Bill Walton’s Long, Strange Trip With the Grateful Dead

The summer of 2015 was a culminating moment in Bill Walton’s life. He’d been seeing the Grateful Dead, in all its iterations, for 48 years by that point. He’d been to hundreds upon hundreds of shows, but like so many Deadheads, the series of 50th anniversary shows in Northern California and Chicago (billed as Fare Thee Well) were going to be monumental: The first time most of the group’s surviving members would play together in years, and the last time it would happen. 

Walton, who by then was already known as one of the world’s most famous — and, with his six-foot-eleven stature, recognizable — Dead fans on the planet, spent the summer serving as an unofficial liaison for the group: giving interviews about the reunion and writing an afterword to a coffee table commemorating the shows. Walton, who suffered from chronic pain ever since he began suffering injuries as a teenager, was ready for the grueling run of marathon shows. His spine felt good, he had a new knee, he was ready. Walton stood amidst the massive crowd for the shows, which he described, in earnest hyperbole, as the “nine days that changed the world.”

“Everybody was so happy and there was just the tears of joy and pride and gratitude,” Walton later told Relix of the experience of seeing the shows up close. “I got to be in the pit, 12 people deep, right in front of Bruce Hornsby. I was there, and I will never forget, and I feel terribly sorry for the person behind me.”

Bill Walton, who died earlier today at age 71 of cancer, was known to most as a Hall of Fame NBA center, and, later, an illustrious and energetic broadcaster and color commentator on national television. But just as important to Walton was his lifelong love affair with the Grateful Dead. Walton became a familiar, unmistakable presence at Dead shows, blissed out in the pit alongside the band’s uttermost diehards.

It didn’t take long for the band itself to notice the towering giant who began showing up to all of the band’s West Coast shows. The first time Dead singer-bassist Bob Weir noticed Walton out in the crowd, “I was thinking to myself, ‘There’s a truly tall individual.’” “He was the only one in the audience,” said the band’s drummer Mickey Hart. “I thought everybody else was sitting down, and of course they were standing up, and he was standing up too.”

Such was Walton’s devotion to the band, that he attended upwards of 850 Dead shows in his lifetime, showed up to announce nationally-televised basketball games in tie dye, went viral for sorting through recyclables at Dead shows, showed up on stage at Dead & Company New Years Eve shows as “Father Time” (a nod to the character Bill Graham used to dress up as each New Years Eve), DJ’ed on the band’s Sirius XM satellite radio channel, and eventually, in 2021, was inducted into the band’s very own “Hall of Honor,” which he later described as the single most important distinction he’d ever received.  

But despite the attention and platform he received as one of the group’s most famous and recognizable true believers, Walton considered himself just another member of the Dead’s ever-expanding community of devotees. “I’m really just a fan,” he said in 2022.

Throughout his career, and especially when promoting his 2016 memoir (titled, what else: Back from the Dead), Walton frequently drew comparisons between his favorite band and the sport to which he devoted his life. 

“Playing in a band and playing on a basketball team, I’m sure, are very, very similar,” he once said. “It requires, first of all, tremendous discipline.” The Dead, he later claimed, helped make him the basketball player that he once was, and the person that he became. As a lifelong competitive athlete, there was a unique reward in being a fan of the Grateful Dead, Walton explained, because “they play all the time, and they win all the time.”

Walton’s love for the band was far more than a useful sports analogy. For him, his Dead fandom served as a guiding light and constant beacon of stability, community and inspiration in a life plagued by pain and setbacks. 

“For me, the Grateful Dead, there are so many different reasons why I love it so much, but they give me strength, they give me confidence, they give me hope, and they make me believe that tomorrow is like, going to be even better,” he said in 2016. “And at the end of the day, when they run off the stage and get out of there, I’m out in that pit just saying, ‘Yeahhh, I’m with those guys.’”

When Walton cleared his calendar for the nine Fare Thee Well shows in California and Chicago in 2015, he had merely one quibble with the shows: the fact that they marked an ending. “I am going to be there,” he said in the weeks leading up to them. “I am going to be cheering for more.”


In that same interview, a journalist at the Washington Post wanted to know if Walton had any requests for these special shows? “Sugar Magnolia?” “Uncle John’s Band”?

“I don’t care what they play,” Walton replied. “I just want to go. I just want to listen, I want to be educated, I want to be inspired, I want to be healed. I want to think, I want to laugh, I want to cry, I want to dance….Years ago, I used to plug them [with requests] all the time. Then I stopped asking and I tried to listen more. And I tried to let life like the big river find its course.”