American basketball player
The professional basketball career of Bill Walton, though plagued by injury, had flashes of brilliance that prompted sportscasters to compare him with the greatest centers in the history of the National Basketball Association (NBA). In a pro ball career spanning thirteen years, Walton played for three teams—the Portland Trailblazers, the San Diego (later Los Angeles) Clippers, and the Boston Celtics—helping to lead two of them to national championships. Elected to the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame in 1993, he was named one of the fifty greatest players in NBA history in 1996. Since 1990, Walton has worked as a sportscaster covering basketball.
Hooked on Basketball Early
was a librarian. Although neither of his parents had any particular interest in athletics, preferring art, literature, and music, Walton followed in the footsteps of his older brother, Bruce, and gravitated toward sports. Another major influence was Frank "Rocky" Graciano, a volunteer coach at the Catholic elementary school Walton attended. Young Walton's first coach "made it [basketball] fun and really emphasized the joy of playing the team game," Walton told ESPN. The game proved a haven for Walton, who told ESPN, "I was a skinny, scrawny guy. I stuttered horrendously, couldn't speak at all. I was a very shy, reserved player and a very shy, reserved person. I found a safe place in life in basketball." He also found time to keep his parents happy by taking music lessons.
After an early growth spurt, Walton had reached a height of more than six feet by the time he entered Helix High School in La Mesa. During Walton's junior and senior years in high school, the Helix basketball team, coached by Gordon Nash, won forty-nine consecutive games to win the California Interscholastic Federal High School title two years in a row. For his part, Walton, who towered nearly seven feet tall as a senior, was ranked as the best high school basketball player in the state. Among Walton's honors during his last two years in high school were being named All-State and All-Conference in both 1969 and 1970 and All-American and Helix Athlete of the Year in 1970.
Throughout his years in elementary and high school, Walton had avidly followed the exploits of UCLA's basketball team on the radio, silently promising himself that someday he would play ball for the team. His outstanding record as a high school player made him a hot property for college basketball recruiters, but the one offer he was most interested in came from UCLA. Walton quickly accepted the university's invitation to enroll there and play basketball for the Bruins under legendary coach John Wooden , a man who was to have a major impact on his life. Of Wooden, Walton writes on his Web site: "The joy and happiness in John Wooden's life comes today, as it always has, from the success of others. He regularly tells us that what he learned from his two favorite teachers, Abraham Lincoln and Mother Theresa, is that a life not lived for others is not a life."
Leads UCLA to Two NCAA Championships
In his first year at UCLA, Walton played on the freshman basketball team, after which he played the next three years on the varsity team, coached by Wooden. During that period, the Bruins basketball team won eighty-six games and lost only four, winning the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) championship in both 1972 and 1973. Walton was named Most Valuable Player in the NCAA tournament both of those years. By the time Walton graduated from UCLA, he was widely recognized as the best college basketball player in the country, having scored 1,767 points and 1,370 rebounds in his eighty-seven college games. During his college years, Walton earned a reputation as something of a rebel with his support for left-leaning causes, long hair, and commitment to vegetarianism. He was also an outspoken critic of President Richard Nixon and the Federal Bureau of Investigation. During his junior year at UCLA, Walton was arrested while participating in a protest demonstration against the Vietnam War.
In the NBA draft of 1974, Walton was the number one overall pick, tapped by the Portland Trailblazers. Walton had shown himself to be unusually prone to injury during his years of playing basketball in high school and college, and this vulnerability seemed to grow during his early years with the Trailblazers. During his first two seasons of NBA play, injuries sidelined Walton for about half of the team's scheduled games. He seemed to come into his own during the season of 1976-1977, averaging nearly nineteen points per game and leading the league in rebounding and blocked shots. In the post-season, the Trailblazers faced off against Philadelphia in the NBA Championships. Portland lost the first two games but, led by Walton, came back to win the next four to take the championship. Walton was named Most Valuable Player of the championship, having set single-game records for defensive rebounds and blocked shots.
|1952||Born in La Mesa, California, on November 5|
|1969-70||Leads Helix High School team to California Interscholastic Federal High School title two years in a row|
|1970||Enrolls at University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA)|
|1971||Plays on UCLA's freshman basketball team|
|1972-74||Plays center on UCLA varsity team coached by John Wooden|
|1973||Arrested while participating in a protest demonstration against the Vietnam War|
|1974||Drafted by Portland Trailblazers as number one overall pick in NBA draft|
|1974-78||Plays with Trailblazers, leading team to NBA championship in 1977|
|1979-85||Plays with San Diego (later Los Angeles) Clippers|
|1985-87||Plays with Boston Celtics, winning NBA championship in 1986|
|1987||Retires from professional basketball|
|1990||Undergoes surgery to fuse bones in left foot and ankle|
|1990||Joins Prime Ticket Network as analyst|
|1991-2001||Works as basketball commentator for major network and cable networks, including CBS, NBC, MNBC, and Turner Sports|
|2002||Hired by ESPN/ABC as lead analyst for NBA coverage|
Awards and Accomplishments
|1969-70||Named All-State and All-Conference as a high school junior and senior|
|1970||Named All-American and Helix (H.S.) Athlete of the Year as a senior|
|1972-73||National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) championship at UCLA; Most Valuable Player in the NCAA tournament both of those years|
|1972-74||Led UCLA to 86-4 record during his three years of varsity play|
|1972-74||Sporting News College Player of the Year and winner of Naismith Award|
|1977||Led Portland Trailblazers to NBA Championship; named NBA Finals Most Valuable Player|
|1978||NBA's Most Valuable Player|
|1986||Helped Celtics win NBA Championship and received NBA Sixth Man Award|
|1992-93, 1995-96, 1998-2000||Named Best Television Analyst/Commentator by the Southern California Sports Broadcasters Association|
|1993||Inducted into Basketball Hall of Fame|
|1994||Voted into the Verizon Academic All-American Hall of Fame|
|1997||Named as one of NBA's 50 best basketball players of all time|
|1997||Became first male basketball player from the state of California to be inducted into the National High School Sports Hall of Fame|
|1999||Received NCAA's Silver Anniversary Award for his extensive civic and professional contributions|
|2001||Became inaugural inductee into the Grateful Dead Hall of Fame|
|2001||Emmy Award for best live sports television broadcast|
Walton began the 1977-1978 season with an even more impressive performance, leading the Trailblazers to victory in fifty of their first sixty games. However, injury sidelined Walton for the final twenty-four games of the regular season. He returned to play during the NBA playoffs but was forced to drop out again when it was discovered that he had broken a bone in his left foot. Without Walton, Portland fell to the Seattle Supersonics in the playoffs. Injury forced Walton to sit out all of the 1978-1979 season. Despite his history of injury, Walton in 1979 was signed to a five-year contract with the San Diego Clippers, a franchise that in 1984 moved to Los Angeles. Injury kept Walton out of play for most of his first two seasons with the Clippers, drawing widespread criticism from San Diego fans and his teammates. During the Clippers' 1983-1984 and 1984-1985 seasons, Walton bounced back, once again playing impressively, but the Clippers never experienced the success of the Trailblazers in NBA play.
Ends Basketball Career with Celtics
In 1985 Walton was traded by the Clippers to the Boston Celtics. In a last flash of brilliance, he rose above his injuries to play in eighty games for the Celtics during the 1985-1986 season, averaging 7.6 points per game. With Walton's help, the Celtics advanced to the playoffs and eventually won the NBA championship. The following season, Walton played only ten games before his recurring injury forced him to retire from professional basketball. For the whole of his career, Walton played in a total of 468 games, averaging 13.3 points per game, with 6,215 points, 4,923 rebounds, and 1,034 blocked shots.
By the time of his retirement, Walton's chronic injury had grown so severe that it limited his ability to get around. In 1990 he underwent surgery to fuse some of the bones in his left foot and ankle. However, the surgery forever ended any hopes of playing basketball again, making it impossible for Walton to bend or flex his left foot. To keep busy, Walton got involved in charity work and coached a handful of individual promising college players, including Shaquille O'Neal at Lousiana State University. In time, Walton decided to see if he could find a job as a sportscaster or color analyst. Making the transition proved one of the toughest hurdles in his life, Walton told ESPN. "When I started in this business…, I couldn't get a job. They'd look at me and say, 'No way, Walton. Don't call us back and don't come around here any more."
But Walton was not to be so easily discouraged. His persistence eventually paid off, and he landed a job in 1990 as analyst for cable's Prime Ticket Network. Not long after that he joined CBS Sports to cover the NCAA Final Four. He next jumped to NBC, where he provided commentary for NBA games and also the 1996 Atlanta and 2000 Sydney Summer Olympics Games. In between jobs for NBC, he found time to fulfill assignments for a number of broadcast and cable networks, including Fox, KCAL in Los Angeles, Turner Sports, MSNBC, and the NBA itself. Although it wasn't easy for him to break into broadcasting, Walton over time proved a natural. The Southern California Sports Broadcasters Association honored him with its Best Television Analyst/Commentator Award seven times between 1992 and 2000. He's also been nominated for a number of Emmy awards and in 2001 won an Emmy for best live sports television broadcast.
Inducted into Basketball Hall of Fame
The 1990s also brought Walton some well-deserved recognition for his contributions to basketball. He was inducted into the Basketball Hall of Fame in Springfield, Massachusetts, in 1993. The following year he was voted into the Verizon Academic All-American Hall of Fame. In 1997 Walton was named one of the NBA's fifty best players of all time, and that same year Walton became the first male basketball player from the state of California to be inducted into the National High School Sports Hall of Fame. For his extensive civic and professional contributions over the twenty-five years since graduating from UCLA, Walton in 1999 received the NCAA's Silver Anniversary Award. A longtime fan of the Grateful Dead, in June 2001 Walton became the inaugural inductee into the Grateful Dead Hall of Fame, a non-profit charitable organization founded by members of the band and their friends.
|BOS: Boston Celtics; LAC: Los Angeles Clippers; POR: Portland Trailblazers; SDC: San Diego Clippers.|
Interviewed by ESPN in 2002, Walton was asked who he thought was his toughest opponent on the basketball court during his years of college and professional play. He replied: "Without question, no hesitation, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar was the best player I ever played against. Not just the best center, he was the best player, period. He was better than Magic (Johnson) , better than Larry (Bird) , better than Michael (Jordan) . He was my source of motivation. Everything I did was to try to beat this guy. I lived to play against him, and I played my best ball against him. No matter what I threw at him, though, it seemed like he'd score fifty against me. His left leg belongs in the Smithsonian. And it wasn't just offense. He was a great defender and rebounder, a great passer, a wonderful leader. He was phenomenal."
Walton has been married twice. With his first wife, Susan, whom he married in the 1970s, he had four sons, all of whom play basketball. All of Walton's sons are tall, at least 6 feet 7 inches, but none is as tall as their father, who stands 6 feet 11 inches. Susan and Walton were divorced in the 1990s, and Walton lives today in San Diego with his second wife, Lori. He is close to his sons and follows their basketball exploits closely. His eldest son, Adam, played ball at Louisiana State and now helps coach a high school junior varsity team in San Diego. Next in line is Nate, who played at Princeton. Luke is a standout player at the University of Arizona, while younger brother, Chris, plays for San Diego State. When asked by the Washington Post if he was disappointed that none of his sons went to UCLA, he said: "I've had nothing to do with where they go to school. Both Chris and Luke were offered scholarships by UCLA and turned down UCLA. I've always told the kids, it's your life, you have to make this decision. I'm more than happy to talk to you about it, more than happy to expose you to all the factors that go into your decision. But you're not living your life for me."
For more than four decades, Walton's life has revolved around basketball, first as a player and now for more than a decade as a broadcaster. Although chronic injury wrenched him from the basketball court prematurely, Walton has found a way to remain close to the game he loves. And, to the surprise of almost everyone, including Walton himself, he's proved as much a champion in his second career behind the microphone as he was during his days of playing college and professional ball. Jack Ramsay, his coach on the Trailblazers, told the Los Angeles Times, "if he could have stayed healthy, he probably would have been the greatest center of all time." But Walton is not one to dwell on what might have been. He lives very much in the present and of his present career as a sportscaster, Walton told ESPN, "I love my job."
SELECTED WRITINGS BY WALTON:
(With Gene Wojciechowski) Nothing But Net: Just Give Me the Ball and Get Out of the Way, Hyperion, 1994.
Related Biography: Coach Jack Ramsay
One of the winningest coaches in NBA history, Jack Ramsay piled up 826 wins (against 732 losses) in two decades of coaching pro basketball.
Ramsay was born in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, on February 21, 1925. He played basketball at Upper Darby (PA) High School, winning All-County honors. After graduating from high school in 1942, Ramsay served in the U.S. Navy from 1943 until 1946. After his discharge, he enrolled at St. Joseph's College, near Philadelphia, where he played for four years. After graduating, Ramsay became basketball coach at St. James High (PA) School where he stayed from 1949 until 1952. Ramsay returned to St. Joseph's to coach basketball in 1955.
Ramsay debuted as a pro basketball coach in 1968 when he joined the Philadelphia 76ers. Between 1972 and 1976, Ramsay coached the Buffalo Braves. In 1976, he became coach of the Portland Trailblazers. In Ramsay's ten years with the Trailblazers, the team made it to the playoffs nine times.
Ramsay's NBA coaching career ended in 1986-87 when he guided the Indiana Pacers to a record of 41-41. When he retired, he had the second highest number of wins of any coach in NBA history, trailing only Red Auerbach.
(With Bryan Burwell) At the Buzzer! Havlicek Steals, Erving Soars, Magic Deals, Michael Scores, Doubleday, 2001.
Almanac of Famous People, 6th ed. Detroit: Gale Group, 1998.
St. James Encyclopedia of Popular Culture. five volumes. Detroit: St. James Press, 2000.
Walton, Bill, and Bryan Burwell. At the Buzzer! Havlicek Steals, Erving Soars, Magic Deals, Michael Scores. New York: Doubleday, 2001.
Walton, Bill, and Gene Wojciechowski. Nothing But Net: Just Give Me the Ball and Get Out of the Way. New York: Hyperion, 1994.
"Fox Sports Radio Network Signs Stellar Talent." PRNewswire (January 30, 2001).
Gildea, William. "For the Waltons, Life Is a Ball; Four Sons Inherited a Gift for the Game from Dad." Washington Post (March 5, 2000): D1.
Rushin, Steve. "Just Chill, Says Bill: Hot about the Glacial Pace of the NBA Playoffs? A Wise Old Deadhead Advises You to Cool It." Sports Illustrated (May 6, 2002): 19.
"Bill Walton." Basketball Hall of Fame. http://www.hoophall.com/halloffamers/Walton.htm (October 5, 2002).
"Bill Walton: Biography." Bill Walton Web site. http://www.www.billwalton.com/bio.html (October 5, 2002).
Biography Resource Center Online. http://www.galenet.galegroup.com (October 5, 2002).
"Jack Ramsay." Basketball Hall of Fame. http://www.hoophall.com/halloffamers/Ramsay.htm (October 9, 2002).
"Page 2: 10 Burning Questions for Bill Walton." ESPN.com. http://espn.go.com/page2/s/questions/billwalton.html (October 8, 2002).
Sketch by Don Amerman