Bill Walton once took the 1985 Celtics to see the Grateful Dead


Dead & Company, the latest iteration of the band, shared its condolences for Walton on Monday: “Fare you well, fare you well, we love you more than words can tell.”

Bill Walton (second from right, being photobombed by Richard Jefferson) chats with Grateful Dead drummer Mickey Hart (left) alongside Jalen Rose (second from left) before Game 1 of the 2022 NBA Finals in San Francisco.

The Grateful Dead can be an acquired taste. Not everyone appreciates the winding jams, intricate collaboration, and 20-minute songs.

That was never the case for Bill Walton.

A self-proclaimed “Deadhead” since he first saw the band in its infancy back in 1967, Walton, who died Monday, might have been the band’s most famous fan.

One evening in 1985, he turned his Celtics teammates into fans, too.

The Dead were playing the Centrum in Worcester on Nov. 4 and 5 that season, and the Celtics were off those nights after starting the season 4-1.

“One day at practice, Larry Bird and Kevin McHale, Robert Parish and Dennis Johnson, they cornered me,” he recalled. “They came over and said, ‘What’s going on? … there’s all kind of people here with tie-dye T-shirts, they all got long hair, and they smell funny. What’s happening here?’

“I said, well, the Grateful Dead are coming to town.”

Walton said he asked Laurence “Ramrod” Shurtliff, the Dead’s longtime road manager, if he could bring his teammates along. But he warned Shurtliff: These players were massive stars in the area. They couldn’t go out in public much. Shurtliff and the band told Walton not to worry.

The players gathered for the concert at Larry Bird’s house, and Bird rented limousines to take them to the show. Once they arrived, Walton said, they discovered the band had build a small space on the side of the stage where the crew could watch without being seen by the crowd. By Walton’s account, they loved it.

“It was an incredible blend of two cultures that stand for so much of the same things: working together to make a better tomorrow with hope, optimism, peace, and love – important values,” Walton told USA Today in 2020. “The surge of energy that comes from a Grateful Dead concert and a Boston Celtics game drives you to incredible heights of capability, creativity, imagination and performance. It’s on.”

But one man wasn’t in attendance. Walton has said Danny Ainge’s wife said Ainge couldn’t go. Ainge remembers it differently.

“I could have gone if I wanted to. I just didn’t want to go,” Ainge told USA Today.

Walton’s connection with the Dead goes far beyond a couple of hazy nights in central Massachusetts. He first got linked up with the band when seeing them in Portland while with the Trail Blazers … and that’s where they saw him.

“He was the only one in the audience,” drummer Mickey Hart once said. “I thought everyone else was sitting down and of course they were standing up, and he was standing up, too.”

That’s when his relationship with Hart, and the rest of the band, began.

“He needs this music, it’s a nourishment for him,” Hart once said. “It makes him grow strong, keeps his mind together, keeps his outlook and attitude right.”

On Monday, Hart shared a tribute to Walton on social media:

“Bill was my best friend,” he wrote. “He was an amazing person, singular, irreplaceable, giving, loving. He called himself the luckiest man in the world but it was us who were lucky — to know him. There are things you can replace. And others you cannot. Bon voyage, old friend, I love you.”

Rick Carlisle’s journey with Walton — and the Dead — is a little bit different. The Pacers coach had seen a show in college, and was with the Celtics at the show in 1985.

He also credits Walton with the assist on what turned out to be a fateful night in his life: a first date with his now wife Donna. Of course it was at a Dead show. (Risky move!)

“I got a date with a girl I think is pretty cool,” Carlisle recalled he told Walton. “I’d love to go the Dead show at Capital Center, I don’t have any tickets. Can you help?”

Walton directed Carlisle to go to the loading dock and introduce himself. Donna was suspicious.

“Just wait here a second,” Carlisle told her.

“Do you have tickets?” she asked.

“Just give me a couple minutes,” Carlisle responded.

The pair got into the show after all — with two passes labeled Bill Walton and Susie Walton. They ended up chatting with band members Jerry Garcia, Bob Weir, and Hart during the set break.

“It was an unbelievable night, and you know, obviously it’s a good first date,” Carlisle said. “I’m thankful to him.”

Like any other Deadhead, Walton made it his mission to see as many shows as possible, claiming to have been at more than 1,000 between the Dead and its other iterations. Sometimes it was to the chagrin of the attendees standing behind his 6-foot-11 frame.

Dead & Company, the latest iteration of the band, shared its condolences for Walton on Monday: “Fare you well, fare you well, we love you more than words can tell.

“Bill was an irreplaceable force and spirit in our family. Father Time, Rhythm Devil, biggest Deadhead ever. Over 1,000 shows and couldn’t get enough. He loved this band and we loved him.”

Walton credited the Dead with helping him through the difficulties in his life.

“It’s just part of me now, it’s in my blood,” he said. “Whenever I have to do something that’s really important that I have to do, whether it’s a big television show, or a big presentation, or whatever it is, and I have to be on my game, I do what Jerry told us to do: ‘When you get confused, listen to the music play.’

“And you get that music in your body, in your soul, and it carries you. And the sense of the future, the sense of looking forward, which is what the Grateful Dead are always about, that is what carries us through the tough times. And when you’re sad, when you’re lonely, when the ball bounces the other way, whatever it is, that it’s not working out for you, just turn it on.”

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