HE HAS LIVED such a full life, broadcasting, protesting and following the Grateful Dead, as well as publicly battling opponents and pain throughout his 60 years, that his career at UCLA can seem, at times, like a preamble.
He arrived in Westwood in the fall of 1970 as Big Red, his strawberry mop adding extra flourish to a frame that was ideal for basketball. Listed as 6'11" but reported to be 7'2"—he didn't like the stigma of being a 7-footer—Walton led the Bruins to back-to-back 30--0 seasons in 1971--72 and '72--73. Three times he was named the national player of the year, a feat matched only by Cincinnati's Oscar Robertson and Virginia's Ralph Sampson.
Walton's first varsity season ended with a 24-point, 20-rebound performance in an 81--76 win over Florida State in the 1972 national championship game. A year later he scored 44 points on 21-of-22 shooting (both title-game records) and had 11 rebounds in an 87--66 defeat of Memphis State; a stat line that's even more remarkable considering that Walton was in foul trouble most of the second half and didn't play the final 2:51. Even in defeat, Walton excelled: In his final appearance in the Big Dance—a thrilling 80--77 double-overtime loss to North Carolina State in the 1974 national semifinals—he scored 29 points and grabbed 18 rebounds.
Those numbers are impressive, but they don't convey the full-court enthusiasm with which Walton played. He seemed to be everywhere—tipping in missed shots, leaping for blocks, chasing loose balls and even calling the signals for UCLA's zone press. "He does so many things that don't show up in the box score," Bruins coach John Wooden told SI in 1972. "Like intimidation. How do you measure that?"
Walton's brilliance was magnified by the fact that he was the perfect star for his time. A three-time Academic All-America, he was also a counterculture hero, unafraid to engage in the social battles raging in America in the early '70s. He participated in a protest of the Vietnam War and spoke out about a number of political causes—and always made time for Dead concerts. After the 1973 title game, he said, "My six months as a basketball player are over. Now I get six to be a human. I want to get away and bring some reality into my life."
Reality hit Walton hard after UCLA. He was the first pick in the 1974 NBA draft, by the Trail Blazers, but a string of injuries would limit the success of his pro career. (In 2010, Walton estimated that he had undergone 36 orthopedic surgeries; severe back pain eventually led him to contemplate suicide.) Still, he led Portland to the NBA title in 1977 and added another with the Celtics in '86.
Walton overcame a speech impediment to become a popular NBA television analyst for more than a decade, and he remains outspoken while calling college basketball for the Pac-12 Network and for ESPN.
After successful back surgery in 2010, Walton announced, "I'm getting back into the game of life." Of course no one ever thought he had left, and no one who saw him play at UCLA has ever forgotten it.