How the Grateful Dead inspired Bill Walton and shaped his life's perspective

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Bill Walton was a proud Deadhead.

The basketball great, who died Monday at age 71 following a prolonged cancer battle, was famously a huge fan of the Grateful Dead (and a tie-dye aficionado). A fixture at the band’s shows — he was hard to miss at nearly 7 feet — Walton reportedly had attended more than 850 shows since 1967, including when the Dead played in front of the Great Pyramids in Egypt in 1978. As a broadcaster for ESPN, Walton often inserted references to the band in his color commentary during games.

“I became the basketball player that I was because of the Grateful Dead,” said Walton in a 2016 interview with Salon. “I am the human being that I am today because of the Grateful Dead. They’re right there at the top of my teachers. Their inspiration moved me brightly.”

More than just a fan, the UCLA basketball legend, who helped lead the team to back-to-back NCAA championships (and undefeated seasons) during coach John Wooden’s tenure in the 1970s, developed a friendship with the Grateful Dead over the years. The band often would stay at Walton’s house when they were in San Diego, and the Hall of Famer attended band member Jerry Garcia’s private funeral. Not only that, his home resembled a Grateful Dead museum, with photos and memorabilia lining the walls. Walton even peppered his 2016 memoir, “Back From the Dead,” with his love of (and lyrics from) the band.

Among the anecdotes that Walton shared is how he got his Boston Celtics teammates into a Grateful Dead concert in 1985. (Walton, who was drafted first overall by the Portland Trail Blazers in 1974, had been traded by the Clippers to the Celtics in 1985.) His teammates had never seen the band perform and gathered at Larry Bird’s house before the show.

“I had to explain to everybody in the Grateful Dead that … the Celtics were just icons and they couldn’t really go out in public because they were so popular,” recounts Walton in a video previously shared on X, formerly Twitter. “They said, ‘We’ll take care of this, Bill.’ So they built this special little enclave right on the side of the stage where, unless you were on the stage, you couldn’t look into this little area. It was all curtained off. It was the perfect little place to watch the concert.”

Following news of his death, fellow Deadheads posted tributes to Walton on social media, remembering him for his kind spirit and big smile.

In a TV interview, Walton discussed how the Grateful Dead helped shape his approach to life.

“I don’t look back,” said Walton. “Over the course of my basketball career I’ve had many many setbacks and many pitfalls that I’ve stumbled into. Something that I’ve learned and I’ve received a lot of encouragement and help from my friends, particularly in the Grateful Dead, [is] don’t look back. Just keep going and something good will happen.”

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