Bill Walton
Basketball Hall of Famer Bill Walton. Photo by Chris Stone

NBA basketball champion and Southern California sports legend Bill Walton died Monday, according to NBA officials. The longtime San Diego resident was 71 years old.

Walton, a La Mesa native whose death came after a long battle with cancer, was a Southern California sports hero who played college basketball for coach John Wooden and the UCLA Bruins, winning three consecutive national college player of the year awards from 1972 to 1974 while helping lead UCLA to the NCAA championships in 1972 and 1973.

Selected as the first overall pick in the 1974 NBA draft, Walton then led the Portland Trail Blazers to an NBA championship in 1977, earning the NBA Finals Most Valuable Player Award. He won another NBA title in 1986 as a member of the Boston Celtics. Walton was inducted into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame in 1993.

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,” NBA Commissioner Adam Silver stated on Monday.

Walton later became an Emmy Award-winning sportscaster. “Bill translated his infectious enthusiasm and love for the game to broadcasting, where he delivered insightful and colorful commentary which entertained generations of basketball fans,” Silver said.

An outpouring of remembrances were shared on social media Monday, including a message from former United States President Barack Obama.

“Bill Walton was one of the greatest basketball players of all time — a champion at every level and the embodiment of unselfish team play,” Obama wrote on X (formerly known as Twitter). “He was also a wonderful spirit full of curiosity, humor and kindness. We are poorer for his passing, and Michelle and I send our deepest condolences to his family.”

In a statement Monday, San Diego Mayor Todd Gloria said the city was mourning the death of Walton.

“He was a towering figure in basketball and broadcasting as well as a civic icon who loved his hometown,” Gloria said. “Our city’s thoughts are with his wife, Lori, and the entire Walton family. Godspeed, Bill.”

Walton was born on Nov. 5, 1952, in La Mesa, where he grew up and played basketball at Helix High School.

The San Diego resident is survived by his wife Lori and sons Adam, Nate, Luke and Chris, according to the NBA. According to the San Diego Union-Tribune, Walton “never strayed far from the city, owning a now-iconic home near Balboa Park and traversing San Diego’s communities on his bike.”

Just last month, he attended the Neil Young and Crazy Horse concert at San Diego State University, along with sporting events, the U-T reported.

Walton considered himself a lifelong San Diegan and had lived in the same home for over 40 years, NBC San Diego reported.

“I love San Diego — this is the greatest place on Earth,” Walton told the California Now blog in 2020.

“It’s a welcoming city with dizzying possibilities and anything and everything that you could want.”

Todd Tibbits, president of the YMCA of San Diego County, said Walton “has left an incredible mark on San Diego by being a passionate force for boundless generosity and unwavering determination to inspire those around him.”

“Our Y team is grateful to have had his light shined upon us,” Tibbits said in a statement. “Today, the YMCA of San Diego County mourns the significant loss of Bill Walton, along with many charitable organizations impacted by the legendary athlete, inspirational community leader, donor, volunteer and charismatic motivator.”

Walton was an active member of the YMCA Mission Valley for many years and leaves a profound legacy at the organization, Tibbits said.

“He always took great pride in fostering community, imparting wisdom, and inspiring individuals of all ages with his words and actions,” Tibbits added. “Members often recall how his infectious enthusiasm and positive attitude had the power to uplift everyone around him.”

Tibbits said that Walton’s “unique sense of humor left an indelible mark” at the Mission Valley YMCA, including an extra-tall showerhead installed within the locker room, complete with a sign per Walton’s request that read, “Only tall people use the shower.”

In recent years, Walton had publicly criticized the city of San Diego for its response to a growing number of homeless in the region.

ln a September 2022 news conference, Walton issued a scathing rebuke of San Diego Mayor Todd Gloria regarding the problem, calling him a “failed mayor” and asking that he step aside to make way for different leadership.

Walton had long been a supporter of the city, but said he could no longer do so as the homelessness crisis worsened.

“Paradise Lost: This is the city of San Diego, a once great city,” Walton said during the Sept. 27 conference with members of the nonprofit the Lucky Duck Foundation. “Sadly, and with a broken heart, I can no longer claim San Diego is the greatest place on Earth.”

Walton said he had been harassed, chased and attacked while riding his bike in Balboa Park near a large homeless encampment he dubbed “Gloriaville.”

In response, a spokeswoman for Gloria said that he is “is clear-eyed and has been completely honest with the public about the enormity of the challenge our city is facing.”

Updated at 4:19 p.m. Monday, May 27, 2024

–City News Service