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Mike Lupica: Bill Walton was as brave as his game was beautiful

Mike Lupica, New York Daily News on

Published in Basketball

There is so much to talk about today now that the great Bill Walton has died at the age of 71, died and left behind a world that won’t be nearly as smart without him, or curious, one that could never be as much fun without Bill Walton in it.

He was the basketball hippie who played for John Wooden, he was tent follower for the Grateful Dead, and was a campus activist at UCLA, a 60s kid there even though he didn’t arrive until the 1970s.

And later in his life, much later, he reinvented himself all over again as everybody’s colorful and occasionally crazy uncle talking about basketball on television, wanting you appreciate the game he was watching as much as he did.

“I know they call soccer the beautiful game,” he told me once. “Not as beautiful as basketball.” So on the day of his passing, a day when basketball mourns a death in its family for a man famous in that sport for more than 50 years, what you need to remember about Bill Walton is that he was the one with the beautiful game.

Bill Walton was the one who played the position of center with an unparalleled combination of skill and grace and imagination and passion, who when he was young and before he started getting hurt, played that position as well as it could possibly be played.

My dear friend Bob Ryan, the great columnist and Hall of Fame NBA writer from the Boston Globe, someone who wrote about pro basketball as well as it could ever be written, once said that if you brought all the all-time best players to an imaginary playground, and your job was to pick the best team, his first pick would have been the young Bill Walton.

 

He is talking about the Walton from UCLA who once shot 21-for-22 in an NCAA title game; the Walton who won a championship with the Trailblazers in 1977, beating Julius Erving and George McGinnis and a kid named Darryl Dawkins in the Finals after losing the first two games; the Walton whose Trailblazers were 50-10 the season after that title before Walton injured his foot and his basketball life was permanently changed.

“He just exuded life,” Ryan said on Monday afternoon after he had learned of Walton’s death from cancer. “He exuded life and loved life and in all the years when I knew him, there wasn’t a part of life that he didn’t find interesting. And he loved basketball completely, mostly because he considered it an art form.”

Walton played on a high school team, Helix High, in La Mesa, Cal. that won its last 49 games. He once won 88 games in a row at UCLA after his team won its first 73 games. In that ’73 title game against Memphis, he scored 44 points and had 13 rebounds and seven blocked shots.

He became an MVP with the Blazers and MVP of the NBA Finals and then, after years of surgeries on his feet and ankles, he came back with the Celtics and became Sixth Man of the Year on the 1986 Celtics team that had Larry Bird and Robert Parish and Kevin McHale and won it all.

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