Celebrating Bill Walton: A Giant for Justice

Bill Walton loved the whole world, talking basketball, the Grateful Dead, and really good weed.
Walton
Courtesy NBA

Bill Walton’s widespread impact on so many people in so many corners of life was evidenced by the universal outpouring of despondent grief and fond remembrance after the legendary college and pro center, innovative live sports broadcaster and emblematic Deadhead, truly one of the most unique Americans to have ever lived, sadly succumbed to colon cancer on May 27 at age 71. 

Bill was renowned for a myriad of accomplishments, but perhaps most impressive of all was his progressive stance against perceived social injustices, including America’s greatest military folly, the Vietnam War. Bill was arrested during a 1972 war protest on the campus of UCLA, the prestigious public college where Walton happened to be the nation’s finest basketball player for the dynastic Bruins hoops squad. 

In an ESPN Classic Sports Century documentary, Walton admitted, “One of the saddest days for Coach Wooden was the day he had to bail me out of jail after I got arrested in an anti-Vietnam (War) protest.”  

UCLA Coach John Wooden was the highly successful–but extremely conservative–”Wizard of Westwood” who guided the Bruins to ten NCAA championships (two of which were won with Walton). 

As Bill recalled, his coach acknowledged Walton’s political conviction in his response: “(Wooden) said to me, “Bill, I know you feel very strongly about this, but I just don’t think you getting arrested and taking part in this demonstration is what it’s all about.”

Walton shifted from protesting to writing a letter to then-U.S. President Richard Nixon, demanding Nixon resign from office! (Nixon did actually resign in 1974, in the wake of the Watergate scandal).  

Walton’s participation in the protest that resulted in his arrest was even more impressively selfless when you consider he himself was at no risk of being drafted, as due to his immense size at 6-foot-11-inches, the military would have been unable to provide him with a custom uniform, boots, etc 

Thus, Walton’s actions were purely altruistic, and even potentially putting his pro career at jeopardy, though his supreme talent ensured he was still chosen by the Portland Trail Blazers as the #1 overall pick in the 1974 NBA Draft.  

Walton, who could pass the basketball as well as he could score it, led Portland to their only NBA title in 1977, and then he was named league MVP the following year. Severe foot and ankle injuries derailed Bill’s career until he made a storied comeback as “Sixth Man of the Year” (best player coming off the bench) and won another title with the NBA team many regard as the greatest ever, the 1986 Boston Celtics. On the day Bill died, the 2024 Celtics clinched yet another trip to the NBA Finals by beating Indiana, and their victory in the Eastern Conference Finals was dedicated to Bill Walton. 

For an added perspective on Bill’s life and legacy, we spoke with Grateful Dead historian David Gans, a recording and touring musician in his own right, as well as co-host of Tales From The Golden Road radio show on the Grateful Dead Channel on SiriusXM. 

Most people first saw Bill Walton on a basketball court, but for David Gans, it was appropriately enough at a Grateful Dead show, one which coincidentally took place 50 years ago last month: 

“I went to see the Dead at UC-Santa Barbara (on May 25, 1974). And we were sitting in the bleachers, and I remember my friends pointing to this giant red-haired dude walking around on the field. They told me he was a huge star for UCLA and that he was a Deadhead and that his name was Bill Walton. 

“It was remarkable, this giant college basketball star walking among us Deadheads. I didn’t know anything about basketball, so it was the first time I’d ever heard of him…but God knows it wasn’t the last.

“Being a radio host, I’ve interviewed BIll on several occasions over the years.  He and I had a sort of a low-key competition; every time I saw him: I’d say, ‘No, Bill, I’m the luckiest guy in the world.’ (Walton publicly referred to himself as “the luckiest guy in the world”). We agreed to disagree on that one.” 

Of course, this wouldn’t be a proper High Times profile without touching upon Bill Walton’s use and public praise of cannabis. While at UCLA, Walton had to be more discreet about his ganja consumption, although it’s been reported that Coach Wooden was acutely aware of his star center’s weed smoking, but realized there was little he could do to restrict Bill’s off-court activity. During his pro years winning awards and titles, Walton as well as his fellow UCLA center turned NBA superstar Kareem Abdul-Jabbar of the L.A. Lakers were both known to be prolific potheads. 

Walton overcame his public speaking difficulties (he was a stutterer) as well as debilitating injuries to become a professional broadcaster who brought a combination of insight and enthusiasm rarely seen behind the microphone.  In addition, he often quoted Grateful Dead song lyrics, incorporating them in his on-air analysis. 

And despite being employed by a confining corporate entity like ESPN, Walton was not intimidated to express his views, such as during a Feb 4, 2015 college hoops game between Oregon and Washington on ESPN2, when Walton made a conceptual connection that no other sports broadcaster in history ever even contemplated, when he declared: 

“You know how I talk every week, (and) complain about the NCAA not modernizing the rules?  There’s another rule they’ve got to modernize. This whole ‘war on drugs’ has been an absolute failure across the board. We’re looking for (then-President) Obama to step up and say, Why are we punishing people for things that are legal? Why are people languishing in jail for things that are legal?” 

This was followed by the classic moment in 2017 on the show ESPN Voices, when abruptly coming out of commercial, viewers were suddenly greeted by Walton dressed as the tallest Uncle Sam you’ll ever see, stating point-blank to his co-hosts (and by extension, everyone who was watching) that, “Marijuana should not be a Schedule I Drug, And all the people who’ve been in trouble for it for all these years, (President) Obama (should grant them) blanket amnesty, and just move on to the future.”

Beyond his progressive activism, Bill’s greatest heritage may be his unification of the often divisive hemispheres of drug-friendly counterculture and straight-laced sports.  When queried about that notion, David Gans quoted an interview he conducted with Bill from approximately 30 years ago: 

“Bill said, ‘The best thing anyone told me as a basketball player was that I made my fellow basketball players good.’ Bill and Jerry Garcia have many, many things in common, and Bill often compared his (basketball playing skills on a team) with Jerry’s (guitar skills in a band) in the sense of both being in a group doing collective improvisation. 

“It’s about recognizing that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. And that you can be a very effective player by directing attention away from yourself and making the other guys look good, as Bill said. 

“And Jerry did the same thing; he knew all the eyes were on him, so he did what he could to direct attention elsewhere. He didn’t need the attention, so had the luxury and the gift of sharing the spotlight with (the other Dead members) around him and making them look good too.

“Bill learned from the Grateful Dead, and showed us that basketball and Dead-style music are similar in the sense of being improvisations within a structure, in which that sense of team consciousness transcends and is more important than any individual consciousness. 

“That’s what the Grateful Dead taught Bill, and that’s what he in turn taught us about the connection between sports and music.”

On a personal note, this author actually met Bill Walton in December 2003 before a concert by the post-Garcia iteration of the band then known as “The Dead”. This was outside of Oakland Arena in the “Shakedown” parking lot scene where fans do pre-show partying and acquire substances for getting even higher and tripping during the actual concert.  Bill was the tallest person I ever stood before, but he was kind to me as we briefly discussed Celtics legendary power forward (and Walton’s former teammate) Kevin McHale. McHale was one of the Celtics teammates who famously attended a Grateful Dead concert with Bill in Worcester, Massachusetts in November, 1985, Bill’s first season in Boston.  

David Gans added his own final reflection: “The one thing I would want mentioned is that whenever I ran into Bill, he knew who I was and he was always effusive in his praise for me and (radio co-host) Gary Lambert. He really went out of his way to make people feel welcome and accommodated and appreciated. 

“His positive energy was genuine as a giant, supportive Deadhead. I just had the sense that Bill Walton was the real deal. He really was that thoroughly decent and joyous human being that he presented himself to be.”

It was wonderfully appropriate that Bill lived long enough to see a major development in the struggle for pot legalization when the Dept of Justice announced this past May 16 its intention to reschedule cannabis from Schedule I to Schedule III under the Controlled Substances Act. This means that the USA can move a step closer, as Bill had so openly wished, towards no longer punishing people for using a plant that has done so much good for so many, including Bill Walton himself. 

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