Goodbye, Bill Walton


Bill Walton is my favorite athlete I never saw play. He passed away yesterday.

In the summer of 2007, I read David Halberstam's classic book, Breaks of the Game, which is about the Portland Trailblazers of the Late 1970s who briefly shot to the top of the NBA world before falling back down to mediocrity.

Breaks of the Game is as close to a perfect book as I've ever read. The focus for the story is Bill Walton's foot, which breaks in the 1977-78 playoffs with his Portland Trailblazers set to win a second straight NBA title. This bad break cuts short a championship run, a budding dynasty, and according to Halberstam, the perfect basketball team with Walton the perfect basketball star.

With this as his lens, Halberstam tells the story of how basketball and American culture are changing, becoming more financially driven, and in the process something is being lost. If you have even a passing interest in basketball, you should read it.

I met Bill Walton through this book, but I fell in love with him when he came on to the Bill Simmons podcast. [1]

Simmons wanted to have a fairly conventional conversation about the 2007 NBA season. [0] But Walton wanted to use basketball as a metaphor for life, specifically how to create a meaningful life, especially for young people, through preparation, judgement, and irrepressible joy. He had a sense of the interplay between individual talent and team chemistry that I love most about the basketball and articulated in a way no one else can.

Over the years, I've probably re-listened to that conversation 15 times to try and capture a little bit of his approach to life. [2]

As I've gotten older, the list of athletes I want to meet has dwindled. I still appreciate the skill, but cringe at the awkwardness of approaching another grown man... to talk about what exactly? I'd rather leave them to practice their craft and enjoy their time with their families.

Bill Walton remained the exception. When I moved to San Diego in 2021, I would go on runs past his house in hopes that he might be out checking the mail and I might get a chance to thank him. For what exactly? Having a great basketball career? A wonderful approach to life? I'm not exactly sure, but I know he mattered to me. Of course, I flattered myself that he'd recognize in me a kindred spirit and a friendship would be born. It wasn't to be. With his passing, it never will be.

It's an odd thing to care this much about someone who you never saw play. If anything, it's a reminder that how we live matters and can echo out into the world to the people around us, even people who've never met us and never saw us do the thing that we were best at.

Thank you, Bill Walton, for sharing your gifts with me.

[0]: Such a great time to be an NBA fan.

[1]: At the end of the podcast, Simmons brings up Breaks of the Game and it's so painful for Walton that he has to end the show.

[2]: I also printed out a copy of John Wooden's Pyramid of Success and bought a handful of old Sports Illustrated with Walton on the cover.