Jay Bilas remembers Bill Walton the basketball player, the man and friend

ByJay Bilas ESPN logo
Monday, May 27, 2024


That was the overwhelming feeling that washed over me when I received the call that Bill Walton had died at the age of 71. The man who was always bigger than life had passed from this one, and he left a legacy of basketball greatness and of a wonderful human being. Bill Walton was a one-of-a-kind person who left everyone he came in contact with feeling special and among his inner circle. He was a generous, giving soul who always put others before himself.

As a kid growing up in Southern California, my idol was Bill Walton.

He was, without argument, one of the two greatest players in college basketball history -- along with Kareem Abdul Jabbar, known as Lew Alcindor during his college days -- and remains so to this day.

Walton was the most complete center in the game: scoring, rebounding, blocking shots, passing, outlet passing and running the floor. No center was as complete, and only Kareem could match Walton's record as a winner and champion. In three seasons at UCLA playing for the legendary John Wooden, Walton's teams were undefeated national champions twice, reached the Final Four three times and compiled an 86-4 record. Walton was a three-time national player of the year and first-team All-American and was recognized as the top amateur athlete in the nation. I remember my coaches telling me that Walton was the greatest center to play the game.

His NBA career was interrupted by injury. But when healthy, Walton was just as dominant as he was at UCLA. In 1976-77, he played in 65 games, leading the Portland Trail Blazers to the NBA championship, and he made the All-NBA and All-Defensive teams and was Finals MVP. Injuries would limit his dominance. He finished his career with the Boston Celtics in 1985-86, helping Larry Bird, Kevin McHale and Robert Parish win the title while being named the NBA's Sixth Man of the Year.

Walton not only overcame an injury-plagued pro career; he overcame a speech impediment to become one of the most entertaining, fun and beloved broadcasters of all time. He was amazingly intelligent, ridiculously funny and quick to poke fun at you and himself. When all would be thrilled to hear Bill talk about himself and his rich life in the game, he would never fail to ask questions about you and put the spotlight on others. He was genuinely interested in you.

I had the pleasure -- no, the joy -- of working with Walton at ESPN. From Maui to Pac-12 games, or the MegaCast of the college football title game (where he was dressed as Uncle Sam), not only did Bill never disappoint, he always brought a smile to your face, just thinking about spending time with him.

I quickly realized that Walton was a better person than he was a basketball player -- and he was a Naismith Hall of Fame player. Before we went on the air, if I tried to discuss what we may encounter during a broadcast, Bill would put up one of his huge hands and say, "Save it all for the air, Jake."

He loved calling me Jake, pretending to get my name wrong, and nobody loved it more than I did -- that Bill Walton would include me in his wild sense of humor.

On one broadcast with Bill and Dave Pasch, Walton was waxing poetic about former Kansas coach Ted Owens when he paused his soliloquy to say, "Jake, you're too young to know who Ted Owens is!"

"Of course I know Ted Owens," I replied. "He recruited me."

Walton quickly retorted, "For what?!" I nearly fell out of my chair laughing.

Walton made everything fun. Whether he was detailing the history of the saguaro cactus or the mystical powers of the desert, or quoting the Grateful Dead as if it were scripture, Walton was about enjoying every minute of his existence, and making your existence around him meaningful and unforgettable.

He was a free spirit, with endearing eccentricity. But deep down, he was about finding joy in others. Man, was Bill Walton fun.

For his greatness on the floor, Walton carved out a special place in the game's history that will never be forgotten. As a friend and colleague, Walton had a spirit that was bigger than life. He was a showman. I will always love Bill Walton -- he was a national treasure, and there will never be another like him.

Rest in peace, Bill.

Love, Jake

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