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Bill Walton’s long, special relationship with the Grateful Dead

                                Pac-12 Network’s men’s basketball commentator Bill Walton watches the game between the California Golden Bears and the USC Trojans on Feb. 7.
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Pac-12 Network’s men’s basketball commentator Bill Walton watches the game between the California Golden Bears and the USC Trojans on Feb. 7.

Bill Walton played 604 basketball games in college and the NBA over the course of his Hall of Fame career. But Walton, who died Monday from cancer at 71, wrote in a 2016 autobiography that he had attended more than 869 concerts by his most beloved musical act, the Grateful Dead.

“He loved the Grateful Dead I believe as much as we in the Grateful Dead have loved the Grateful Dead,” Mickey Hart, one of the band’s two drummers and a good friend of Walton’s, said in an interview.

“It wasn’t like he was a fan,” added Hart, who is performing a residency with a successor act, Dead & Company, at the Sphere in Las Vegas. “He was part of our family.”

Walton grew up in San Diego and first became famous for his basketball skills at UCLA, where he won two national titles under legendary coach John Wooden. Over a professional career attenuated by injuries, he earned a Most Valuable Player Award and championship titles with the Portland Trail Blazers and the Boston Celtics.

He stayed famous, including as a prolific television commentator, thanks to a winningly oddball style and crunchy interests, like cycling and left-leaning politics. And his personality seemed perfectly suited for — and summarized by — his lifelong love of his fellow California institution, the Grateful Dead.

In his autobiography, “Back From the Dead,” Walton proclaimed himself a “proud Dead Head” and described Dead concerts — unique and improvisational — as “a gathering of the tribe in celebration,” adding, “It’s what I live for.” (Most of his book’s chapter titles and epigraphs are Dead lyrics, including “Shadowboxing the Apocalypse,” “Feel Like a Stranger” and “Once in a While You Get Shown the Light, in the Strangest of Places If You Look at It Right.”)

“If you asked him about his relationship with the Dead, it would be this flow of admiration, feeling that he was in touch with something larger than just himself,” Dennis McNally, the band’s biographer and former spokesperson, said in an interview. “Which has to be pretty big, to be bigger than Bill.”

Walton attended his first Dead show in 1971, before starting at UCLA. At a 1976 concert in Portland, Oregon, the band and its crew spotted Walton — a center who was listed as 6-foot-11 — standing near the front of the house, and invited him to sit onstage rather than block so many sightlines. At a break in the set, he went up and befriended the band.

In subsequent years, Walton traveled with the Dead when the band performed at the pyramids in Egypt, drummed onstage with Hart and fellow percussionist Bill Kreutzmann, and appeared at a Dead & Company concert as Father Time as the clock struck midnight on New Year’s Eve in 2019. (Walton was also a fan of other musicians, including Bob Dylan, Neil Young and Phish.)

After Walton joined the Celtics before the 1985-86 season, Larry Bird, the Celtics star, organized a team outing to a Dead show in Worcester, Massachusetts, as part of welcoming the new guy. Years later, Walton was inducted into the Grateful Dead Hall of Honor — “my highest honor,” he told Relix Magazine.

“He knew the music inside-out,” said Hart, who remembered that Walton’s favorite Dead song was “Fire on the Mountain.”

Walton also seemed to perceive other pursuits in terms of the Dead — above all, playing basketball.

“The music and the basketball were the exact same thing,” he wrote. “You have a team with a goal, and a band with a song, and fans cheering because they’re happy, but also to make the players perform better, faster, and to take everybody further.”

He continued: “During the game, during the song, everybody goes off, each in their own direction, playing their own tune. But then with the greatness of a team, the greatness of a leader, and the willingness to play to a higher calling, they’re all able to come back and finish the job together — to win the game and send the people out into the night ecstatic, clamoring for more.”

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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