Basketball Hall Of Famer & Dedicated Deadhead Bill Walton Has Died

The legendary basketball player was also the number one celebrity Deadhead.

By Scott Bernstein May 27, 2024 1:39 pm PDT

Bill Walton, the legendary basketball player and commentator who was also known for his love of the Grateful Dead, died Monday at 71. The news of Walton’s death was announced by the NBA. Bill Walton’s death came after a prolonged battle with cancer. He was surrounded by his loved ones when he passed his family said in a statement issued by the NBA.

“Bill Walton was truly one of a kind. As a Hall of Fame player, he redefined the center position,” said NBA commissioner Adam Silver in a statement. “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. Bill then translated his infections enthusiasm and love for the game to broadcasting, where he delivered insightful and colorful commentary which entertained generations of basketball fans. But what I will remember most about him was his zest for life. He was a regular presence at league events — always upbeat, smiling ear to ear and looking to share his wisdom and warmth. I treasured our close friendship, envied his boundless energy and admired the time he took with every person he encountered.”

William Theodore Walton III was born on November 5, 1952 in La Mesa, California. Walton attended UCLA and was coached by the legendary John Wooden. Bill Walton led the UCLA Bruins to NCAA Championships in 1972 and 1973 and won three consecutive national college player of the year awards between 1972 and 1974.

The Portland Trail Blazers selected Walton with the first overall pick in the 1974 NBA Draft. Bill Walton was a key contributor to the Trail Blazers’ NBA Championship team in 1977 and won the NBA Finals Most Valuable Player Award that season for his efforts. The following year Walton took home the NBA Most Valuable Player Award. After a stint with the San Diego/Los Angeles Clippers, Walton ended his career by playing with the Boston Celtics and won his second championship in 1986.

Bill Walton retired in 1988 and embarked on a career as a sportscaster which continued through 2023. In 1993, Walton was inducted in the NBA Hall of Fame.

Walton was a passionate music fan who was enamored with the Grateful Dead. In a 2016 interview with JamBase, Walton noted he had seen the Dead and offshoots 849 times over the previous 49 years. “Once I met the band in 1974,” he recalled, “A lot of things changed in terms of access to the music. If I was at the show, they would just hand me the tapes right as I was walking out and if I wasn’t there, [longtime crew member Lawrence “Ramrod” Shurtliff] would mail me the tapes. For the home games in Portland, the son of our radio man, Bill Schonely, knew how to run the PA system in the entire arena. I think games started at 8 o’clock in those days, much later than they start now on the West Coast. So if you’re in there at 7 o’clock, yesterday’s Grateful Dead show would be playing on the PA system through the entire Portland Coliseum. I don’t think the other guys or the coaches even knew what was going on,” Walton joked.

The 6′ 11″” Walton — who first saw the band at age 16 in 1967 — famously traveled with the Grateful Dead to Egypt in 1978 for their shows at the Giza pyramid complex. In 1985, he took his Boston Celtics teammates to see the Grateful Dead at The Centrum in Worcester, Massachusetts and they had a transcendent experience.

Bill Walton continued his association and love of the band’s music following Jerry Garcia’s death in 1995. In 2015, he attended the Fare Thee Well: Celebrating 50 Years Of The Grateful Dead concerts in Santa Clara, California and Chicago. Walton advised Phish guitarist Trey Anastasio — who was filling the Garcia role — he needed to really go for it.

Walton was also passionate about Dead & Company and was a regular attendee of the band’s shows. Dead & Co. guitarist John Mayer appeared on Walton's Throw It Down alternate NBA broadcast in 2023 and talked about the pep talks he received from the basketball great. “When Bill gives you advice, he looks you dead in the eye and everything stops,” Mayer recalled of Walton’s motivational speeches. “He speaks with this cadence … ‘Go out there. Give it your absolute all. Don’t be shy. They are here to watch you play. Go play to the greatest of your ability.’”

Bill Walton also appeared on stage with Dead & Company as well as numerous Grateful Dead tribute acts. Additionally, Walton performed on percussion with the Electric Waste Band at the 2023 Skull and Roses Festival.


John Mayer On Bill Walton’s Throw It Down

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