Tribute: To “The Luckiest Guy in the World”

By Steven M. Lee | Guest Contributor | 

My Memorial Day was saddened with learning of the passing of one of my boyhood idols, Bill Walton. I loved Bill originally for his incredible play and leadership of the 1971-74 UCLA Bruin basketball teams; a team I watched on taped delay at 11 p.m. on LA’s Ch 5 throughout my high school years. I watched every game of Walton’s collegiate career. I was a die hard UCLA / John Wooden disciple. I spent countless hours in my driveway shooting hoops trying to emulate Walton and his teammates. I guess it’s something an “only child” does to pass the time alone.

That 1971 Wooden/Walton team finished the season 30-0 and beat every opponent by an average of 30 points. It was perhaps the best college basketball team in history. Walton’s Bruin teams won two national championships and he had a hand in over 60 straight victories of the incredible 88-game winning streak. In the 1973 NCAA Championship game, Walton made an astonishing 22 of 23 shots from the field, a feat that will likely never be approached again.

But Walton was much more than a great basketball player. He was a Hall of Fame broadcaster whose unconventional crazy antics, game descriptions and crazy sense of humor kept fans enthralled for game after game. All this despite being a terrible stutterer as a child. He refused to let the disability define him. He was a husband, a father, a teammate and friend. Those that knew him said he was totally gracious and unassuming, approachable and kind. His mantra; “Make today my masterpiece” was a tenet of his college coach John Wooden, a man his peers named as “The Greatest Coach in History.”

Walton was highly educated, earning All-America Academic honors each year at UCLA. He was a 1970’s activist, actually getting arrested at a protest at UCLA upsetting Coach Wooden greatly. He was one of just a few white athletes to stand up for the under-represented classes at the time. He believed in civil disobedience that would draw attention to a perceived injustice and he remained outspoken his entire life.

Notoriety followed Bill to Portland, the team that drafted him into the NBA. Turns out his new housemates were suspected of involvement with the Patty Hearst kidnapping and the SLA. Bill was also a valued honorary member of The Grateful Dead band. He’s been to over 850 of their shows and is a tie-dyed fan of the band.

Much of his adult life was marred by chronic and debilitating foot, ankle and leg injuries. These began when as a 14-year old, torching 30-year-olds at a Balboa Park (San Diego) pick-up game, the elders double teamed the skinny Walton, causing the first of his knee injuries. Over the course of his life, Walton would have over 37 orthopedic surgeries! 

Bones in his feet began to split and eventually his ankles had to be fused to alleviate the pain. His foot bone structure was malformed and the constant running, jumping, turning, and pushing off took its toll. Over his 14 year pro career Walton missed the equivalent of 9.5 seasons due to injury. In his 1978 MVP season he missed the final 22 regular season games but still earned the honor. He was named one to the Greatest 50 Players in NBA History. Bill retired from the NBA in 1990.

By the summer of 2009, Walton’s pain had become so severe that he contemplated suicide. He had spent the past 2.5 years living on the floor of his San Diego home, unable to move after his spine had collapsed, having to crawl when he needed to use the bathroom. No surgeries or treatments worked until he found a surgeon in San Diego that, along with his associates, gave Walton a new lease on life. The spinal operation, including fusions worked and got him back on his feet and able to work as a broadcaster.

True to his nature, Bill completely appreciated the opportunity to resume his life. He remained upbeat and jovial, always looking for the best in life. An ESPN documentary about Walton was entitled “The Luckiest Guy in The World.” This was his outlook, this is what he believed and espoused to anyone that would listen. Unfortunately, this Memorial Day cancer would rear its ugly head and take the life of this 71-year old Dead Head and wonderful man. A life certainly lived to its fullest and to its extreme in every way.

Athletically, despite all the injuries, Walton is still the only player in NBA history to be named League MVP, Finals MVP and Sixth Man of the Year. He won two NBA Championships. He won Player of the Year each of his three years under Wooden at UCLA. He played 6.5 years between high school and his senior year at UCLA without ever losing a game.

He leaves behind Lori, his wife of over 35 years, and four sons, including former Sacramento Kings Coach Luke Walton, named after his closest teammate and friend, Maurice Lucas.

Thanks for the memories and rest in peace, Big Red!

You’ll be missed but always fondly remembered.

Shine On!

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