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Bill Walton leaves legacy far larger than basketball

USA TODAY
                                San Diego Padres observe a moment of silence for San Diego icon Bill Walton before a game against the Miami Marlins at Petco Park today.
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USA TODAY

San Diego Padres observe a moment of silence for San Diego icon Bill Walton before a game against the Miami Marlins at Petco Park today.

SAN DIEGO >> In 1970, a Sports Illustrated cover featured a photo of a spindly high schooler named Tom McMillen. He was shown leaping with both arms stretched toward the heavens and a basketball between his hands. The headline read: THE BEST HIGH SCHOOL PLAYER IN AMERICA.

John Wooden, the amiable and distinguished coach whose UCLA program was in the middle of a seven-year run as national champions, shook his head when he saw the cover. He was so disappointed in it that he sent a handwritten note to the magazine telling its editors they got it wrong.

“The best high school player is out here in La Mesa, California,” he said.

Wooden was referring to Bill Walton, a versatile 6-foot-11 center who could dominate on both ends of the court. Walton may have played in a small town outside San Diego, but his talents had no boundaries. Longtime San Diego sportswriter Bill Center was among the first to report on Walton, who was a sophomore in high school at the time.

“He was restricted to playing only half a game because of his knees, but you could tell what great ability he had,” Center says. “During his junior and senior seasons, he played the entire game and no one could stop him. He could have averaged 50 points a game but he didn’t want to. He wanted to get the ball off the boards, throw it out to their guards and let them run out and score. After games, he loved to look at how many assists he had. He’d look at that before he looked at points and rebounds.”

On Monday, Walton died at age 71 after a prolonged fight against cancer. What struck me most amid the tsunami of tributes was how few of them focused on basketball, which is notable considering he won two national championships and three national player of the year honors at UCLA, was drafted No. 1 overall by the Portland Trail Blazers, claimed one title with them and another with Boston, and earned a league MVP, a Finals MVP and a Sixth Man of the Year award before being inducted into the Naismith Hall of Fame.

It is a resume worthy of distinction, but most of the tributes focused on how his effervescent spirit touched people and made them smile; on how Walton lived life in a way that many of us dream about but rarely achieve — to the fullest, wringing every drop of joy from it while remaining true to our authentic self. Walton may have loved basketball, but he cherished life and lifting others.

“His parents were very, very liberal, and they were always concerned about people who had less,” says Center, who once dined at the Walton home when Bill was in high school. “I know they stressed that to their kids, how important it is in their lives to have a community value and be concerned with the people around you and not just yourselves.”

Walton’s passing may have hit the basketball world hard, but its impact was profound in San Diego County, where he grew up and lived when his 14-season career ended. San Diego has always been fertile ground for elite athletes, producing the likes of Billy Casper, Phil Mickelson, Gail Devers, Jimmie Johnson, Marcus Allen, Terrell Davis, John Lynch, Reggie Bush, Rashaan Salaam and so many others. But the reverence for Walton was different, dare I say deeper.

It’s hard to put into words, other than to say Junior Seau, who was born in nearby Oceanside, and Tony Gwynn, a Los Angeles native who was adopted by locals after playing at San Diego State and spending 20 seasons with the San Diego Padres, are the only other “locals” held in such high esteem. They were never viewed as being above the community, despite their Hall of Fame careers. Rather, they were considered a part of the community, if that makes sense. And now the last of them is gone, 12 years after Seau took his own life, and 10 years after Gwynn passed away from cancer.

We will never see Walton riding his bike through Balboa Park again or hear one of his on-air basketball monologues that made sense to no one but himself. But that was the thing about Walton. He was going to do things his way regardless of how anyone felt about it. He was going to speak his mind on topics that were silly or serious. He was not the first, and he won’t be the last, but he was still an original, someone committed to making a difference off the court as well as on it.

He was a nonconformist in the most positive of ways, always seeking to make the world better for others. At UCLA, he was arrested while protesting against the Vietnam War; and in the NBA, he spoke out for racial and social justice when many other Whites were silent. Even when Wooden or NBA officials sought to have him be less in-your-face with his beliefs, he remained true to himself and his upbringing.

There are websites dedicated to famous Walton quotes, which is amazing considering the first half of his life was spent in limited silence because of a severe stuttering problem that was overcome in his 30s. One quote that resonates most, as far as how he tried to live his life, was this: “Love is the single most powerful and important word and notion in culture and language. Until the power of love supersedes the love of power, we have no chance of ever being successful.”

Following Walton’s death, a Portland TV station quoted longtime area sports columnist John Canzano as saying: “We may remember him as a broadcaster or a basketball player, but I think I’ll remember him more as just a human and somebody who cared about other people. During the pandemic, he called into my radio show because he felt he needed to give a pep talk to people, and it’s just a fantastic bit of evidence that Bill Walton was a good person trying to make the world better.”

My guess is Walton would consider that the perfect eulogy. I know I will always remember him more for what he did off the court than on it. For the man he was, not the player he was. Basketball may have been what he did, but it wasn’t who he was, as so many tributes have rightfully attested.

This article originally appeared in The Athletic.

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