Bill Walton, a former UCLA men’s basketball two-time NCAA champion, NBA Hall of Famer and longtime sportscaster, died Monday, May 27, following a prolonged battle with cancer. He was 71.

One of the most decorated college basketball players of all time, Walton led UCLA to back-to-back NCAA titles as a sophomore and junior, in 1972 and 1973, capping a string of seven consecutive NCAA championships won by the Bruins from 1967 through 1973. He became a charter member of the UCLA Athletics Hall of Fame in 1984 and was inducted into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame in 1993 after playing in the NBA from 1974 to 1987.

Following his playing career, Walton became familiar to a new generation of basketball fans as a broadcaster, known for his zany sense of humor, his unbridled enthusiasm and his infectious love for the game. At the same time, he remained — as he had been as a UCLA student — outspoken on social, political and environmental issues.

“Bill Walton was one of UCLA’s greatest icons, a towering figure on the basketball court who also maintained an immense presence in our community,” said UCLA Chancellor Gene Block. “He had incredible passion for life, for learning, for the game of basketball and for supporting environmental causes and advancing social justice. He was warm and generous, and he embodied the qualities of a true Bruin — excellence, perseverance and a profound commitment to making the world a better place.”

UCLA basketball coach John Wooden standing next to player Bill Walton
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Walton with Coach John Wooden.

Walton, who arrived at UCLA at a time before freshmen could compete on the varsity team, starred on UCLA’s freshman squad in 1970–71. From then on, he was the Bruins’ starting varsity center, anchoring legendary Coach John Wooden’s teams for three seasons, from 1972 to 1974. He was named the NCAA Player of the Year each of those three years and, at 6-foot-11, was widely regarded as one of the most versatile centers to ever play the game.

Walton piloted the only UCLA teams to record back-to-back perfect 30–0 seasons, in 1972 and 1973, and the Bruins compiled an overall 86–4 record during his time. Walton’s teams won their first 73 games, extending the Bruins’ ongoing winning streak to 88 consecutive games, still the longest in the history of men’s college basketball. During his three seasons, the Bruins went 49–0 in Pauley Pavilion — part of a 98-game home winning streak that spanned the 1970–71 through 1975–76 seasons.

“On behalf of everyone with the UCLA men’s basketball program, we are deeply saddened to learn of Bill Walton’s passing,” said Mick Cronin, the Michael Price Family UCLA Men’s Head Basketball Coach. “Beyond his remarkable accomplishments as a player, it’s his relentless energy, enthusiasm for the game and unwavering candor that have been the hallmarks of his larger-than-life personality. As a passionate UCLA alumnus and broadcaster, he loved being around our players, hearing their stories and sharing his wisdom and advice.

“For me as a coach, he was honest, kind and always had his heart in the right place. I will miss him very much. It’s hard to imagine a season in Pauley Pavilion without him. Our athletics department, our team and this university will miss him dearly.”

Read tributes to Bill Walton on social media from Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Magic Johnson, Julius Irving, the NBA, ESPN and others.

Martin Jarmond, UCLA’s Alice and Nahum Lainer Family Director of Athletics, said he was deeply saddened by the news.

“Bill represented so many of the ideals that our university holds dear and embodied multiple traits on Coach Wooden’s Pyramid of Success,” Jarmond said. “He loved being back on campus at UCLA, calling games in Pauley Pavilion and being around our teams. We offer our deepest sympathy to his family, and we take solace in knowing that Bill made each day his masterpiece.”

NBA video tribute to Bill Walton.

A Bruin in full

William Theodore Walton III was born Nov. 5, 1952, in La Mesa, California, in San Diego County, to a father who was a social worker and music teacher and a mother who was a librarian.

“I was super-lucky as a child,” he recalled. “My parents were not into sports at all, but they were the most encouraging, supportive and nuturing parents. Whatever I wanted to do, they would say, ‘That’s cool.’”

While Walton had broad interests, he made a splash in basketball. At Helix High School in La Mesa, he led the varsity team to 49 consecutive victories over two years, piquing the interest of UCLA. Eager to join the ascendent Bruins, he arrived on campus at a time when freshmen couldn’t compete on the varsity team. He starred on UCLA’s freshman squad in 1970–71 before stepping up to claim the spot as the Bruins’ center — a position that had been held by Steve Patterson and, previously, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar.

Walton posts up against Louisville player
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Walton posts up against a Louisville player.

He quickly became recognized nationally for his innovative play at center — a versatile big man who could not only score but expertly pass, shot-block, rebound and run the fast break. But his time at UCLA was marked by more than athletics prowess. He was a committed activitst during the Vietnam War era, and he became well known around campus for his freewheeling ways and political stances.

“I was UCLA’s easiest recruit ever, and I sadly became John Wooden’s worst nightmare. I embarrassingly drove the poor guy to an early grave at 99,” Walton jokingly told UCLA Magazine in 2019.

In truth, it wasn’t his advocacy that troubled Wooden. It was his trademark unruly mop of orange hair and beard that ran up against the coach’s clear rules.

“I had a rule against facial hair for players,” Wooden recalled. “I didn’t want hair or sweat getting in a player’s eyes and obstructing his vision. One day, Bill Walton came to practice wearing a beard. I said, ‘Bill, have you forgotten something?’ He said, ‘Coach, I think I should be allowed to wear it. It’s my right.’ So I asked him, ‘Do you believe in that strongly?’ He said, ‘Yes, I do, coach.’ I said to him, ‘Bill, I have great respect for individuals who stand up for those things in which they believe. And the team is going to miss you.’”

Walton said he duly stepped away, shaved and returned to practice.

“I realized the gigantic mistakes that I had made, and I spent the rest of my life trying to make it up to Coach Wooden and trying to stop causing him grief and consternation,” Walton said. “I’m just super-lucky that he was as patient a person as he was.”

In later years, Walton became a confidant of Wooden and would often take his children to the coach’s Encino apartment for “lessons on life” that he’d learned four decades before.

“It has been 36 years since I graduated from UCLA,” he said in 2010. “I have spent those years trying to duplicate that incredible period in my life. Our family home, where it all began so many years ago in San Diego, to this day is still a shrine to John Wooden, with UCLA memorabilia, the Pyramid of Success and pictures of the Coach everywhere.”

Outside of basketball, Walton relished the experiences UCLA offered.

“When I was young and the tallest guy in the class, I always had to sit in the back row. At UCLA, I sat in the front row,” he said. “I rode my bike right into the classroom and parked my bike up next to the teacher’s podium and just sat in the front row and just was in awe of their ability to deliver these magical lectures. I never missed a class. I never missed a movie. I never missed a concert, never missed a lunchtime lecture, never missed a rally.”

Walton concluded his collegiate basketball career in Westwood having broken multiple school records. A three-time All-Pac-8 selection, he was honored as a consensus first-team All-America selection in all three varsity seasons. To this day, he ranks among the top 10 leaders in program history in several statistical categories. He stands at No. 1 on UCLA’s career rebounding list with 1,370 and ranks No. 13 in career points scored with 1,767. He also earned Academic All-America acclaim all three years on the varsity team.

Still Truckin’: Read UCLA Magazine’s in-depth 2019 interview with Bill Walton about Coach Wooden, his days at UCLA, the Grateful Dead and more.

To the NBA and beyond

Walton was selected as the No. 1 overall pick in the 1974 NBA Draft by the Portland Trail Blazers and played 10 seasons in the league with Portland, the San Diego (later Los Angeles) Clippers and the Boston Celtics. He helped lead Portland to the 1977 NBA title, finishing second in the league’s Most Valuable Player voting that year. He was honored as the NBA’s MVP in 1978, his fourth year in the league. In a career in which he battled multiple debilitating injuries, Walton returned as a key player with the Boston Celtics in the mid-1980s and helped Boston win the 1986 NBA Finals in six games over the Houston Rockets — a year in which he was honored with the NBA’s Sixth Man award. He would continue to contend with knee, foot, ankle and back pain for many years.

In 1990, Walton and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar became the first two UCLA men’s basketball players to have their jersey numbers retired, along with former UCLA women’s basketball standouts Ann Meyers-Drysdale and Denise Curry. Since then, UCLA has retired the jersey numbers of 10 former men’s basketball players.

In 1996, he was named one of the top 50 NBA players of all time. 

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Bill Walton shares a laugh with his fellow commentators during a basketball broadcast.

In the years following his NBA career, Walton turned to sports broadcasting and was involved with multiple charitable and philanthropic organizations, clinics and camps. He served as both a studio analyst and color commentator, beginning in 1990 as an analyst for the Prime Ticket Network and continuing with CBS Sports in the early 1990s and later NBC. His work included covering the Olympic Games in 1996 in Atlanta and the 2000 Games in Sydney. He joined ESPN and ABC as an NBA analyst in 2002.

Most recently, Walton worked courtside as a color commentator for ESPN and Pac-12 Network college basketball broadcasts. He routinely served on broadcast crews in Pauley Pavilion and other Pac-12 basketball venues.

Bill Walton sticking EV chargers in his ears
Nurit Katz/UCLA
Walton clowning around with EV chargers on the UCLA campus.

And he never missed a chance to pump up his alma mater, especially when it came to issues he was invested in. In 2018, after being given a campus tour highlighting UCLA’s stustainability efforts, Walton enthusiastically shared photos and information about programs in place on campus on his Pac-12 Network broadcast. And for the UCLA School of Law commencement in 2021, he sent in a video message encouraging the new graduates.

“I have great pride, loyalty and gratitude to and for UCLA,” he told UCLA Magazine. “I believe in science, I believe in facts, I believe in knowledge and all the things that UCLA stands for. One of the endless attributes that I developed and acquired at UCLA was a standard of excellence. I am not interested in mediocrity. I am not interested in average.”

That drive, which had so pointedly characterized his college and professional basketball careers, also brought him an Emmy Award for best live sports television broadcast in 2001 — a particularly poignant accolade for Walton, who had worked for decades to overcome a stutter that began in childhood.

“I’m a lifelong stutterer,” he said in a 2011 interview. “It’s the greatest accomplishment in my life, learning how to speak … Now they’re scouring the earth trying to find the person who can get me to stop talking.”

Over the years, Walton was fond of telling anyone who would listen that he was the “luckiest guy in the world.”

A longtime fan of the Grateful Dead — Walton boasted he’d been to more than a thousand shows — he compared his time as a UCLA student to his time following the band. “It was like being on tour … You get up at the crack of dawn, classes at 7, 8, 9, 10, then lunch. Pauley Pavilion in the afternoon. Dinner. Study. Movie. Concert. Get to bed early because you know that tomorrow is going to be another fantastic opportunity to live life to the fullest.”

Walton is survived by his wife of 33 years, Lori; his four sons, Adam, Nathan, Luke and Chris; and his three grandchildren, Olivia, Avery Rose and Chase.