Home The world lost something today: Basketball legend Bill Walton passes away at 71

The world lost something today: Basketball legend Bill Walton passes away at 71

Scott German
bill walton
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One of the greatest benefits of being involved in sports media for a significant part of my life has simply been being able to meet and get to know some of my sports heroes.

Brooks Robinson, Johnny Unitas, Cal Ripken, they all checked my boxes of meeting my heroes.

One of my all-time favorite sports personalities passed away today, Bill Walton, at 71, who sadly I was unable to check off on as meeting.

Didn’t matter, really.

I have kept up with Bill Walton since his days dominating college basketball in the 1970s at UCLA.

The ‘70s, before the internet, before cable TV, really, certainly before ESPN.

How did I keep up with William Theodore Walton III (Bill)?


Through the newspaper.

Especially on Wednesday and Sunday, the day after college basketball games were typically played.

I looked for the small type “NCAA Men’s Basketball Scores,” scrolled down alphabetically until I found UCLA, Walton’s college team.

The winning team was always on the left side.

For 88 straight games, Walton and UCLA were on the left side.

As Walton moved through his life, I became even more of a fan.

Bill Walton was never afraid of being Bill Walton.

Despite his seven-foot frame, Bill was not larger than life.

He made sure everyone knew that.

I especially enjoyed Bill doing the color commentary on Pac-12 basketball, as he proudly proclaimed the “Conference of Champions.”

Many a late winter night I stayed up to watch a Pac-12 game Bill was at courtside for.

Who could pass up watching Washington State battling Oregon State?

Not me.

Bill could make that game as exciting as a Lakers-Celtics matchup.

And he believed it.

Ironic, in that Bill will not see the ultimate demise of the Pac-12 next fall.

That’s the way he wanted it, perhaps.

Walton was a two-time NCAA champion while at UCLA, a two-time champion in the NBA, a Basketball Hall of Fame inductee, an on-court icon.

Off the court, Bill reached new heights.

A fun seeker, a broadcaster who made his own rules, and took pride in being unconventional.

Although I never had the pleasure of meeting Bill Walton, I reached out to a couple of friends that did.

Longtime Daily Progress sports editor and author Jerry Ratcliffe met Walton in 1990 in Lynchburg when Bill was visiting a mutual friend.

Ratcliffe said the most important memory he had of Walton was that he certainly didn’t have a big head, although he had the right to have a huge ego.

“He was just a great dude. I’m broken-hearted,” expressed Ratcliffe.

Another friend had a distinct perspective of Walton.

Ralph Sampson and Bill Walton battled each other on the hardwood floor.

The most notable matchups came during the 1986 NBA Finals.

Sampson obviously was a bit subtle this afternoon when we spoke about Walton’s passing.

“We knew Bill was not well. When he missed this year’s Final Four, we all thought it was serious,” noted Ralph.

What does Sampson remember most about Walton?

“Easy, his competitiveness,” said Sampson.

In the 1986 season, despite being in the twilight of his NBA career, Walton won the Sixth Man of the Year award.

Boston won the NBA championship, beating Sampson and the Houston Rockets, four games to two.

“That was what was special about Bill, even coming off the bench, he found that competitiveness, and a way to help his team,” added Sampson.

Sampson said that despite playing for several NBA teams with different approaches, Walton found a way to contribute with any coaching style.

“Bill could adapt to playing any style of basketball, at any level,” noted Sampson.

Walton didn’t have to adapt to unique styles while at UCLA under legendary coach John Wooden.

Wooden didn’t need to change styles.

In Walton’s career, his most famous game was in the 1973 NCAA title game, UCLA against Memphis.

In that lopsided Bruins win, Walton was 21-of-22 from the floor in leading UCLA to another national championship.

In a 2008 Associated Press interview Wooden said, “one of my guards said in a timeout, let’s try something else.”

Wooden’s response during that timeout: “Why? If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.”

Wooden, wisely ignoring the wishes of the anonymous guard, kept giving the ball to Walton, and he kept delivering, in a once-in-a-lifetime performance.

Although I never did meet Bill Walton, I did have the opportunity to visit his college basketball home, Pauley Pavilion, located on the campus of UCLA.

I visited Pauley before the 2013 major renovation.

Much to my disbelief, Pauley Pavilion was nothing like my childhood memories had it being.

No fancy scoreboard, no remarkable architecture making it stand out.

Not larger than life for sure.

Now that sounds familiar.

Rest in peace, Bill Walton.

Scott German

Scott German

Scott German covers UVA Athletics for AFP, and is the co-host of “Street Knowledge” podcasts focusing on UVA Athletics with AFP editor Chris Graham. Scott has been around the ‘Hoos his whole life. As a reporter, he was on site for UVA basketball’s Final Fours, in 1981 and 1984, and has covered UVA football in bowl games dating back to its first, the 1984 Peach Bowl.