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Bill Walton was a dominating high school basketball player


Bill Walton at Helix High School in San Diego.



By John Gillis 

In the annals of high school boys basketball, there have been literally millions of players who have laced up their shoes to step on the court to chase their dreams and represent their schools.

However, there might have never been a high school player who more fully embraced the time-honored fundamentals of Dr. James Naismith’s game, and at the same time completely dominated play at both ends of the court than Bill Walton.

Perhaps better known to the general populace as the three-time NCAA Player of the Year at UCLA and for his National Basketball Association (NBA) career in which he won two titles, was twice named MVP, and was named one of the 50 Greatest NBA Players ever, the 6-foot-11 center was equally astounding and successful at the prep level where he totally dominated the middle for La Mesa, California’s Helix High School.

While one might naturally assume that Walton grew up in a sports-oriented family with parents who influenced him to pursue athletics, the total opposite was the reality.

“My parents were the most un-athletic people ever and were not involved with sports at any level—as either participants or spectators — other than as great, loving and supportive parents,” Walton said. “We had a wonderful family life built around classical music, books, education and the radio. In the early days there was no TV. My mom was our town’s librarian. I have faint memories of my dad trying to run to first base at the church picnic’s softball game. I don’t think he made it safely.

“I started playing basketball when I was eight years old. I had a dream life growing up. A big part of that was playing for my first coach Rocky Graciano. Rocky coached all sports — life really — and started the programs at our school, as a volunteer, because he was dissatisfied with the opportunities available to us at the time.”

When Walton started at Helix High School, he was a slashing 5-11 guard on the freshman team. Given that position, it was logical that he idolized some of the great backcourt players of the day.

“I grew up emulating Jerry West and Pete Maravich,” Walton explained. “Then the summer between my freshman and sophomore years, I tore up my knee torching some really old guys, they were in their 30s, and I had my first operation at age 14. While recovering from that operation, I grew 6½ inches.

“Everything changed for me from that point forward. I had been an open-court flyer, and then all of a sudden I became an under-the-basket player. Bill Russell was my favorite player of all time — both on and off the court. He was so very inspirational. He was my role model, as I changed my game to focus on becoming an inside player.”

Walton subsequently joined the Helix varsity team part-time as a sophomore, where he played for coach Gordon Nash—who was also the biology teacher at Helix.


Shown above is Bill Walton scoring a
basket for Helix High School in the 1970
CIF-San Diego Section finals.


“Coach Nash was a tremendous coach – like Rocky, he made it fun,” Walton said. “Coach (John) Wooden, for whom I later played at UCLA, had such an impact on every coach I had as a child – they were all his disciples. Rocky and coach Nash taught the same fundamental style of ball, pressure defense, team game and fast break that coach Wooden used.”

As a junior and senior, Walton and Helix won back-to-back California Interscholastic Federation-San Diego Section championships (section championships were the highest level in California at that time). Over the course of those two years, the Highlanders won their final 49 games.

During his first part of his varsity career, Walton had the opportunity to play in the same frontcourt with older brother Bruce, who was a strong, tough and burly 6-6, 300 pounds. Whenever the slender younger Walton brother was getting knocked around by opponents, big brother was always there to restore order, justice and sense.

“When those opposing teams would try to get physical with me, Bruce would do whatever it took to protect me,” Walton said. “He went on to play for the Dallas Cowboys. Bruce and I are the only brother combination in history to ever play in the Super Bowl and to win the NBA championship.”

The starting line-up during Walton’s senior year at Helix (1969-70) included 5-10 senior guard Mike DuPree, 6-2 senior guard Randy Madsen, 6-3 junior forward Mike Honz, 6-2 senior forward Butch Paddock and 6-11 Walton at center.

That year, Walton averaged 29 points and an amazing 25 rebounds a game as he led the team to a spotless 33-0 record. He was also noted for his prodigious defensive ability with numerous blocked shots to his credit, as well as textbook outlet passes that deftly ignited Helix’s devastating fast break.

“We had tremendous skill and were a fast-breaking, pressing team,” Walton explained. “We had great ball movement and a lot of guys who could all really play, and shoot the ball.

“I’ve been very lucky that I’ve won national championships at UCLA, and NBA titles with the Portland Trail Blazers and the Boston Celtics. However, winning the San Diego Section titles was equally great. That meant everything to win those championships.”

During his senior year, Walton made 384 of his 490 field-goal attempts (78.3 percent). In very oversimplified terms, in a sport in which shooting 50 percent from the field is considered to be successful, that means that Walton converted nearly four of every five shots he attempted. According to the NFHS’ online National High School Sports Record Book, that still ranks as the all-time national record an amazing 44 years after the fact. In addition, Walton’s 825 rebounds that same season still ranks No 3 all-time, and his 25 rebounds per game in a season ranks No. 7.

Walton also was featured in “Faces in the Crowd” in the January 26, 1970 issue of Sports Illustrated – a longtime popular section of the magazine in which many great athletes are first introduced to the national sports audience.

Following high school, Walton attended UCLA, where he was part of another great record-setting team. The Bruins won 88 consecutive games and two NCAA national championships while Walton was eligible for the varsity. Both of those title teams were undefeated. Walton is quick to note that one of the most gratifying aspects of his time at UCLA (1970-74) was the opportunity to play for legendary coach John Wooden, himself a 1991 inductee into the National High School Hall of Fame.


Walton and legendary UCLA coach John


“Besides my mom and dad, coach Wooden is the single-most important, influential and inspirational person in my life,” Walton said. “He was an incredible human being who taught us everything – how to learn, how to build, how to create and how to compete. Through his “Pyramid of Success,” coach Wooden taught us how to build our lives, and he gave us great structure, discipline and organization.

“What Wooden enjoyed most was seeing other people succeed – particularly if it was in a team setting, and that there was acknowledgement to the help that was provided along the way. He conducted the most demanding and challenging practices of any coach I ever played for, but they were also the shortest practices. It was such a joy and privilege to play for him.”

Today, Walton lives in his hometown of San Diego with his wife, Lori. They are the proud and lucky parents of four sons – Adam, Nathan, Luke and Chris – and the grandparents of Olivia, Avery Rose and Chase. Walton, extremely busy with everything cool, fun and exciting, is among other things executive chairman of Connect SD Sport Innovators — a non-profit business accelerator that works tirelessly and endlessly to expand Southern California’s vibrant and dynamic sports economy through innovative and collaborative programs and services.

A child of the 1960s and 1970s, Walton is a longtime aficionado of the epic rock bands like The Beatles; The Rolling Stones; Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young; Bob Dylan; Carlos Santana; John Fogerty and Jimmy Cliff. However, Walton always reserves some extra levels of his seemingly unlimited musical passion for the Grateful Dead, a band he has seen perform 841 times. He has sat in many times as a drummer and vocalist for the group, including a 1978 concert run at the Great Pyramids in Egypt.

In 1997, Walton received the ultimate honor that can be bestowed upon an individual involved with high school athletics or performing arts activities when he was inducted into the NFHS’ National High School Hall of Fame. Walton had the distinction of being the first California male high school basketball player to be inducted. An award-winning television broadcaster with numerous Emmys on his resume, Walton put his prodigious oratorical skills to good use as the acceptance speaker for the 1997 Hall of Fame induction class.

“I have a tremendous sense of accomplishment and pride to be inducted into the National High School Hall of Fame,” Walton said. “It’s a reflection of and credit to the great school, program, coach, team and culture that I was honored and lucky to be part of.”

Walton will have an opportunity to verbally share his positive values with another audience of national high school athletic administrators when he serves as the Opening General Speaker at the 2013 National Athletic Directors Conference at 5:30 p.m. December 14 in Anaheim, California.

Although Walton has probably packed the equivalent of a dozen lifetimes of accomplishments into his 61 years, he feels eternal gratitude for what he’s had and looks forward to the future with excitement and optimism.

“I grew up in a wonderful world, with beautiful people” Walton said. “I am the person I am today because of the many interesting and inspirational people I had the privilege of knowing, and am most appreciative of all those who sacrificed for me. I’m the luckiest person alive. And I’m just getting started.”


Walton_Family   Walton_Grateful_Dead 
Shown above is “Book and Tea Night” at the Waltons - front
row: Lori and Chris; back row: Nathan, Bill, mom Gloria, Luke,
Bill Walton (far right) and members of the Grateful Dead.
From left: Bob Weir, Jerry Garcia, Mickey Hart and Bill Kreutzmann.



John Gillis is the associate director of development of the NFHS. If you have any comments or articles ideas, please forward them to Gillis at 

See Also: All-Time Greatest;
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