By Jeb Bladine • President / Publisher • 

Whatchamacolumn: First and last encounter with a sports legend

We landed in San Diego on Feb. 11, stopped at the gate, and only then saw the hulking figure of a man who sat just behind us the entire flight. I was momentarily speechless, but Michelle quickly blurted out, “Are you Mr. Walton?”

“No,” he said in a gentle, friendly voice, “I’m Bill.”

Michelle, surprisingly, grabbed the closest paper product at hand and asked if he would sign it for her. He glanced at the passengers lined up in the aisle and, with comfortable sincerity, said, “Why don’t you just wait for me at the top of the tunnel.”

He took his time, and we waited. Once there, he pulled a black Sharpie felt tip from his jacket pocket and signed a well-crafted “Bill Walton” on the in-flight nausea bag Michelle had pulled from the seat pocket.

“Thank you, Mr. Walton,” she said, not yet ready for first-name familiarity. We exchanged a few words, and I watched with a mixture of respect, sadness and gratification as he walked away in a slow, halting gait that displayed a lifetime of serious injuries.

My mind’s eye returned to his historic dunk over Kareem Abdul-Jabbar in Game 3 of the 1977 conference championship series against the Lakers. I had watched it sitting on the floor directly under that basket, press pass around my neck and camera in hand.

I was a fan from his UCLA glory days to the 1977 Trail Blazer championship, from his second NBA title with Boston to his sportscasting love affair with the Pac-12 that he so constantly proclaimed “Conference of Champions.” He earned a law degree from Stanford, had four sons, wrote a best-selling book and, with wife Lori, contributed greatly to his community.

In San Diego he looked tired, but happy to be back home. No one knew that his broadcast from Eugene the day before would be his last. No one knew that this week, two days after his beloved Pac-12 Conference officially went dark — Bill Walton would die of cancer.

Bill easily was basketball’s most controversial broadcast commentator the past quarter-century. Some cringed at his self-manufactured hyperbole; others savored his wild, flowery flights of verbal fancy laced with an amazing array of facts, bits of acerbic wit and just enough self-effacement to remind us of his true, gentle-giant nature.

One New York Times headline this week read, “Bill Walton changed basketball, and then basketball broadcasting.” He opened that Feb. 10 Oregon-Washington State game in typical, performative, Bill Walton style:

“As we’re rolling along the rivers here, we’re bouncing from star to star, from the Berkeley Hills to the Willamette Valley and Skinner Butte, from Strawberry Creek to the Willamette River. It’s all happening right now. Today, the winner of this game could very well be tied for first place in the all-important battle for the best seed. As we tip this game off today, there are so many story lines that can just tantalize the mind and the soul … imagination and curiosity is all right here.”
Yes, our San Diego autograph is a nice piece of memorabilia … but not as memorable as Mr. Walton himself.

Jeb Bladine can be reached at or 503-687-1223.


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