Bill Walton, 1952-2024: So I hated the guy, and then I met him

FILE - Basketball Hall of Fame legend Bill Walton laughs during a practice session for the NBA All-Star basketball game in Cleveland, Feb. 19, 2022. Walton, who starred for John Wooden's UCLA Bruins before becoming a Basketball Hall of Famer and one of the biggest stars of basketball broadcasting, died Monday, May 27, 2024, the league announced on behalf of his family. He was 71. (AP Photo/Charles Krupa, File)

Credit: AP

Credit: AP

FILE - Basketball Hall of Fame legend Bill Walton laughs during a practice session for the NBA All-Star basketball game in Cleveland, Feb. 19, 2022. Walton, who starred for John Wooden's UCLA Bruins before becoming a Basketball Hall of Famer and one of the biggest stars of basketball broadcasting, died Monday, May 27, 2024, the league announced on behalf of his family. He was 71. (AP Photo/Charles Krupa, File)

Never meet your idols. That’s what some folks say, though I’m not one. I met Jack Ham, the peerless Steeler linebacker, and he put up with an hour’s worth of my babbling. I met the guys in R.E.M., and I swear I didn’t rig the 1999 Bracket Fiasco just so Mike Mills could win.

My experience has been that you shouldn’t meet the guys you pulled against — because you might come away feeling confused. Don Sutton was one, having handled the Reds when no pitcher handled the Reds. But the first thing he said to me after joining the Braves broadcast crew was, “You do a nice job.” And I thought, “I harbored unkind sentiments about this discerning reader? Shame on me.”

I never rooted against anybody more than I rooted against Bill Walton. I liked every UCLA team until he arrived, but Walton I could not abide. He was just too good, and he seemed — unlike Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, the essence of stoicism — to revel in being good.

Walton’s first UCLA teams didn’t lose. His senior year began with a narrow victory over Lefty Driesell’s Maryland. I tacked the Sports Illustrated cover of Len Elmore guarding Walton on my dorm wall, buoyed by the hope that somebody might get him this time around. In the 1974 Final Four, David Thompson and N.C. State did, if only just. I didn’t cry happy tears, but I came close.

Flash forward to 1977. The NBA finals matched a wild team I loved — the 76ers of Dr. J, Big George McGinnis, World B. Free and Darryl Dawkins — against Guess Who’s crew. Walton’s Trail Blazers lost the first two games. Then they destroyed Philly. Fans of classic basketball rejoiced. I found one more reason to revile the Big Redhead.

Time passed, as time does. Many years later, my younger daughter informed me she — then a collegian herself — had taken to staying up late just to hear Walton do commentary on Pac-12 games. She added Walton’s book to her Christmas list. Santa accommodated. She told me if I ever ran into him that I should ask him to officiate her wedding. “He does that sort of thing,” she informed me.

Glendale, Arizona. Final Four 2017. I’m talking with Reggie Theus — a Hawk of one eventful season — on press row. Walton walks by. He and Theus exchange pleasantries. I say to Theus, “Introduce us.” He does. I tell Walton, by way of full disclosure, that I spent three winters rooting like mad against his UCLA.

“Oh, everybody did,” he said. “And we LOOOOVED it.”

What can I say? We talked. It was the highlight of my calendar year. I told him I considered him the second-best college player ever, behind Abdul-Jabbar. I thought he might say, “Whaddaya mean, second-best?” Instead he said, “You’re too kind.”

Mostly kidding, I asked about weddings. He said, “You know, I do that sort of thing.” (So I’d been told.)

We parted, though we spent Saturday and Monday not far apart. He and his wife sat between press rows 1 and 2, just behind the Westwood One radio crew and smack in front of me. I spent that Final Four peeking around the Big Redhead’s graying head, he being really tall.

And I didn’t mind. Heck, I kind of LOOOOVED it.

;

In San Antonio the next April, we were seated similarly. We talked again, old pals now. Nicest guy in the world, that Bill Walton.

He died Monday of cancer. He was 71. My now-married daughter — though not by Rev. Walton; we didn’t ask — texted the news. (She sees everything first.) I was sad for a minute. Then I was glad I’d gotten to speak with him, albeit briefly, and could cease holding him up as the bane of my basketball fandom.

I’m not sure how much I’ve learned in life, but this I know: As much as sports can drive us apart, they can also make us see that, no matter who you play or root for, the people on the other side really aren’t on the other side. They’re just people, too. I thank Bill Walton for helping me see the light.