“Keep Portland Weird” – Remembering The Legacy Of Bill Walton In Portland

By ANNA MILLER, OREGON SPORTS NEWS

Sometimes, a player’s impact exists solely on the court.

They might lead their team to a championship or two, reinvent the position they play for future players, or get inducted into the Naismith Hall of Fame.

While yes, these are all worthwhile achievements, these on-court accolades aren’t enough for some. Some players’ presence extends beyond the court, bringing authenticity to commentating, unafraid to share their opinions, and rocking a tie-dye shirt to celebrate their favorite band instead of the typical suit.

Everything stated, on and off the court, describes Bill Walton, Portland Trail Blazers legend. While he passed away from cancer at age 71 on Monday, May 27th, the uproar of support for him, his family, and his legacy made it abundantly clear the impact he had.

He may have ruffled some feathers throughout his career, even avoiding Portland for decades, but one thing is clear — Walton is the personified version of ‘Keep Portland Weird.’

Walton was born in La Mesa, California, where he took a liking to sports early on. He clinched two California Interscholastic Federation championships as a center for Helix High School and was ultimately recruited by the UCLA Bruins’ legendary coach, John Wooden.

Wooden led the Bruins to become one of the most successful basketball programs in history, and Walton was there for four of those seasons. UCLA went undefeated and conquered the NCAA two years in a row in Walton’s time.

But also, in his time as a Bruin, he made his politics and opinions clear, getting arrested for protesting the Vietnam War in 1972, and that fight in him never left.

In 1974, Walton was the number one draft pick in the NBA Draft, bringing his journey from California to Oregon to play for the Portland Trail Blazers. But his rookie years were plagued by injury, as Walton held chronic foot injuries and broke many of his bones in his first two years in the league. However, that didn’t stop him from averaging 12.8 points and 12.6 rebounds per game in his first year in the NBA, increasing both numbers for his second.

But 1977 was when things changed for the better — not just for Walton but the entire Portland community. Under coach Jack Ramsey, the Blazers clinched their first — and only — NBA Championship. In Portland’s Playoff run, Walton averaged over 17 points and 12 rebounds per game. In the Championship matchup with the Philadelphia 76ers, the Blazers were the underdogs, relinquishing the first two games to the 76ers. However, Portland came back from the deficit and went on a four-game win streak that clinched its first title. In the final game of the series, Walton led the charge to victory with 20 points and 23 rebounds.

He became a member of the community through his years in Portland, as well. Of course, his love of the Grateful Dead grew each year, connecting him with the overall atmosphere of weirdness in Portland, but he could also be seen downtown, riding his bike or shooting hoops in Wallace Park with local children and families.

One thing is for sure — the bike was his preferred mode of transportation, and if you were driving near the Moda Center in the mid-70s, you might have seen a 6-foot-11 Bill Walton biking to work.

However, his love for the city didn’t last. In 1978, an injury ended his season, and he was benched for the entire 1979 season before being traded to the San Diego Clippers. Although he begged the staff to be traded, claiming they forced him to play through his injuries, the program denied his request.

And as a result, he developed a slight distaste for Portland.

After his time with the Clippers and another Championship with the Boston Celtics, Walton retired and became a color commentator. This role truly showcased his personality to the masses and his love for The Grateful Dead.

Walton’s distaste for Portland lasted decades until he returned in 2009 to receive the Governor’s Gold Award, attend fundraisers, and make amends with the Portland community. His return to Portland was welcome, and since then, he has reconciled his connection with the city and the program, creating a lasting impact on the community and emphasizing optimism and positive vibes.

During the 1977 celebratory parade for the Blazers, Walton took the journey on his bike, as expected. In 2019, he returned to Portland to celebrate the Blazers’ 50th anniversary in the NBA. And, of course, he was on his bike. But not just any bike — a bike with The Grateful Dead logo proudly painted on the front, ready to take on Portland. At the end of the ride, a Grateful Dead tribute band performed, and Walton got to perform with them.

Walton may not have had the best relationship with Portland in his lifetime, but Portland had a strong relationship with him. The city recognized and rejoiced in everything Walton brought, from the weirdness to the hardware. It’s been nearly 50 years, and people don’t remember his trade requests and dissatisfaction with the program. They remember his legacy, his impact on the center position, and his eccentric personality that made everyone around him smile.

The slogan ‘Keep Portland Weird’ came to the city in 2003, but the weirdness of Portland came long before 2003. It arrived on the scene in 1974 in a nearly 7-foot frame named Bill Walton. And the weirdness will stick around and be celebrated forever, as Walton’s spirit and legacy will live in Portland.

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