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Basketball legend Bill Walton dies at 71 after fight with cancer

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

Basketball legend Bill Walton, one of the sport's most colorful personalities, has died. The NBA announced today that the 71-year-old had a prolonged fight with cancer. Walton was known as one of the best big men to play the game, winning two national championships with UCLA and two NBA titles with Portland and Boston. Walton later shifted to broadcasting, where he became known for wearing tie dye T-shirts courtside, also his love for the band the Grateful Dead. NPR's Scott Simon talked with Walton back in 2016 about the physical price he paid to play the game he loved.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

BILL WALTON: Academics and athletics have always been the easiest part of my life. My challenges in a life that has been defined by meteoric rises and climbs to the top, the top of the highest mountains, and then these catastrophic health crises that would just take me down. I was born with structural, congenital defects in my feet. I tore up my knee for the first time when I was 14.

And then when I was 21, Scott, I was playing for UCLA. And I was high above the basket, making a play on the ball. We hadn't lost a game in five years. And a guy on the other team, in a despicable act of violence and dirty play, he comes across the court and takes my legs out from underneath me and flips me over, and I land flat on my back. I broke my spine that day. And I lived with these orthopedic challenges and problems and pain and limitations.

SCOTT SIMON: I opened your book, "Back From The Dead," thinking that was a reference to the Grateful Dead - and so it may be. But I closed the book thinking "Back From The Dead" really talks about your spinal problems and the health challenges you've had.

WALTON: So I've lived with these forever. And then with the lifestyle that I had of being super tall, being on the road 200 nights a year, which basically means 280 to 300 days a year, and living in a world built for preschool children where you can't stand up anywhere, you can't sit in the furniture, you can't use any of the normal chairs, desk cars, airplanes, you name it - none of it fits.

And so here I was on that road, chasing the dream, trying to be part of something special. And then in February of 2008, my spine finally collapsed. I was flying 600,000 miles a year, every year. And I got off the plane one day at home, intending to go, and I could no longer move. And everything fell apart. And I spent the next years along - this is the longest stretch of my life.

SIMON: You couldn't get off the floor, essentially.

WALTON: I couldn't move. I couldn't think. I couldn't eat. I couldn't drink. I couldn't sleep. I couldn't do anything. And then I had my spine surgery - seven years, six weeks and four days ago. And now I am back from the dead. And I am back to life. And so I live by these constant songs that are playing through my mind and my heart and my spirit and my soul all the time.

And the things that come to mind right now - I'm going to just throw out four different lyrics from the Grateful Dead. When you get confused, listen to the music play. We used to play for silver, now we play for life. Once in a while, you get shown the light in the strangest of places if you look at it right. It all rolls into one, but nothing comes for free.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "STELLA BLUE")

THE GRATEFUL DEAD: (Singing) It all rolls into one.

KELLY: That was Basketball Hall of Famer and broadcaster Bill Walton in conversation with my colleague Scott Simon back in 2016. Bill Walton died today at the age of 71. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Gus Contreras
[Copyright 2024 NPR]
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