Remembering Bill Walton, Portland’s bicycling big man and NBA star

Walton working the crowd at a 2019 bike ride. (Photos: Jonathan Maus/BikePortland)

Bill Walton passed away on Monday after a battle with cancer. He was 71 years old.

Walton was one of the NBA’s greatest ever players and the leader of the Portland Trail Blazers during their 1977 championship season. His collegiate career at UCLA under coach John Wooden is a thing of legend and if not for his knee injuries, the 6-foot 11-inch, quintessential “big man” would have reached even greater heights.

Walton’s free-wheeling and full embrace of life made him perfect for Portland. The fact that he loved bicycling was icing on the cake.

In 2010 the Trail Blazers asked him to record a message for our Bike to Blazers event and he waxed poetically (as he often did whether you were talking to him privately or during his memorable broadcasting gigs) on what it was like to ride to Memorial Coliseum from his home near Northwest 23rd Street.

Rolling down Broadway.

“There is no greater moment than when you’re on the road and you’re coming to the temple, the mecca, the shrine,” Walton began. “I would come on my bike down from Northwest Portland and our fans knew when I was coming so they would get out on the streets and they would be cheering and yelling, “Here we go Blazers!”

Walton said he’d ride east on NW Everett to the Steel Bridge and then roll right into the parking lot where a valet would take his bike. “I live to ride, I ride to live,” continued his promo. “You should too. Get on that bike and come on down. We’re here to play, how about you?”

A year or so after that, Walton called me. He wanted to do a big ride. I assumed he meant some sort of charity or promotional ride; but no. He just wanted to get out on some open roads. I passed him along to Jeff Bernards, a friend who worked at a bike touring company and was the biggest Blazer fan I’ve known. They did a big ride in the Gorge, and afterwards Walton rode out to the Oregon Coast because he wanted more miles.

“He can hardly walk, but he can ride like crazy,” Bernards recalled.

The next time Walton and his bright lycra showed up in my life was in 2019. The City of Portland planned a Sunday Parkways for downtown and partnered with Walton and the Blazers for a pre-ride as part of the team’s 50th anniversary season festivities. Over 40 years after Walton brought us our only NBA title, a huge crowd gathered to meet him outside the Coliseum. And the “Big Redhead” did not disappoint.

In a red Blazers bike jersey, rainbow biking shorts, bike gloves and Nike tennis shoes, Walton lit up the crowd. He signed autographs, posed for photos, and before hopping on his Grateful Dead-themed custom carbon bike he grabbed a mic and was in his element as the crowd encircled him.

“When you get confused, ride your bike and listen to the music play,” he boomed, in a mash-up of Grateful Dead lyrics and his own spin on the moment. “The first days are the hardest days, don’t worry about it no. What I want to know is, can you ride your bike? Are you kind? And will you come with us? Here we go!”

Rest in peace Bill! And thanks for being such a champion for cycling and for our city.

Jonathan Maus (Publisher/Editor)

Jonathan Maus (Publisher/Editor)

Founder of BikePortland (in 2005). Father of three. North Portlander. Basketball lover. Car owner and driver. If you have questions or feedback about this site or my work, feel free to contact me at @jonathan_maus on Twitter, via email at maus.jonathan@gmail.com, or phone/text at 503-706-8804. Also, if you read and appreciate this site, please become a supporter.

Subscribe
Notify of
guest

5 Comments
oldest
newest most voted
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
BB
BB
15 days ago

Man, this one hurts… Not many people make this world a more fun, more interesting place to live in all by themselves. Bill Walton was one of those people.

BikingViking
BikingViking
15 days ago

As a Blazer fan and a cycling advocate, Walton will be missed for sure. He was a great ambassador for the town as well, and also an entertaining broadcaster for a spell.

Tom Ruth
Tom Ruth
14 days ago

Bill would come to our shop called Northwest Bicycles, as we were just a few blocks from his home. He was always kind and sweet to us as I remember. Rip Bill

cosmos503
cosmos503
14 days ago

RIP Big Red. Where can you get that Blazers cycling jersey he’s wearing with the retro ’77 style? That’s a sweet bit of kit!

Adam Zerner
14 days ago

Great guy and great player. For people who want to learn more about him as a player, check out the episode Thinking Basketball did on him for their Greatest Peaks series: https://youtu.be/EYYR4imoi