Photo Credit: Jay Blakesberg

Basketball legend and ardent Deadhead Bill Walton has passed away. A decorated athlete who assisted the UCLA Bruins in winning two national titles before taking home a pair of championships during his career with the Portland Trailblazers and Boston Celtics. Walton’s loyalty to the Grateful Dead and their counterculture community cemented his status as a beloved figure at the group’s live shows. Easy to spot in a crowd, Walton attended his first Dead show in the late ‘60s. He cited the band as some of his greatest teachers on several occasions. Walton was 71.

According to the NBA, which issued the notice, Walton passed away surrounded by loved ones at his Southern California home. The cause of death was noted as a prolonged battle with cancer. NBA commissioner Adam Silver said in a statement, “Bill Walton was truly one of a kind. What I will remember most about him was his zest for life. He was a regular presence at league events – always upbeat, smiling ear to ear and looking to share his wisdom and warmth. I treasured our close friendship, envied his boundless energy and admired the time he took with every person he encountered. As a cherished member of the NBA family for 50 years, Bill will be deeply missed by all those who came to know and love him.”

Born on Nov. 5, 1952, in La Mesa, Calif., Walton decorated his resume with athletic accolades, including the collegiate highmark by leading the UCLA Bruins to NCAA Championships in 1972 and 1973. Walton was rewarded with three consecutive National Player of the Year Awards in 1972, 1973, and 1974. The first overall draft pick in the 1974 NBA draft, he signed with the Portland Trailblazers and helped to elevate the Pacific Northwest basketball team’s NBA prestige and fandom.

Walton assisted in the Blazers’ NBA Championship in 1977, taking the Most Valuable Player award in the finals. His success continued and included a stint with the San Diego/Los Angeles Clippers before later cross coasts to join the Boston Celtics, with whom he took home his second championship title in 1986. Walton retired from the NBA in 1988, pivoting to moderating games and taking on the role of a colorful sportscaster until 2023. Walton was inducted into the NBA Hall of Fame in 1993, solidifying his status as a sports legend. 

Outside of sports, Walton was a devoted and loving fan of the Grateful Dead, attending his first show in 1967 while still in high school and claiming to have taken in over 1,000 concerts featuring the revered San Francisco group. In 1978, Walton followed the band to Egypt for their Giza stand, where he assisted with percussion, adding rhythm and beating the drum beside the ensemble.

The band’s admiration for Walton was always palpable and reciprocated. The Grateful Dead even invited Walton to contribute to LP liner notes and have a voice in their history. Walton was known for quoting the band on air, adding lyrics to televised dialogue, and percolating musical respect and commendation wherever he could fit it in. 

Following Walton’s passing, friends, admirers, and members of the Grateful Dead and their community shared memorials and words of respect. Mickey Hart wrote, “Bill was my best friend, the best friend I ever had. He was an amazing person, singular, irreplaceable, giving, loving. His love for our music was beyond description. He called himself the luckiest man in the world but it was us who were lucky—to know him, to share the adventure with him. He was the biggest Deadhead in the world and used our music as the soundtrack to his life. After our shows, he would regularly send messages that said, ‘thank you for my life.’ Over 1000 shows, he just couldn’t get enough. Bill had an incredible passion for drums. After any meal at his house, we would play. There was nothing like a Bill Walton… nothing.”

Bill Kreutzmann wrote at length, sharing in part, “There are incredible stories about Bill Walton that I promised him I would only tell after he passed away, and it’s not nearly that time yet because before we laugh, first we must allow ourselves to cry. Darn it. This is a mournful day. This is a period of mourning.” 

“Sure, Bill Walton was an NBA legend. But in the Grateful Dead orbit, he was just a fan – and that made him a legend here, too. In many ways, he was our number one fan… but Bill would’ve taken issue with that ranking because, while he won many awards in his storied basketball career — including MVP — Bill insisted that the Grateful Dead was not a competition — and that all Deadheads were equal. By that same notion, as I flash through decades of adventures with him, there isn’t one favorite memory. They all shine through. And they’re all important, because they all brought us both real happiness. And that’s special. That’s friendship.”

Simply and lovingly, Bobby Weir shared, “Yo Bill, thanks for the ride. Thanks for the wonderful friendship, the years of color commentary – and the Hall of Fame existence that you wore like headlights. Bon voyage ol’ buddy. We’re sure gonna miss you – but don’t let that slow you down…”

Oteil Burbridge posted on his official social media: “Not all people who are immensely talented are also heroes. It’s the kind of human you are that makes you a hero. It seemed like Bill Walton’s favorite thing to do was to inspire people to love life as much as he did. Whether it was in the joy of athletic competition or following the Grateful Dead. He made us want to embrace all the challenges that come in life with zeal and passion so we can truly savor our victories.

Dead & Company released its own statement: “Fare you well, fare you well, we love you more than words can tell. Bill was an irreplaceable force and spirit in our family. Father Time, Rhythm Devil, biggest deadhead ever. Over 1000 shows and couldn’t get enough. He loved this band and we loved him.”