How video games connected me with Bill Walton

Ron Chenoy-USA TODAY Sports
The Sporting Tribune's Arash Markazi traveled the world with Bill Walton as the two connected over their love of video games.

Bill Walton never thought of himself as a celebrity.

Despite being a 6-foot-11 hall of fame basketball player who loved wearing tie-dye shirts, he simply wanted to be a chameleon whenever he was out and about, exploring the world. When someone would walk up to him to ask for a photo or an autograph, he would first introduce himself and ask for their name. Sometimes he would do it twice if he didn’t catch it the first name.

“What was your name, again?” he would genuinely ask them. “My name is Bill.”

We were colleagues at ESPN for nine years and our travels took us around the world from Los Angeles and Las Vegas to Hangzhou and Shanghai in China.

But it wasn’t basketball that brought us together. It was video games. Yes, video games.

Bill wasn’t exactly a gamer but he was fascinated by the growth of esports and that millions around the world were not only playing video games but watching them live and on television like basketball.

He wanted to learn more so he joined me and my colleague at the Electronic Entertainment Expo (E3) in Los Angeles in 2016. We gave him a tie-dye ESPN Esports shirt and in true Bill fashion, he didn’t wait to put it on. He took off his shirt in the lobby of the hotel we met up at and put it on before we walked to the Los Angeles Convention Center.

But Bill was never the type to just watch and observe so we threw him into the fire and entered him into a Street Fighter tournament. He practiced against me before the tournament and easily beat me.

“I love to win,” Bill said. “That’s me.” He didn’t win the tournament but he was easily the most entertaining player in the field, bringing his sharp elbows from his days on the basketball court to the competition against gamers, who had no idea who the tall guy in the tie-dye shirt was elbowing them.

After E3, Bill wasn’t done with esports. He joined me and my colleagues in Las Vegas for Evo, the ultimate fighting game tournament. He sat with me in the crowd and wanted to know every detail about the players competing in the Super Smash Bros. Melee grand finals. He banged his noise-making plastic sticks together when the crowd went crazy and gave a standing ovation after every big moment, even if he wasn’t exactly sure what was happening. “This is incredible,” he said. “I love the energy in the building.” 

The following year, our travels took us to China where the League of Legends World Championship was taking place in Beijing and UCLA was beginning their college men’s basketball season against George Tech in Shanghai. It was his two worlds colliding and I was the lucky one who got to chronicle his trip, from doing tai chi on the streets of China in front of a crowd to meeting Joe Tsai, the cofounder and chairman of Alibaba Group, who had just become co-owner of the Brooklyn Nets earlier that year.

We had plans to go to Disneyland in Shanghai and shopping in the city but all of that was derailed when three UCLA players were arrested for shoplifting. Suddenly our feel-good trip turned into me covering an international incident that would involve Lavar Ball and Donald Trump around the clock for ESPN. I talked to Bill regularly in the hopes of adding some levity to covering a serious situation and he even mentioned me during the UCLA-Georgia Tech game on ESPN that had become an afterthought at that point.  

The following year Bill and I went back to E3 where he once again was the life of the party, taking photos with everyone who wanted one and once again defeating me in a game of Street Fighter.

We made plans later that year to play videos games in the tee-pee in his backyard. It never came to fruition but the standing offer was one of my favorite stories about Bill. He was a big kid at heart who lived life to the fullest. Whenever I would see Bill, he would bring up our trip to China and one day playing video games in the tee-pee in his backyard. I laughed whenever he would bring it up but he would remind me that he was serious. I’ll always regret never taking him up on that offer but I’ll always remember our adventures together and how much joy he gave me and everyone around him. He was one of a kind. There will never be another Bill Walton. Rest in peace, my friend.