Bill Walton, NBA champion and beloved broadcaster, dies aged 71

Tributes pour in for Walton, a two-time NBA champion and basketball Hall of Famer remembered as ‘truly one of a kind’.

NBA great Bill Walton
Bill Walton died after a prolonged battle with cancer, the National Basketball Association says [File: Kirby Lee/USA Today Sports]

Bill Walton, a two-time National Basketball Association (NBA) champion, Hall of Fame player and beloved broadcaster, has died at the age of 71, the league says.

The NBA said Walton passed away on Monday after a prolonged battle with cancer.

“Bill Walton was truly one of a kind,” NBA Commissioner Adam Silver said in a statement.

Walton, a 6-foot-11 (211cm) centre who moved gracefully despite his height, rose to stardom in college where he was part of the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA), dynasty under coach John Wooden.

He won National Collegiate Athletics Association (NCAA) championships in 1972 and 1973 before establishing himself as a force early in his professional career.

Walton led the Portland Trail Blazers to the championship in 1977, and he was named the NBA’s Most Valuable Player the following year.

Bill Walton moves towards the basket in a 1978 NBA game
The Denver Nuggets’ Dan Issel, left, guards Portland Trail Blazers’ Bill Walton as Walton moves towards the basket during a game in 1978 [File: Jack Smith/AP Photo]

His most famous performance was the 1973 NCAA title game – UCLA against Memphis – in which he shot an incredible 21-for-22 from the field and led the Bruins to another national championship.

But Walton’s NBA career – disrupted by chronic foot injuries – lasted only 468 games with Portland, then San Diego and eventually the Los Angeles Clippers, and the Boston Celtics.

He averaged 13.3 points and 10.5 rebounds in those games, neither of those numbers exactly record-setting. Still, his impact on the game was massive.

“As a Hall of Fame player, he redefined the centre 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,” Silver said on Monday.

When Walton retired from the NBA, he turned to broadcasting, something he never thought he could be good at or would be possible for him because he had a pronounced stutter at times in his life.

But he excelled, winning an Emmy award and eventually being named one of the top 50 sports broadcasters of all time by the American Sportscasters Association.

And Walton, who was enshrined in the Hall of Fame in 1993, was larger than life, both on and off the court.

He “delivered insightful and colourful commentary which entertained generations of basketball fans”, Silver said on Monday. “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.”

Tributes also rolled in for Walton from some of the biggest names in basketball, including Earvin “Magic” Johnson, who described Walton as “one of the most skilled centers we’ve ever seen”.

“They talk about [Denver Nuggets star Nikola] Jokic being the most skilled center but Bill Walton was first! From shooting jump shots to making incredible passes, he was one of the smartest basketball players to ever live,” Johnson wrote on X.

“Bill was a great ambassador for college basketball and the NBA, and he will be sorely missed.”

Julius “Dr J” Erving also paid tribute to Walton and offered condolences to his family.

“Bill Walton enjoyed life in every way. To compete against him & to work with him was a blessing in my life,” Erving said in a social media post.

Source: Al Jazeera and news agencies