The Rare Air of Bill Walton


Well before his broadcast personality made him an ebullient, irreverent national sports-culture hero in his final years, Bill Walton as a youngster was something of a budding sports nemesis. At least in Seattle.

The author and NBA star Bill Walton (and son Luke) a long time ago.

After an astonishing college career at UCLA — two championships and 88 wins in three seasons, still a record — under coach John Wooden, Walton was selected by the Portland Trail Blazers with the first pick in the 1974 draft. Three years later, the Blazers, in their seventh season, won the Pacific Northwest’s first modern major team-sports championship. Meanwhile, Seattle’s outfit, the SuperSonics, begun in 1967, was foundering. After a 40-42 record that missed the playoffs for the first time in three seasons, club owner Sam Schulman bought out the fifth and final year of the contract of his head coach, Hall of Famer Bill Russell. After all those championships as a player and coach with the Boston Celtics, Seattle’s most celebrated pro sports figure — the NFL was new in 1976, the Mariners new in 1977 — walked away from unfinished business.

The Blazers’ unexpected ascent with the red-headed, 6-foot-11 force of nature — 1977 Finals MVP and 1978 overall MVP — was the region’s most compelling sports story. So as a young reporter for a new newspaper, the Bellevue Journal-American, I felt compelled to try to talk with Walton. Freed from Wooden’s strict grooming and behavior rules, Walton became all hair, beard and Grateful Dead worshipper. The counterculture vibe was strong in Portland, and he fit well. He just didn’t want to talk about it, or much of anything else.

Despite his reputation for sullenness, and my inability now to find any version of the story I wrote, three things linger from my 20-minute interview following a Blazers’ practice at a Seattle gym ahead of a Sonics game: A keepsake photo, an energy that Walton seemed to radiate, and an understanding about why his interviews were seldom, and usually short: He stuttered.

As any sports TV viewer knows, Walton fixed that.

“When I was 28, I learned how to speak,” he told The Oregonian in 2017. “It’s become my greatest accomplishment of my life and everyone else’s biggest nightmare.”

Unfortunately for him, the Blazers and my journalistic aspiration that the Sonics would have a hot geographic rivalry with Walton and Portland, he had far less success managing another malady: Fragile feet. They had nothing to do with his death Monday at 71 from colon cancer, but they had everything to do with compromising his hoops career. Problems began in 1978, when he played only 58 regular-season games because of chronic pain that seemed to come from nowhere. The term “stress fracture” had yet to be identified by orthopedists, so a mystery developed around Walton’s repetitive injuries that eventually made toxic the relationship between club, player and local and national media.

In his 2016 memoir, “Back from the Dead,” he wrote, “My feet were not built to last — or to play basketball. My skeletal, structural foundation — inflexible and rigid — could not absorb the endless stress and impact of running, jumping, turning, twisting and pounding for 26 years.”

The drama played out visibly first in the 1978 playoffs, where the Sonics, led by new coach Lenny Wilkens — Walton’s coach for his first two seasons in Portland before being fired — found themselves in a second-round matchup against the defending NBA champs. The Sonics won the series 4-2 largely because a gimpy Walton played in just two games for a total of 29 minutes. The Sonics made it to the NBA Finals, where they lost to the Washington Bullets. The next year, the same teams met again in the Finals, the Sonics this time winning their lone NBA championship. The Blazers, despite the 30-year tenure of the NBA’s richest owner, the late Paul Allen, have yet to win another title. The NBA’s Northwest Power Corner fizzled.

After missing the next two years due to surgeries and rehabs, the Blazers traded Walton to his hometown San Diego Clippers, where he played four diminished seasons. His final on-court hurrah came after a trade to Boston for the 1985-86 season, where he came off the bench for 20 minutes a game of high energy to help the Celtics win the title. Covering that series for the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, I was convinced that Larry Bird, Kevin McHale and Robert Parish were more thrilled for Walton than themselves.

Wrote Bird in a statement Monday: “I am very sorry about my good friend, Bill Walton. I love him as a friend and teammate. It was a thrill for me to play with my childhood idol and together we earned an NBA Championship in 1986. He is one of the greatest ever to play the game. I am sure that all of my teammates are as grateful as I am that we were able to know Bill, he was such a joy…”

Wrote fellow UCLA alum Kareem Abdul-Jabbar: “He was the best of us.”

My last encounter with Walton was a few years ago, at a Washington Huskies men’s game at Hec Ed for which he was supplying his inimitable, punctuation-free TV commentary on behalf of his beloved Pac-12, the “Conference of Champions,” a phrase that came to him at least a dozen times per broadcast. Pre-game, I was across the floor opposite the broadcast position, chatting with someone, when I heard a voice boom: “Art Thiel — T-H-I-E-L!”

I don’t know if he had a photographic memory. But a few weeks earlier, I watched on TV another game he was working. He found himself for no reason (per usual) on one of his weapons-grade tangents about a Dead concert he attended more than 30 years before. Citing date and San Francisco venue during a close game, he offered that evening’s set list of 19 songs, in order. Best hoops broadcast, ever. The man forgets nothing.

I went over and sat next to him and chatted a bit. It turned out that day, he ventured to the UW crew house and asked if he could get a row in with some of the fellas. Minutes later, he was on Lake Washington. A 6-11, 60-something boy in a boat.

Seeing my smile of astonishment, he said quietly, “I’ve had 36 orthopedic surgeries. My ankles and feet are fused. I wake up every day thinking how lucky I am, and what should I do to show appreciation for that.”

Dorky kid to college and NBA Hall of Famer. Stutterer to Emmy-winning broadcaster. Forever hospital patient to late-career rower. And then he times out with his favorite sports conference.

The rare elegance of no wasted motion.

Ain’t no time to hate
Barely time to wait

Woah, oh, what I want to know
Where does the time go?

Art Thiel
Art Thiel
Art Thiel is a longtime sports columnist in Seattle, for many years at the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, and now as founding editor at


  1. Several years ago, I watched a game in which the WSU men’s basketball team played another team — I don’t remember its name — and I don’t remember much about the game. What I remember is Walton’s story about visiting the Palouse area and commenting on it with insight, intelligence and pleasure. RIP, Bill Walton.

    • Less appreciated among Walton’s virtues was his curiosity regarding people and places where he traveled for work. His note-free travelogues were as informative as they were hyperbolic.

  2. Thanks, Art. I was fortunate enough to spend time with Bill over the years. The man was highly intellectual yet he never talked down to people. He had a zest for life that we could all emulate. As you so eloquently expressed it, he left us at the same time as his beloved Conference of Champions. Both will be missed.

    • You and I were lucky to have some time with him. After reading many tributes inspired by personal contacts, it seems we were hardly alone,

  3. I remember once watching Walton walk across Red Square at UW when I was a student there and UCLA was playing the Huskies. He was hard to miss, with that hair and that height and that hippie vibe. What a cool dude. At a time in my life when I cared very little about college sports, I knew about him because of his commitment to protesting the war in Vietnam and promoting social justice in general.

    Expressing his views about those things was something he didn’t need to do and it didn’t make him many friends—back then and later when he was earning his living in the NBA—but he did it anyway. And I admired him for it. BTW, anyone who wants to learn why so many of his colleagues and fans admired him should read his memoir, Back From the Dead. It’s great.

    Your recollection of his recitation of the set list, in order, of one of the many Dead concerts he attended made my day and took some of the sting out of the news of his passing. Thanks.

    • In the 70s, Bill was a nationally polarizing figure. This week, his passing has brought many worlds together in a passionate salute. Life is funny.

  4. I had a colleague from San Diego. He said the news once mentioned a house that had just been built by a young Bill Walton. Two young boys, about age 12, set out on their bikes to locate his home. They found Walton in his front yard, and struck up a conversation. He took them inside, gave them a tour, and, since it was lunchtime, made them each a sandwich.

  5. The Eastside Journal and Bellevue American combined to become the Journal American. Did you try to find a hard copy of your story? Maybe the old bound volumes ended up in a museum? Lots of history there if they still exist.

  6. I still remember listening to the the Shonz while sitting in the back of my dad’s truck with friends on that AM radio when they won it all. I served him years later at the Ritz-Carlton Mauni Lania but was forbidden to talk directly with guests. I wish I had broken that rule. From Oregon to Hawaii. Miss you Big Bill.

  7. Bill Walton was one of a kind. He made his name playing B-Ball, but in my mind his post-playing career is what cemented his legacy. His combination of joy, lack of ego and social filter made him a worthy listen. Given his dedication to lifelong learning and kind-hearted nature he could opinionate on many subjects without evoking the angry, defensive responses we typically see social media today. He would have been a great teacher/educator.

    I would be remiss if I didn’t also highlight his unabashed love for the Pac12 conference (“The Conference of Champions!” ). Every week he would visit the host team’s campus and share a something unique about the history and tradition of each school (sports-related or not). His joy often morphed into unrestrained goofiness during the broadcasts – Bill and David Pasch were the perfect mutt-and-Jeff combo. He must have been absolutely gutted when the PAC-12’s demise was orchestrated by the money grubbers and carnival barkers at ESPN – a network whose priorities were the very antithesis of what Bill stood for.

    Bill Walton’s legacy is complete – a life lived with true joy, learning and genuine regard for his fellow man. RIP Bill

  8. My measure of a public figure’s genuineness is if I’d like to have a beer with him/her. Walton certainly fits the bill. The conversation wouldn’t even have to be about basketball. I’d only be worried that he would go off on so many tangents my head would spin.

    I’m not into basketball much, but that Blazers championship team must have been pretty interesting. Coach Jack Ramsay was certainly a character himself.

    • David Halberstam’s book on a season spent with the Blazers with Walton was an astonishing feat of journalism and insight. Recommended.

  9. I once heard a story of a story of Bill filling out an application as a collegian and one section required him to mark his ethnicity. Instead of completing it he wrote on the side that the required section had no bearing on the completion of the application and he would not be answering it. Now, today something like that would typically use that information for tracking purposes of sorts. But in the early 70s? Not so much. Since I read of that story any applications I complete I study carefully and ask myself how I should proceed. A small example of Bill’s influence on me.

    I’ve watched Bill’s career with great enjoyment. From his days at UCLA, in the NBA and as a sportscaster. Despite missing so much time due to injury he’s still considered and respected as one of the best players of the game. Who can forget Marvin Webster blocking Bill’s shot in the ‘78 playoffs and getting so excited that he started jumping up and down, yelling at the Sonics bench? Or how every time he’d work a game at Hec Ed for the PAC-12 Network he’d drape himself in purple and cheer with the fans?

    Every game he’d work you’d think he went to the school of the home team. I was looking forward to hearing him lament at how the BIG-10 can’t hold a candle to the Conference of Champions. Because I’d agree with him. I’m going to miss his “Goodness Gracious Sakes Alive.”

  10. He was once afraid to speak in public because of a stutter, but then became an Emmy award winning color commentator.
    That is so inspiring. So moving. This man was a hero in every sense of the word.


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