Walton was injured and wanted out of Portland. The Blazers declined and Walton sat out the entire 1978-79 season. He became a free agent in 1979 and signed with the San Diego Clippers.

PHILADELPHIA, PA - CIRCA 1976: Bill Walton #32 of the Portland Trail Blazers shoots over Darryl Dawkins #53 of the Philadelphia 76ers during an NBA basketball game circa 1976 at The Spectrum in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Walton played for the Trailblazers from 1974 - 79. (Photo by Focus on Sport/Getty Images) Getty Images

In 2009, Walton lamented how his career with the Blazers ended.

"I regret that I wasn't a better person," he said. "A better player. I regret that I got hurt. I regret the circumstances in which I left the Portland Trail Blazers family. I just wish I could do a lot of things over, but I can't. So I'm here to apologize, to try and make amends, and to try and start over and make it better."

After leaving the Blazers, the injury issues continued.

"He went through a lot of misery with surgeries and pain over the course of his life that I can only imagine," Hollins said. "I've had surgeries, I've had injuries, but I've never been under the knife as often as he had. And for such traumatic injuries as he had. He endured a lot."

Walton played in just 14 games during his first season with the Clippers and then saw action in 88 games over the next two seasons. He never regained his All-Star form.

Walton's career found new life with the Boston Celtics, then led by Larry Bird. As the backup to center Robert Parish, Walton played in 80 games during the 1985-86 season, averaged 7.6 points and 6.8 rebounds, was named sixth-man of the year and helped the Celtics win the NBA title. His second.

LIFE AFTER BASKETBALL

Hollins, who played three of his five seasons in Portland with Walton, regards him to be an NBA legend regardless of his short career.

"Bill was a fantastic player, a great player, one of the all-time greats," he said.

But Hollins spent considerably more time as Walton's friend.

Former NBA player Bill Walton rides his bike as part of the Inter-Galactic Bike for Humanity fund raiser to benefit victims of the COVID-19 virus and healthcare workers on April 25, 2020 in San Diego, California. Volunteers contributed to the fund and rode throughout their neighborhoods as part of the virtual ride. (Photo by Sean M. Haffey/Getty Images)Getty Images

"He was a great friend, a very loyal friend to a lot of people," Hollins said. "He had a lot of causes that he supported. And he was a great family man. He was a great father, great husband. And very caring and very involved."

Walton and his first wife, Susie Guth, had four children: Adam, Nathan, Luke and Chris. Luke, named after Walton's favorite teammate, Maurice Lucas, played in the NBA from 2003-2013. He also spent six seasons as a coach with the Los Angeles Lakers and Sacramento Kings. Bill Walton married his now widow, Lori Matsuoka, in 1991.

Walton, who overcame a stuttering problem at age 28, said later in life that he overcame his self-consciousness and to pursue a broadcasting career in 1990. He worked for CBS, NBC, ESPN and most recently, the Pac-12 network.

Walton used his vibrant personality and eloquent vocabulary to spin tales and color his analysis to become one of the more unique commentators in television history.

"He was a great broadcaster," Hollins said. "Funny. He had a great personality."

Along the way, Walton remained an activist. But he did things differently, according to Hollins. Rather than rejecting the establishment, Walton, Hollins said, took advantage of his celebrity to make money and become more impactful with his causes.

"He became more aware of how much money could help do great things," Hollins said. "I think when he left Portland and went to the Clippers, he cut his hair and he put on a suit and he became a 'born-again capitalist,' which was his own quote. He still was a staunch believer in what he believed, but he just saw a different way in fighting battles."

Great player. Provocative commentator. Walton left his mark. But according to Hollins, Walton the person shined above all.

"He was a great human being in terms of caring about people," Hollins said. "People that didn't look like him, people that didn't live a lifestyle that he lived and have what he had. I would say that was going to be one of his legacies. All the people that he could find that he's taken care of and done things for."

-- Aaron Fentress | afentress@Oregonian.com | @AaronJFentress (Twitter), @AaronJFentress (Instagram), @AaronFentress (Facebook)

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