Salute to Bill Walton

On Memorial Day, it was announced former NBA and UCLA great Bill Walton passed away at the age of 71 after a long bout with cancer. He was known as a colorful basketball analyst in his later years, but was also a NBA and NCAA champion.

Walton had an injury scare from a hard fall during his senior season versus Washington State at UCLA in 1973-74. True basketball insiders will tell you Walton was never physically the same again, even though he went on to be a Hall of Fame player. The Bruins had a rocky year Walton’s senior season after dominating college basketball the previous two years with The Big Red Head leading the way, going 30-0 in each season. UCLA string of 88 consecutive wins and seven consecutive NCAA titles came to an end that season, but Walton went on to become the No. 1 pick of the 1974 NBA Draft four years after graduating from La Mesa of Helix.

There wasn’t a complex grassroots system or an abundance of travel ball in place in the summer of 1969 or Walton might have blown up as a recruit in similar fashion to the way we later saw future NBA Hall of Famer Tracy McGray in the late 1990s or current L.A. Laker Anthony Davis did in the 2010s. Walton had a good junior season for Helix in 1968-69, averaging 16.7 ppg after getting moved up to the varsity for the 1967-68 playoffs, but Reseda guard Greg Lee was the big name in California at that time and on the cover of the 1969-70 edition of Cal Prep Basketball Magazine. Forward Keith Wilkes of Santa Barbara, who was the 1969 State Player of the Year by Cal-Hi Sports as a junior, also received a good amount of press that kept Walton as a relative unknown outside San Diego County.

NBA, NCAA all-time great Bill Walton still holds the California state high school record for most rebounds in one season. Photo: Cal-Hi Sports archives.

That all changed early in Walton’s senior year when Helix went to challenge some of Southern California’s best teams in the Covina Tournament of Champions. Against a very good Pasadena team in the title game, Walton had tournament single-game records of 50 points and 34 rebounds in a 110-68 rout. Walton made 18-of-24 shots from the field, 14-of-16 free throws and added nine blocked shots. Nobody in attendance could believe how good the tall kid from San Diego was. One of the coaches in attendance was UCLA assistant Denny Crum, John Wooden’s chief recruiter who later led Louisville to two NCAA titles. What transpired was one of the most famous conversations in grassroots basketball history.

“I just saw the greatest high school player I’ve ever seen,” Crum told Wooden.

“Better than Lewis (Alcindor)?” Wooden asked.

“Yeah,” Crum said.

“Keep your voice down and close the door,” Wooden snickered.

Crum’s evaluation turned out to be not far from the truth, as Walton had a senior season for the ages. He averaged 29 points, grabbed 825 rebounds (still a state record), good for a 25.0 average, as Helix finished 33-0 and extended its winning streak to 49 consecutive games with Walton in the lineup. Tom McMillen of Mansfield (Pa.) garnered most of the national headlines and was the Sports Illustrated cover boy as a high school player, but it wasn’t a secret among college coaches that Walton was the real deal and probably the better player. He went on to immortality at UCLA, leading the Bruins to two NCAA titles before going on to win NBA Championships with Portland in 1977 and Boston in 1986.

Walton is still the only high school player ever to make a USA Basketball Senior Men’s Basketball Team. At 17 years old, he was invited by coach Hal Fischer to tryouts for team USA competing in the 1970 FIBA World Championships in Yugoslavia. Walton easily made the team, and by all accounts, was one of its most talented players. The laid-back Walton didn’t take to Fischer’s militant coaching style and he didn’t end up playing much for a team that lost its final three games and did not medal. Walton later pointed to the 1970 World Championships experience as making his decision to skip the 1972 Olympic tryouts that much easier.

Walton played with Lee and Wilkes at UCLA and it wasn’t Walton’s injury scare (he broke two bones in his back and reportedly spent 11 days in the hospital because of the Washington State incident) that hurt the Bruins the most in the 1974 NCAA tourney as much as Wooden’s phasing out of Lee in UCLA’s offensive game plan did. Lee passed in September of 2022.

Walton had major injury setbacks as a pro, but was healthy enough to lead the Portland Trailblazers to a sweep of the Los Angeles Lakers and UCLA contemporary Kareem Abdul-Jabbar in the 1977 NBA Western Conference Finals and to a stunning championship round victory over the Philadelphia 76ers after trialing Dr. J and company two games to zero. Who knows what would have transpired in Portland had Walton been healthy. The 1977-78 Blazers were 50-9 and looked like solid bets to repeat as NBA champs when Walton went down with another bothersome foot injury. He still was named 1978 NBA MVP but after that, Walton played 14 games in the next four years as be battled his injuries and had multiple foot surgeries.

He was able to have one more taste of basketball greatness, as he recovered at age 33 to be the 1985-86 NBA Sixth Man of the Year on a Boston Celtics team that won the NBA title and went 40-1 at home. Walton played 80 games that season, by far the most he ever played in a professional season.

It’s ironic that Walton passed mere hours after the Pac-12 Network aired its last live broadcast. Walton was always an advocate for the “Conference of Champions”, which no longer has 12 teams because of big money college realignment.

Walton’s older brother Bruce played basketball with him at Helix and went on UCLA to play football and later played in the Super Bowl for the Dallas Cowboys. His sister Cathy was also a collegiate athlete.

Walton is survived by his wife of 33 years, Lori, and his four sons, Adam, Nathan, Luke and Chris. All four of his sons were respected high school athletes who played college basketball with Adam at LSU, Nathan at Princeton, Luke at Arizona, and Chris at San Diego State. Luke went on to become a NBA World Champion with the L.A. Lakers and also their head coach.

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One Comment

  1. Posted June 5, 2024 at 3:43 pm | Permalink

    Helix beat Long Beach Millikan something like 71-44 in the Covina semifinals. Millikan, 28-3, won the Southern Section championship that season. Helix likely would have been only the second San Diego team to win a CIF Southern major championship, if San Diego schools still were in that group. San Diego High, 15-1 in 1935-36, beat Bonita, 47-35 in the finals. Check out my game-by-game account of Helix’ 1969-70season in

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