Bill Walton missed over half the games during his ten professional seasons yet was named one of the “50 Greatest Players in NBA History.”
Walton was one of the most versatile players ever to lace up a pair of sneakers. When he was healthy, he had few peers. Walton scored, passed, defended, rebounded, and led. In 13 years in the NBA, he missed three complete seasons and only played in 44 percent of his games. A prep star, Walton is one of only two California players enshrined in the National High School Hall of Fame [Daily Dose, 2/1/16]. He still holds the national record for field goal percentage [79 percent] and has the third most career rebounds in prep history. At UCLA, Walton was one of the most dominant performers in NCAA history. He was also one of the most controversial. Walton was anti-establishment, anti-Viet Nam, and was critical of both President Richard Nixon and the FBI. “I had no problem with him during the season,” said John Wooden, who coached UCLA to nine NCAA championships in 11 seasons. “Off the floor, I was worried.” After being the top pick in the 1974 NBA Draft, Walton’s prime only lasted three years, yet he drew comparisons to the best centers ever to play the game. His injuries began in high school, where he broke an ankle, a leg, several bones in his feet and underwent knee surgery. At UCLA, he suffered with tendonitis in his knees and injured his back. His professional career was significantly hampered by multiple foot injuries, yet Walton still won two NBA titles, was league MVP in 1978 and is one of five players in NBA history to lead the league in blocked shots and rebounds the same season.
William Theodore Walton III was born November 5, 1952, in La Mesa, California—the “Jewel of the Hills”–located nine miles east of downtown San Diego. He was introduced to basketball as a fourth grader at Blessed Sacrament Elementary School before matriculating to Helix High School, alma mater of actor Dennis Hopper, 2005 Heisman Trophy winner Reggie Bush, and current Kansas City Chiefs quarterback Alex Smith. Walton led the Scotties to two CIF titles and 49 straight wins. In 1970, he became the first and only high school player in history to make the USA Men’s National Team and played in the FIBA World Championship in Yugoslavia. That fall, he followed his older brother Bruce—who was a three year starter at offensive tackle for the Bruins–to UCLA. Freshman were not eligible for varsity athletics under NCAA rules at the time, so Walton played for the UCLA frosh team, leading them to a 20-0 record. The following year, the 6’11” Walton joined the Bruins varsity, who were coming off their fifth-straight NCAA title.
Two years after Lew Alcindor [later Kareem Abdul-Jabbar] left UCLA as the most decorated player in college basketball history, Bill Walton arrived to play center for legendary coach John Wooden [Daily Dose, 10/14/15]. As a sophomore, Walton led the Bruins to a 30-0 record and sixth-straight NCAA championship while being named College Player of the Year. UCLA repeated in 1973, with Walton scoring 44 points on 21-of-22 shooting from the field in a title game win over Memphis State. It was perhaps the finest championship game performance in history and Walton again was named College Player of the Year. In addition, he won the 1973 Sullivan Award as top amateur athlete in America. In January 1974, top-ranked UCLA faced number-two Notre Dame in South Bend. The Bruins last loss had come at the hands of the Irish nearly three full years earlier, and they brought an 88-game win streak into the Athletic and Convocation Center. In one of the most exciting games of the decade, Notre Dame won, 71-70. For Walton, it was his first loss in 129 games. UCLA later lost to eventual 1974 NCAA champion North Carolina State in double overtime in the tourney’s semi-finals. Walton finished his UCLA career with a record of 86-4 while three times being named National Player of the Year, Pac-8 Player of the Year, and Academic All-American.
The 1972 U.S. Olympic Committee, for political reasons, failed to name John Wooden—the most successful coach in America—as coach of the Olympic team. As a result, the best amateur player in the United States chose not to play—no Wooden, no Walton. Had Walton played, the gold medal fiasco [Daily Dose, 9/9/16] would have become academic and Team USA would have easily won the tournament.
Walton blazed onto the scene after Portland selected him first overall in the 1974 draft, averaging 16 points, 19 rebounds, four assists and four blocked shots in his first seven games. Injuries then limited him to 35 games his rookie year. Two years later, he was named MVP of the Finals after leading the Trail Blazers back from an 0-2 deficit to beat Julius Erving and the Philadelphia 76ers in six games. In 1978, Walton was named NBA MVP but suffered a season-ending foot injury in the playoffs. After demanding a trade due to unethical and incompetent medical treatment by Portland’s medical staff, he sat out the 1978-79 season in protest. He was dealt to the San Diego Clippers the following year, but missed all but 14 games. Foot and ankle injuries prevented Walton from playing between 1980 and 1982. Two years later, the struggling Clippers moved north to Los Angeles. “It’s my greatest failure as a professional in my entire life,” said Walton. “I could not get the job done in my hometown. It is a stain and a stigma on my soul that is indelible. I’ll never be able to wash that off and I carry it with me forever. I was literally injured the whole time. If I could have played we would still have NBA basketball in San Diego.”
In 1985, Walton joined the Boston Celtics, backing up perennial All-Stars Robert Parrish and Kevin McHale in the front court. Playing in a career-high 80 games, he received the NBA Sixth Man Award [Daily Dose, 9/15/15] while helping Boston to the NBA championship. After suffering further injury the following season, the 34-year-old pivotman retired from basketball in 1988.
William Walton III is the only man to win an NBA Finals MVP, Sixth Man Award, and regular season MVP. He and his son Luke are the only father-son tandem to have each won multiple NBA titles and he and his brother Bruce—who played offensive line for the Dallas Cowboys—are the only brothers to have played in a Super Bowl and NBA championship. Walton had his number 32 retired by UCLA and is a member of the Naismith, UCLA, Oregon Sports and San Diego Sports halls of fame. A lover of books and music, Mr. Walton has seen the Grateful Dead perform live over 850 times.
Happy 64th birthday to the red-headed Dead Head.