"Your skin is just goosebumps, electric as can be": Watch NBA legend Bill Walton tell a beautiful story about taking the Boston Celtics to watch the Grateful Dead

Bill Walton onstage with Dead & Company
(Image credit: Jeff Kravitz via Getty Images)

For a man once voted among the 50 Greatest Players In NBA History, late basketball star and broadcaster Bill Walton was celebrated almost as much for his off-court exploits as he was for his numerous achievements in the game.

In the wake of his death yesterday at the age of 71, tributes invariably spoke of Walton's love of the Grateful Dead, a band he saw in concert more than 850 times – even travelling to Egypt to watch them play at the Pyramids in 1978 – and about how his devotion to Jerry Garcia & Co. informed his outlook on life.

“We went all the time, that’s all we did,” Walton told Jambase in 2016. “They played every weekend and then you had the Jerry Garcia Band, Ace, and all the other bands I love like Neil Young, Crosby, Stills & Nash, the Eagles, the Rolling Stones and Bruce Springsteen. It was literally all the time and we still do it, and it’s not enough. If it’s Grateful Dead music or Grateful Dead players, we are there."

In one video circulated since his passing, originally filmed to promote his 2016 book Back from the Dead, Walton – known amongst fellow Deadheads as "Grateful Red" and the "Big Red Deadhead" – tells of an occasion when he took his then- Boston Celtics' teammates to see the Dead play live at the Centrum in Worcester, MA. His love for the band is a beautiful thing to behold. 

"The band is warming up and taking the last few notes, and the excitement is just so palpable," says Walton. "Your skin is just goosebumps, electric as can be. Jerry Garcia steps forward into that shaft of light, right where his microphone is, just to make sure everything is perfect, making sure all his foot pedals are all there. 

"Then he looks over into the enclave [sidestage, where Walton is standing with teammates Larry Bird, Kevin McHale, Robert Parish and Dennis Johnson] and he makes eye contact with Larry Bird, and he looks at him, gives him an odd little wink and he says to him, 'Larry, this is what we do,' and then he turned back to the audience and just blew it out, five or six hours. Unbelievable, the crowd just absolutely on fire. 

"The show's over, the band races off the stage they, they gotta get to the next show, the lights come on, everybody is just wild-eyed as can be, it's so charged up. And the guys on the Celtics, they look at me and they say, 'Wow! Oh my god! Can we come back tomorrow?' And they've been going ever since."

In 2001, Bill Walton was inducted into the Grateful Dead Hall of Honor, something the Basketball Hall-of-Famer and 2x NBA All-Star described as the 'biggest honour' of his life.

"From the very beginning, the Grateful Dead have always made me proud, confident and bold," he wrote in an essay included in the official programme for the Dead's Fare Thee Well 50th Anniversary Reunion shows at Soldier Field in Chicago in 2015. "They give purpose and meaning to my life. And they give me a reason to believe in the essential beauty, humanity, courtesy and goodness in and of this world.

"The Grateful Dead have provided me with a living, thriving, breathing, surging culture of curiosity, exploration and experimentation that has led to the spirit of generosity that I know will engulf all of us while we’re here, and beyond."

Fraser Lewry

Online Editor at Louder/Classic Rock magazine since 2014. 38 years in music industry, online for 25. Also bylines for: Metal Hammer, Prog Magazine, The Word Magazine, The Guardian, The New Statesman, Saga, Music365. Former Head of Music at Xfm Radio, A&R at Fiction Records, early blogger, ex-roadie, published author. Once appeared in a Cure video dressed as a cowboy, and thinks any situation can be improved by the introduction of cats. Favourite Serbian trumpeter: Dejan Petrović.