Walton, William Theodore, III ("Bill")

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WALTON, William Theodore, III ("Bill")

(b. 5 November 1952 in La Mesa, California), dominating basketball player who was named as one of the National Basketball Association's fifty greatest players and who also earned notoriety as an antiwar activist during the 1970s.

Walton was the second of four children of William Theodore "Ted" Walton II, a district chief for the San Diego Department of Public Welfare, and Gloria Anne Hickey Walton, a librarian. Walton grew up in La Mesa, California, where he learned to love the game of basketball. He entered Helix High School in September 1966 and soon rose to prominence on the basketball court. He helped the Helix Highlanders win the California Interscholastic Federation San Diego Section titles in 1969 and 1970. He was named a Parade All-American in his senior year, 1970, after leading his team to a 33–0 record by averaging 29.0 points and 22.4 rebounds per game. Walton also set a state record with 825 rebounds in a single season, and in 1970 became the first high-school player named to the U.S. team for the World Basketball Championships. He was recruited by nearly 150 colleges and universities, but decided to attend the University of California at Los Angeles (UCLA) and play for the coach John Wooden.

Walton joined the UCLA varsity team in 1971 after playing his freshman year on the junior varsity. By the time he joined the varsity players, Walton was a large man at six feet, eleven inches tall and 235 pounds. He quickly assumed a role as a team leader and demonstrated excellence in the college game, leading the Bruins to national championship victories in both 1972 and 1973. In the 1973 championship game against Memphis State (later the University of Memphis), Walton gave what many sports analysts consider the greatest single-game performance by a college player. He made twenty-one of twenty-two field-goal attempts for forty-four points, and his rebounding and outlet passing enabled UCLA to dominate from the beginning. Later that year he won the Sullivan Award as the nation's most outstanding amateur athlete. He also was a three-time member of the Sporting News All-America First Team and was named the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) Division I Tournament Most Outstanding Player in 1972 and 1973. In each of his three varsity seasons at UCLA, he won the James A. Naismith Award as the United Press International's Player of the Year.

During his college years Walton took a strong interest in political issues and became an outspoken critic of the U.S. government's involvement in Vietnam and of the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI). He participated in peace protests, marching through classrooms and lying down in the middle of Wilshire Boulevard in Los Angeles. He was arrested during a UCLA peace rally. He also was friends with the sports activists Jack and Micki Scott, and was questioned by the FBI regarding their possible involvement with Patty Hearst and other fugitives from justice. Walton also began his lifelong friendship with members of the musical group the Grateful Dead in the early 1970s. Walton graduated from UCLA in 1974, earning a B.A. in history.

Walton's professional athletic career began when he was drafted number one by the Portland (Oregon) Trail Blazers of the National Basketball Association (NBA) in 1974. He was a member of the Trail Blazers for the first five years of his career and achieved great success with the team. The Blazers won the NBA championship in 1977, and Walton was named the Most Valuable Player of the play-offs in 1977 and 1978. He was selected as the NBA's Most Valuable Player in 1978. However, injuries began to affect Walton early in his career, with the constant pounding of professional basketball taking its toll. He suffered from stress fractures and bone spurs in his feet, and he missed his first full season due to injury in 1978–1979, which was his last season with the Trail Blazers.

Walton was signed as a veteran free agent by the San Diego Clippers after the 1979 season. Although he was a member of the Clippers for six seasons (five in San Diego and, after the team moved, one in Los Angeles), he played in only 169 games and sat out the complete 1980–1981 and 1981–1982 seasons with foot injuries. Walton played the final two seasons of his professional career with the Boston Celtics in 1985–1986 and 1986–1987. He was the top man off the bench and helped propel the Celtics to the 1986 NBA title. He was named the NBA Most Valuable Player and received the NBA's Sixth Man Award in 1986. He played only ten regular-season games the following year, but again made contributions in the play-offs. Walton retired from playing basketball after the 1986–1987 season.

On 15 March 1990 Walton underwent surgery to fuse the bones in his ankles, thus ending his pain, but also eliminating any possibility of his playing basketball, professionally or recreationally, ever again. Walton then began a new career as a basketball commentator. As a child and young man, he had suffered from a stuttering problem, but he was able to overcome it in the early 1980s with the help of the longtime sports announcer Marty Glickman. Walton began his media career with XTRA radio in San Diego and later was employed by CBS-TV to cover the NCAA basketball finals (1991, 1992). He went to work for NBC during the 1994–1995 season as a game analyst. He began providing television commentary during the regular-season coverage, NBA play-offs and finals, and NBA All-Star games. He also covered basketball and indoor and beach volleyball during the 1996 Summer Olympics. Walton's four sons, all from his first marriage, all played basketball at the college level.

Walton excelled at every level of the game. He was inducted into the National High School Sports Hall of Fame (1997) and the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame (1993), and in 1996 was selected as one of the NBA's fifty greatest players. In 1991 he received the NBA Players Association Oscar Robertson Leadership Award. Plagued by injury, Walton made the most of a body that did not hold up for him during his professional career. Basketball fans and historians argue that, had Walton not been injured during such a large portion of his career, he would have been the game's most dominating big man ever.

Walton's autobiography, Nothing but Net (1994), gives a good overview of his life. Sports Illustrated has covered Walton's career better than any other magazine. Curry Kirkpatrick, "Who Are These Guys," Sports Illustrated (5 Feb. 1973), focuses on each member of the 1973 UCLA basketball team and captures the essence of Walton as a college student and athlete of the 1970s. Grant Wahl, "My Three Sons," Sports Illustrated (12 Mar. 2001), outlines Walton as a father and examines his career as a basketball commentator.

Todd Tobias