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Hoops great, voice of the Pac-12, sports icon

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Two days after the Pac-12 took its final competitive breath, the conference lost its soul.

Bill Walton passed away Monday after 71 years of a life like no other, ever.

The cause: cancer.

Left unsaid: a broken heart.

Walton might have been the greatest player in college basketball history. He won two NCAA titles with UCLA and two more in the NBA (with Portland and Boston) and was a no-brainer Hall of Fame inductee.

He was the world’s preeminent Grateful Dead fan, a cycling enthusiast, a passionate environmentalist, a voracious reader and an iconic sports broadcaster.

He was as brilliant as he was goofy, as genuine as he was colorful, as joyous as he was loquacious.

Oh, could he talk.

My first conversation with Walton, years ago, was by telephone. I dialed; he answered. I introduced myself; he thanked me for calling, then spoke for 40 consecutive minutes — I did not utter a peep — on a surreal range of topics.

The conversation at the Pearly Gates just went next-level, folks.

Also, Walton was the most passionate, unrelenting champion of his beloved ‘Conference of Champions.’

Using his platform on ESPN and the Pac-12 Networks, Walton became the face and voice of the Pac-12 — a favorite of  conference executives and campus officials alike.

For years, the only thing former commissioner Larry Scott and his marginalized athletic directors had in common was their fondness of Walton.

He loved engaging with fans, took a sincere interest in the athletes and continually praised the quality of play, even when the metrics were at odds with his reality.

It made sense: The UCLA graduate used to credit the Pac-12 “for my life.”

When UCLA and USC announced in the summer of 2022 that they were leaving the Pac-12 for the Big Ten, Walton was crushed.

He remained silent for months, then finally authored “UCLA’s Wrong Turn,” a poetic lament offered as a written statement:

“I don’t believe that joining the Big 10 is in the best interest of UCLA, its students, its athletes, its alumni, its fans, the rest of the UC system, the State of California, or the world at large.”

Later in the statement, he wrote:

“I have spoken to no one, other than the highest-level directors of athletics at UCLA, who think that this proposed move to the Big 10 is a good idea,

“Every argument made by these senior AD’s and why they like it, is about money,

“These same proponents of moving to the Big 10, are the first people I have ever encountered in my life,

“Who have claimed economic hardship and limitations in Los Angeles,

“And that the solution lies in the Midwest”

Walton continued his broadcasting duties for ESPN and the Pac-12 Networks, mixing life stories with game analysis as only he could. But the heartache endured.

His passing on Monday, first announced by the NBA, came two days after the final athletic competition under the Pac-12 banner: Arizona’s victory over USC in the baseball tournament.

Whether Walton was aware of the event, we cannot say.

He passed away two months before the Pac-12 as we know it ceases to exist. On Aug. 2, the departing schools will join their new leagues.

The Pac-12 will remain an official conference for at least two years as the Washington State and Oregon State football teams compete during a grace period provided by the NCAA.

Beyond that, nobody knows.

But this much is sure: Walton lived for 26,136 days, and the Pac-12 existed for every one of them.

It was the only conference that the champion of the ‘Conference of Champions’ ever knew.





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