NBA star and ESPN commentator was 71

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Bill Walton, the gregarious NBA star turned ESPN commentator known as a devoted Grateful Dead fan, has died after his battle with cancer, the NBA confirmed Monday. He was 71.

A towering figure at 6-foot-4, Walton played for three NBA teams and won two championships during his 13 years in the league, which ended in 1987 after numerous injuries. He was a college superstar at UCLA and was inducted into the NBA Hall of Fame in 1993.

“Bill Walton was truly one of a kind. As a Hall of Fame player, he redefined the center 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,” said NBA Commissioner Adam Silver in a statement.

“Bill then translated his infectious enthusiasm and love for the game to the broadcasts, providing insightful and colorful commentary that entertained generations of basketball fans. But what I will remember most about him is his zest for life. He was a regular at competitive events – always cheerful, smiling from ear to ear and seeking his wisdom and warmth. I cherished our close friendship, envied his boundless energy and admired the time he took with everyone he encountered,” Silver said.

Walton joined ESPN’s roster of commentators in 2002, covering NBA and college basketball games. Before ESPN, Walton also covered NBA and college hoops for ABC and NBC. He was mentioned one of the top 50 sports reporters all-time in 2009 by the American Sportscasters Assn.

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ESPN chief Jimmy Pitaro hailed Walton as a “special personality” whose enthusiasm translated on-screen to the fans.

“Bill Walton was a legendary player and a unique personality who truly cherished every experience during his extraordinary life,” Pitaro said in a statement. “Bill often described himself as ‘the luckiest man in the world,’ but anyone who had the opportunity to interact with Bill was the lucky one. He was truly a special, giving person who always made time for others. Bill’s unique spirit captivated and inspired audiences during his second career as a successful broadcaster.”

In 2023, Walton’s life was celebrated with the documentary ‘The Luckiest Guy in the World’, which aired as part of ESPN’s ’30 for 30′ series.

Born in San Diego, Walton began his professional career with the Portland Trailblazers as the NBA’s No. 1 draft pick in 1974. In 1979, he moved to the then-San Diego Clippers and moved with the team to Los Angeles in 1984. He finished his NBA career with two seasons with the Boston Celtics from 1985-87. He won his rings with the Celtics in 1986 and Trailblazers in 1977. He was voted league MVP in 1978 and NBA Finals MVP in 1977.

During his UCLA days, under the tutelage of legendary college coach John Wooden, Walton was named National College Player of the Year three times and his teams won the NCAA men’s championship twice.

In the mid-1980s, as the Grateful Dead enjoyed a career resurgence, Walton’s long-standing fandom for the band became known—it was so big that he was hard to miss at their shows—and celebrated.

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“It’s similar because, first of all, it requires tremendous discipline,” Walton said, comparing playing in a band to playing on a team, in an undated TV interview from the 1980s.

Walton’s survivors include his wife Lori and four sons: Adam, Nate, Luke and Chris. Luke Walton followed his father into the NBA as a player and is now an assistant coach with the Cleveland Cavaliers. Adam Walton is an assistant basketball coach at San Diego Mesa College.

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