A Summer Trip Took a Near-Fatal Turn for Bill Walton

March Madness! This time of year, college basketball dominates the airwaves as well as so many discussions about which team is up, the biggest upset so far and how well your selection bracket is doing in the office pool. One of the all-time college basketball greats was Bill Walton. Walton also went on to earn several awards during his NBA career, despite having several injuries. A career that almost didn’t occur because of a near fatal bee sting in the Summer of 1973.

A summer trip took a near-fatal turn for Bill Walton

Bill Walton portrait
The first overall pick in the 1974 NBA Draft, Bill Walton had a star-crossed career because of injuries. But it nearly never happened at all.

by Phil Watson
Originally published
December 26, 2021

Article excerpt is reprinted with permission from author Phil Watson and posted on sportscasting.com

Bill Walton was one of the greatest college basketball players of all time. Despite a career as an NBA player marred by injuries, he won an NBA MVP, an NBA Finals MVP, and a pair of titles. But an incident between his junior and senior seasons at UCLA nearly ended his pro career before it started.

Walton, 69, remains one of the most colorful personalities in the game. He was the first player in NBA history to win MVP and Sixth Man of the Year honors. James Harden joined him in the exclusive club with his MVP win in 2017–18. Because of recurring foot and ankle problems, Walton’s career remains one of his era’s biggest “what-if” questions.

After UCLA won its seventh consecutive national championship in 1973, Bill Walton began a regular summer break. According to his autobiography, Back from the Dead, Walton worked a part-time job until he had saved enough money to take a trip.

He planned to bicycle to Canada, returning where he toured the previous year. But he abandoned his plans three days in, citing the heavy gear attached to his bike. Instead, he found a payphone and called some friends.

Walton spent mornings attending classes at Sonoma State College in California, then took off around the countryside on his bike.

One day on his way to his friends’ house after class, things took a dark turn.

“I began to feel a painful sensation down the front of my right leg,” Walton wrote. “Looking down, I saw this big nasty bee relentlessly pumping his venom into my leg. Thinking nothing of it, and without breaking the power train home, I reached down and flicked the bee off me, which took some force, as it was quite dug in and well attached.”

What happened next nearly changed the course of Walton’s life and career.

Bill Walton was head and shoulders above the college basketball crowd during his three seasons at UCLA. | Bettmann Archive/Getty Images

After riding the remaining few miles to where he was staying, Bill Walton immediately knew something was wrong:

“All of a sudden, my whole body — everywhere — felt like it was on fire. I was pouring out sweat from every pore. My vision was blurring, fogging over. My mouth was foaming, my nose and eyes running. I was losing the ability to breathe as my throat and tongue were rapidly swelling. And it was all getting worse – fast.”

Walton was allergic to bee stings.

His friend, Jim, heard his distress and summoned an ambulance. The ambulance crew radioed ahead to a doctor in a small town en route to the hospital in Santa Rosa.

“As the ambulance screeched to a stop, the doctor threw open the door and stabbed me with the giant needle full of epinephrine, and started forcing Benadryl tables down my throat, hoping to reverse the deadly anaphylactic shock caused by the bee sting,” Walton wrote.

Walton made a full recovery. Since then, EpiPens and Benadryl have been part of his regular traveling gear.

For all the health trouble he had during his NBA career, it nearly never happened because of an allergic reaction. He went on to have a terrific summer and returned to school for his final year refreshed. Bill Walton’s college career ended in disappointment; UCLA’s record run of consecutive titles ended with a loss in the national semifinals. But he lived to tell the tale, which can be a win in and of itself. 

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