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Swanson: Bill Walton was the best friend and a unique talent

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Bill Walton, one of one.

Though the world would be better, wouldn’t it, if everyone had a little more of what made him so singularly special?

Humanity and enthusiasm. Joy and appreciation. Love and humor.

I loved – loved – listening to Walton’s informed irreverence on a basketball broadcast, but I wasn’t lucky enough to know him or to have watched the 6-foot-11 center lead UCLA to the 1972 and ’73 national titles and NBA championships with the Portland Trail Blazers in 1977 and Boston Celtics in 1986.

So after we learned the news Monday that Walton died at 71 following a prolonged, quiet battle with cancer, I checked in with some talented men who did know him.

He was, of course, one of our most gifted basketball players and one of our most brilliant orators. He was also a generous, thoughtful guy, best of friends for so many, and adored widely by the likes of Ralph Lawler, Mike Fratello and Tom Hoffarth.

Lawler, the Hall of Fame broadcaster who spent 13 “happy, wacky, fun-filled seasons” calling Clippers games with Walton, said he spent some of Monday morning listening to old voicemails Walton left him until he couldn’t bear it anymore.

“I cannot believe that I don’t have Bill Walton to lean on anymore,” Lawler said. “He was always there, and somehow now he’s not and it doesn’t seem possible.”

In his enjoyable book, “Bingo,” Lawler dedicated two chapters to the impact that Walton had on his life. “The Big Redhead (Part One)” and “The Big Redhead (Part Two),” because he needed two to explain how much of a game-changer Walton was, off the court and on.

Walton’s legend had grown so substantially already in high school that Lawler drove from Riverside, where he was working in radio, to Helix High near San Diego to see the big man play. “And Bill was extraordinary,” Lawler recalled. “Very tall, very skinny and very, very gifted. He saw the court like no other player, guard or center.”

After that, Lawler kept up with Walton’s UCLA career. And once he went No. 1 in the 1974 NBA Draft, Lawler attended what was a league-mandated news conference before Walton’s Blazers tipped off for the first time in Philadelphia, where the broadcaster’s radio career had taken him.

“I’m Bill, and I’m ready to celebrate the greatness of [@Ohmeomy]’s life…”

Take it away, @BillWalton. #ThankYouRalph

— LA Clippers (@LAClippers) April 11, 2019

That meet and greet with Philadelphia media went so poorly – Lawler would learn that Walton’s stutter made him uncomfortable at that point – the two friends laughed about it in 2019, when Walton joined Lawler on the call for his final regular-season Clipper game of a 40-season tenure.

“I dazzled him with a press conference in Philadelphia,” Walton joked. “And he said, ‘This man is destined for greatness as a public speaker!’”

He might not have thought it then, but in 1990, when when Lawler and Walton serendipitously crossed paths at a 7-Eleven at Pacific Beach in San Diego, he sure did.

Because Walton was injured soon after he’d signed with the then-San Diego Clippers as a free agent in 1979, the team asked that he and Lawler do a weekly program on KSDO radio, what Lawler described as a “one-hour gabfest.”

Lawler moderated – and then painstakingly edited the programs to remove any hint of a stutter that Walton would work hard to overcome – as the NBA superstar talked with friends and fellow players and offered social commentary that was decidedly less popular with some listeners than others.

That was part of what helped cement a friendship that would change both of their lives when Lawler ran into Walton at the convenience store and brought up an idea that the player insisted he wouldn’t have considered: Broadcasting.

“It was a harmonic convergence of the highest order,” Walton told us in 2019. “I was not doing well; I had been in the hospital for the previous four years with an endless string of operations and broken feet and everything and they ultimately had to fuse everything, bolt it all together, and I had no idea what I was gonna do.

“And I had never, ever given broadcasting a thought. I’m 6-11, I have red hair, big nose, freckles, a goofy, nerdy-looking face, I’m a stutterer, I can’t talk and I’m a Dead Head. … I thought there was a problem with that and I had never given broadcasting one thought. Not a second thought, I had never given it one thought.”

On behalf of basketball fans everywhere, thank you, Ralph, for suggesting it.

Walton did more than alter Lawler’s exceptional career – “He taught me,” Lawler said, “it’s a game, let’s have some fun, this ain’t life or death…” – it enhanced the game for millions of others, including most recently, those tuning into the final season of Pac-12 action.

Hoffarth, a longtime sports media specialist who also got to know Walton, explained what made the basketball savant a must-listen college basketball analyst – whether or not you liked his unique style.

“(It) came from his college-educated understanding that the goal of the telecast was to inform and entertain,” Hoffarth wrote in an email. “Or entertain and inform if the game was going south. To him, that meant over-preparing for both ends.

“Even if it may have created a love-loathe relationship with the viewer and listener, and especially the UCLA alums who weren’t sure whether to laugh with him, or at him, or have his diploma rescinded. I was particularly fond of him because he got me to watch something I otherwise wouldn’t care about. And I knew that he knew he was making a lot of people go berserk over what he was saying. But it created buzz.

“And a college basketball atmosphere was perfect for him, like Dick Vitale, to be a mascot for the Pac-12, the Conference of Champions. The irony is as the Pac-12 disappears, so does Walton, arm in arm. Two champions together.”

Fratello – the former NBA coach and established broadcaster who now calls games for the Clippers and Cleveland Cavaliers – became good friends with Walton as he was teaming up with Lawler. It was, Fratello said, “an incredible honor.”

Fratello had admired UCLA’s greatness during Walton’s time there as he had the New York Yankees when he was growing up in Northern New Jersey. And when he got to know him personally, he admired Walton, the ever-upbeat basketball historian and great dude.

“He could talk to you about anything you’d want to talk about,” Fratello said. “You’d bring it up and Bill was going to have an opinion about it and try to change your opinion about it if you didn’t agree with his opinion.

“I don’t think I ever saw him where he became impatient with people who wanted to take a picture of have an autograph or just say hello,” Fratello added. “He just had time. He made the time.”

That included for friends like Lawler. Walton and his wife, Lori, were the first to visit after Lawler underwent prostate cancer surgery in 2007.

A few years before that, Walton brought Lawler and his wife, Jo, on an 18-day, whitewater rafting trip, all expenses paid, inviting them to be join an eclectic contingent that included a mail carrier, a massage therapist and a member of the Grateful Dead. “Jo and I remarked recently,” Lawler said, “that was the greatest experience of our lives.”

“The thing about Bill is that he would tell me I was the best friend he ever had,” Lawler said. “And he was absolutely my best friend in this long life. But I know there are 100 other people at least who have the same feelings for Bill, that he was their best friend ever. And there’s nothing phony about it.

“Because when Bill was with you, he was really with you; he created bonds that were impossible to break.”

One of one, blessing the lives of a good many.

Jo and I are shaken to our roots over the passing of dear friend Bill Walton. I never knew a better, more generous man. Our thoughts are with Lori and the Walton sons. RIP Bill.

— Ralph Lawler (@Ohmeomy) May 27, 2024

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