My Friend Bill Walton - Kevin Stacom Khabritak

My Friend Bill Walton - Kevin Stacom Khabritak 

Bill Walton, UCLA PHOTO: Public Domain

Earlier on Monday, I was preparing an analysis of what was widely purported to be a “historic” agreement between the Power 5 Conferences and the NCAA. It’s a very complex topic involving a lot of legal and business machinations and eventual uncertainties yet to be realized. The “agreement” reads more like a preliminary term sheet that leaves more questions than it answers.

In the midst of this internal mental debate of what might be informative for the average fan versus trying to avoid the rabbit hole of legal case law pertaining to antitrust issues, I decided I was going to give an old friend, Bill Walton, a call to potentially add some perspective and levity to a stultifyingly dry subject. I was literally minutes away from making the call when I received a text from a friend informing me that Bill had just passed away earlier today.

Out of respect for him, I feel compelled to reiterate what a great and dominant player he was when he was healthy. It’s understandable that a player such as Walton might go underappreciated today since most of the commentators creating player rankings now didn’t have the benefit of seeing him play live. 

Bill arrived at UCLA as a freshman for the 1970-71 season, back when there were still freshman teams. Freshmen were not allowed to compete on Varsity teams. He nonetheless led his team to an undefeated season. To put it in further context, when Walton became eligible as a sophomore at UCLA, they were in the most dominant run for a college team in history - prior or since. They had just come off their 5th consecutive NCAA Championship and 7 of the past 8. In his first two Varsity seasons, UCLA went 60 and 0, winning two national titles.


My Providence College teammates and I witnessed the second title game in St. Louis, having just lost to Memphis State in the semifinal game after being up by 16 points when Marvin [Barnes] went down with a hyperextended knee. In that 1973 Championship game vs Memphis State, Bill scored 44 points while making 21 of 22 shots. That scoring total still stands as the most ever in a Division I Championship game, and his FG % in that game is the highest ever for a Division I player with at least 20 shots or more. 

Walton’s first collegiate loss came in the 14th game of his senior year when their amazing 88-game winning streak came to an end at Notre Dame. As a further exclamation point of the impact he had in the games he participated in, if you combine his last two years of High School ball at La Mesa, California, his undefeated freshman team record, and his 1st two undefeated Varsity UCLA seasons, Walton had a personal 142 win streak! 

I also had a front-row seat watching him play for Portland in 1977 as he led them to a Championship. As a pro, when healthy, he had the same basic approach as Bill Russell - get all of the rebounds, block as many shots as possible, and be a major facilitator on offense ( he was a great passer), getting your offense for the most part off the flow of the game rather than offset designed plays.

But it was going to a training camp with him trying out for the (at the time) San Diego Clippers that I was lucky enough to get to know him as a person. The 1st part of the training camp was in a remote desert location a few hours' drive east of San Diego. As that portion of the camp was ending and we were preparing to go back to San Diego for the remaining camp and impending exhibition season, Bill approached me and said, “Don’t stay at the hotel in San Diego; stay with me at my house there.” I obviously wasn’t going to refuse (Years later, I remember him extending the same generosity to Marvin when Marvin was struggling through his addiction problems, encouraging Marvin to get better while they worked out together, getting Bill ready for his upcoming Championship season in Boston- 1986).

I remember driving that night from the desert to his home, about a 2 to 3 hour journey Like a lot of interesting people you meet I life, they are interesting because they are characteristically interested in what you might have to say. I had played the previous five seasons with the Celtics, and I could tell Bill was fascinated with the Celtics tradition. What was it really like there? What was Red Auerbach like, or John Havlicek, Dave Cowens, Paul Silas, Jo Jo White, etc? That’s why I was so happy for him that his body held up long enough for him to play with Larry Bird and company, winning a Championship In 1986. It wasn’t hard to figure out that he was searching to recreate the camaraderie and success he experienced at UCLA. I knew he desperately wanted one more chance to play on a team that respected the way the game should be played with people and an organization that shared his vision and respect for the game. It was great to see his tortured body hold up long enough to share a magical season with another savant, Larry Bird.

As a quick side story -We were playing our last exhibition game of the season in Oakland as the 1st game of a doubleheader vs. Denver, and Golden State was the featured game vs. the Lakers. Bill told me, “Hey, I have it all set up. I have the limo coming right outside the locker room after the game, and Gerry Garcia  is leaving backstage passes for us at the concert in San Francisco.” Unfortunately, that night, he reinjured his foot that game, and it never happened. I’ll never forget the look of disappointment and despondence on his face as he dealt with yet another reoccurring injury.

To give another clue about the type of person he was, years later, when he came to Rhode Island for a speaking engagement, Bill called and said he wanted to come by and say hello. At the time, I owned a small Irish/sports bar (Mudville Pub) in Newport. He showed up with his wife and sat there for hours in the back of the room, graciously signing autographs and engaging everyone who came up to him as word spread fast around town that Walton was there.

I was always able to keep in touch through the years, saying hello to him when scouting at games he happened to be broadcasting or making a point to call him around Draft time to get his opinion on prospects he saw, especially those in the PAC 12. 

The last time I was able to see him was by a chance meeting after scouting a game in Salt Lake City. It was getting late, and it was raining. I was almost giving up looking for a place to eat when I saw the flashing neon sign of a sushi restaurant not far from the hotel I was staying at; when I entered, I saw Bill squeezing his 7’ frame somehow into the counter in front of the sushi chefs preparing their delicacies It was always great catching up with him. He was always great company and even more entertaining in person than he was on TV. He insisted on picking up the tab that night. I regret that I will never get the chance to return the favor. 

Bill Walton was the best basketball player I ever saw in my era when healthy, but more importantly, he was one of the most sincere and genuine people I have ever met And, as I found out today the hard way, I’ll miss not being able to pick up the phone and call an old friend.


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