Blazers legend Bill Walton dies at 71

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Bill Walton in 1977. Jerry Coli Dreamstime.com
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Bill Walton, who led the Portland Trail Blazers to their lone NBA title, died on May 27, the league announced on behalf of his family. 

Walton was 71 and died after a prolonged battle with cancer, according to the NBA statement. 

“Bill Walton was an icon,” Jody Allen, chair of the Portland Trail Blazers, said in a statement released by the team. “His leadership and tenacity on the court were key to bringing a championship to our fans and defined one of the most magical moments in franchise history. We will always treasure what he brought to our community and the sport of basketball.”

He was named MVP on the 1977 NBA Finals after the Blazers took home the title by beating the Philadelphia 76ers in six games. The Blazers looked to repeat the following year, winning 50 of their first 60 games when Walton broke his foot. Despite missing the rest of the regular season, he was named regular season MVP. He returned for the playoffs, but was hurt in the second game of the first round and missed the rest of the playoffs. He never played for the Blazers again. 

Although he spent just four years in Portland, Walton is widely regarded as one of the greatest Blazers ever. 

For younger fans who weren’t around for the ’77 Blazers title, Walton lived beyond his playing career as a longtime announcer. As an announcer, Walton shared his wealth of basketball knowledge in poetic, beautiful, and goofy ways. But above all that, he shared his genuine passion and enthusiasm for the game, which made listening to him call a game feel like a treat for the viewer. 

After calling NBA games for various networks, he settled in somewhat locally as a college basketball commentator for the Pac-12 Network. 

As tributes and statements from past teammates, coaches, and coworkers poured in, it’s easy to see why Walton has been a beloved figure for so long and in so many different ways. Some talked about his play, how he revolutionized the center position, and tried to fit in with whatever team he was on. Others talked about his work as a commentator and bringing his joy for basketball to the audience at home. Others talked about his love of life and his interests outside of basketball. 

While he grew up in California, Walton’s hippie persona and longtime cycling advocacy made him and Portland feel like a perfect match. However, perhaps none of Walton’s interests were a more significant part of his public persona than his love for the Grateful Dead. 

Walton would often wear Dead shirts, sometimes even while broadcasting games, and quote the band. He followed them on tour, and Dead & Company, a spin-off of the band with some of the Dead’s original members, paid tribute to Walton at a concert the week of his death.

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