• Home
  • NBA
  • Bill Walton was a basketball star and social rebel

Category: Boston Celtics

Share & Comment:

Bill Walton was a basketball star and social rebel

Can you imagine the reaction today if college basketball’s best player got arrested during an anti-war protest and then had to be bailed out by his head coach? Can you imagine the fury if that same player wrote a letter to the President of the United States and asked him to resign?

That was the reality in the early ’70s for legendary center Bill Walton when he played for the equally-legendary UCLA Bruins and their head coach, the just as legendary John Wooden.

Walton, who died on Monday at the age of 71 after battling colon cancer, was maybe the greatest college basketball player that ever lived. In three seasons at UCLA (freshmen weren’t eligible to play in those days), Walton averaged 20.3 points per game and 15.7 rebounds. The Bruins won their fifth-straight national title during Walton’s “redshirt” freshman season, before capturing their sixth and seventh with the big man leading the way as the nation’s best player. Walton was named the Naismith College Player of the Year three seasons in a row (1972-1974) and the AP College Player of the Year in both 1972 and 1973. It was during this time that Walton was arrested for protesting the Vietnam War alongside other UCLA students. After Wooden–a bit more conservative in his views and certainly more concerned about his big man’s importance to his basketball program–asked the young Walton to just write letters–instead of participating in protests–he penned a letter to President Richard Nixon, imploring him to resign from office.

Walton was around when UCLA’s 88-game winning streak ended against Notre Dame in 1974. He was also there later that year when the Bruins’ title streak was halted in the national semifinals against NC State.

Walton’s professional career began when the Portland Trailblazers made him the first pick of the 1974 NBA Draft. The Trailblazers were an expansion team that was formed in 1970, and Portland wasn’t exactly a basketball hotbed at the time.

Heck, Portland wasn’t really a sports hotbed, and Walton, who had been dealing with lower-body issues throughout his college career, didn’t do much to change that over his first two seasons. This was due to various injuries–including stress fractures in his ankles and feet. Walton played in a combined 86 games over his first two years, as the Blazers finished under .500 each time. Despite his struggles, Walton remained outspoken when it came to social justice issues, but since he didn’t have the basketball clout to back it up, fans mostly just wanted him to “shut up and play.”

But Walton came of age in 1977 when he played in 65 games and averaged 18.6 points, while leading the league in rebounds (14.4 per game) and blocked shots (3.2 per game). Walton was voted an All-Star for the first time that year. More importantly, he led Portland to its first NBA Championship, as the Trailblazers defeated Philadelphia in six games. Not surprisingly, Walton was voted Finals MVP.

Portland was suddenly a hotbed for basketball, and Walton was its most popular sports figure.

Walton’s next season was his best, as he led the Trailblazers to a 50-10 start. Portland looked primed to win its second-straight title, and Walton was voted NBA MVP. Unfortunately, Walton’s regular season was cut short after 58 games due to his ongoing foot and ankle issues, and Portland finished with 58 wins. Walton tried to play in the postseason but only made his problems worse after receiving a painkilling injection during a second-round series vs. Seattle.

Portland lost to the Supersonics in six games, and Walton never played for the Trailblazers again. Instead, he sat out the entire 1978-1979 campaign in protest over what he thought was medical negligence by team doctors.

In 1979, Walton signed with the Clippers, a former expansion team that moved to his hometown of San Diego in 1978, but only appeared in 14 games due to his continued foot and ankle problems. Walton missed the next two years entirely before returning for the 1982-1983 campaign. Walton spent the next three years with the Clippers, even after their move to Los Angeles in 1984, but was never able to recapture the magic that made him one of the NBA’s best players in the late ’70s.

Walton joined the Celtics for the 1985-1986 campaign and fit in perfectly as the top reserve for maybe the most talented team in the NBA at the time. Walton appeared in the most games of his career (80), as Boston finished with a 67-15 record. Walton, who averaged 19.3 minutes and 7.6 points per game, was voted Sixth Man of the Year. Furthermore, he helped the Celtics win the NBA Championship, giving him the second title of his career.

Unfortunately, it would be the last hurrah for Walton, as injuries limited him to 10 games the following season. After a few more attempts at a comeback, Walton finally had to give in to his injuries and retire from the sport he loved and was so good at.

Walton’s NBA career spanned 15 seasons, but he only played in 10 of them and a total of 468 games due to injuries. Walton scored 6,215 points during his career, made two All-Star teams and was voted NBA MVP once.

Arguably the most gifted two-way center of all-time, one wonders what could have been had Walton not been plagued by injuries.

Again, though, Walton was a rebel, and he refused to go away quietly. Instead of shuffling off into retirement, Walton, who had battled a stuttering problem since childhood, overcame that to become a popular and award-winning studio analyst and color commentator, working for multiple networks over the next three decades.

As an analyst and commentator, Walton was just as outspoken about the game of basketball and its players as he was political and social issues.

Injuries may have robbed Walton of a great NBA career, but in addition to being voted into the College Basketball Hall of Fame, he was enshrined in the Basketball Hall of Fame and also named to the NBA’s 50th and 75th Anniversary Teams.

Through no real fault of his own, Bill Walton was prevented from having a truly great playing career, but that didn’t stop him from leaving his mark on the game of basketball and the world he lived in.


Sign up below for the latest news, stories and podcasts from our affiliates

This field is for validation purposes and should be left unchanged.