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Why Gaelic footballers have the NFL's attention: 'These lads can kick balls'

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Why Gaelic footballers have the NFL's attention: 'These lads can kick balls'

TAMPA, Fla. — A tall lad with tousled brown hair and ruddy cheeks flipped through the pages of his light green leather notebook, looking at “wee reminders” to get his head right.

Killer mindset

YOU ABSOLUTELY DESERVE THIS

Teams are watching me. Brilliant!

The kicking workout was the grand finale of the NFL’s International Player Pathway pro day this Wednesday afternoon at the University of South Florida. The event featured the first kickers and punters in the IPP program, which since 2017 has sought to provide players outside of North America with opportunities to play in the league.

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Three of the kickers were plucked straight from Gaelic football, Ireland’s most popular sport. Charlie Smyth, 22, of Down, Mark Jackson, 25, of Wicklow, and Rory Beggan, 31, of Monaghan, each left their posts as goalkeepers for their county teams this winter to give NFL kickin’ a fair go.

The lads started kicking NFL footballs this past fall, so Smyth’s wee written reminders were necessary. He stretched outside in the Florida sun before his workout, then took out his phone and watched a cutup of himself making 50-plus-yard field goals at this same indoor field.

“I know I can do it here,” he said.

Smyth has been illegally streaming NFL games since he was 16. When he was 18, he sent an email to [email protected] pitching himself as an NFL kicker. He never heard back.

This past August, during his off-time from his county team, he finally went to an American football kicking session in Dublin, “just for the craic,” he said. (For the uninitiated, “craic,” pronounced “crack,” means fun in Irish.)

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The craic turned serious and led Smyth to the scouting combine, where he caught the eye of several NFL special teams coaches, then to Tampa for this second NFL audience.

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The Gaelic kickers were inconsistent past 50 yards in their first appearance in front of NFL teams — “I was kicking myself a bit after the combine,” Beggan said, no pun intended — so this time they wanted to prove they had the distance. When Beggan lined up from 50 yards, he banged it through. Then again from 55 and again from 60. Jackson was perfect through 45 yards and narrowly missed from 50-plus. Smyth drilled his 50-yard attempt, missed from 55, then was good from 60.

After Smyth knocked in his last long attempt, a senior NFL executive who’d been on the field said he expected at least one of the Irish guys to sign with an NFL team, a feat that once seemed outlandish.

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“I have to be very honest, I didn’t expect it,” said Ravens assistant special teams coach Randy Brown.

“They were further ahead than everybody expected,” said Saints special teams coordinator Darren Rizzi. “There’s the expression, an ‘NFL leg.’ All of them have an NFL leg.”

These “Irish Gaelic” guys, as special teams coaches call them, seemed to come out of nowhere. So how the feck did they go from kicking 45s and frees to kicking field goals for NFL personnel?


The lad behind the lads is Tadhg Leader. Fair-skinned and ginger-haired and -bearded, Leader is a former professional rugby player from Galway on the west coast of Ireland. He wound up stateside with Major League Rugby in 2018, and when the pandemic hit he started kicking NFL footballs just for the craic.

Soon he started training with John Carney, the former NFL All-Pro who is fifth on the all-time scoring list. Carney encouraged Leader, then 28, to make a career out of kicking, so Leader called the IPP.

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The program didn’t carry kickers and punters, so he sent his tape to NFL teams. He was told he needed more game experience, so he played in the Spring League, then European League Football before finally signing with the Canadian Football League’s Hamilton Tiger-Cats in 2022. In his only preseason appearance, he kicked a walk-off 35-yard game-winner.

“Life was great,” Leader said. “I thought I was going to be there for the season.”

But then Hamilton’s general manager called him in and told him he was too raw. Leader was 30 years old, and despite getting more tape, he kept hearing the same feedback.

“Well, like, where else do I get experience?” Leader said.

He tried to kick in the XFL but had issues getting a visa, so he decided to move on. “It’s looking like it’s too late for me,” he said, explaining his mindset. “Let me go home to Ireland to start a pathway that everyone else can walk.”

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Last February, Leader started a business to discover Irish kicking talent and help them land college scholarships. He wanted to create a program where cost wouldn’t be a barrier, so he spent his own money at the start, including at least a thousand dollars on footballs. His family thought he’d gone mad.

“It was extremely raw,” Leader said. But in a few months, he’d helped two Irish kickers earn college scholarships and arranged a sponsorship with Delta Airlines.

While Leader was training his first class of soon-to-be collegiate kickers, NFL special teams coordinators convened with the league office to discuss an idea they’d been talking about for years: taking the specialists out of the scouting combine and creating a separate event so they could invite more players and do more kicking.

Brown, the Ravens coach, said that when they presented their vision to NFL EVP of Football operations Troy Vincent, Vincent told them he’d like to see an international component. Last April, James Cook, who runs the IPP and knew of Leader’s quick work with Irish kickers, scheduled a meeting with him at the NFL’s London office.

Leader happened to be in town on business for his day job at J.P. Morgan and snuck away to meet with Cook, who told him they were considering adding kickers and punters to the IPP. Nothing was finalized, but did he think the guys were out there? And if so, could he get them ready in time?

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“The biggest barrier that exists is not the capability, but it’s the access,” Leader told Cook. “And if you guys can give access, I can get the kicking talent.”


Monaghan’s Rory Beggan kicks a free during a match against Cavan on Sunday, April 7. (Ramsey Cardy / Sportsfile via Getty Images)

There are only two sports in the world where athletes kick a ball off the grass and send it high through uprights. And the width of the posts in Gaelic football is only about three feet wider than NFL and college football goal posts.

“Kicking the ball is part of our DNA growing up here in Ireland,” Leader said. “Americans throw baseballs, basketballs, footballs. We don’t do that. We pass those balls with our feet, so now we’ve just been given a new ball to use our feet with …

“It’s the most perfect of synergies, just no one’s ever connected the dots.”

His girlfriend and parents urged him to iron out more details with the NFL, but Leader couldn’t wait. Driving around the country, he started training a group of 12 Gaelic football players whenever they could make time.

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Leader didn’t want to get on the bad side of any coaches, so he got the word out through mutual friends and encouraged players to reach out for information. He wound up with a group of the country’s most talented Gaelic goalkeepers, the most prolific off-the-ground kickers of any position in the sport.

Beggan is the equivalent of an All-Star. Jackson is the youngest goalkeeper in Gaelic Athletic Association history to score 100 career points. Beggan tried to mix in the odd kicking session during the fall while his focus was with his club team.

Gaelic players aren’t paid — Beggan runs his own sportswear business — so it was tough to balance it all. He made it work for his “favorite skill in Gaelic football,” which also requires players to run, carry, pass and bounce the ball.

“I love kickin’ out of hands,” Beggan said. “I love kickin’ off the ground.”

Smyth, a graduate student in physical education, arrived frazzled and late to his first session in August because he’d confused the location. “My head was gone and my laces weren’t even tied,” he said. He didn’t know how to set up the holder and had to kick four field goals in a row to catch up to everyone else.

He made them all.

By October, Leader whittled his group of 12 down to his four best — the Gaelic trio plus Leader’s younger brother, Darragh, a rugby player turned punter, and they were evaluated by NFL UK personnel in London.

Leader says there are only two indoor fields in Ireland, so that often meant training through rough weather. On one cold and rainy day in Dublin, Jackson, who also punts, said he could barely get an attempt off in the gale-force winds.

“Every time you dropped the ball, the ball moved around six yards,” he said.

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They’d get stares from onlookers, “especially when we’re in a public park and a ma and a dog was walking around the field,” says Leader. “We looked like these weird fellas that were kicking weird-shaped balls. No one really knew what was going on.”

In December, the four Irish players found out they’d earned spots in the IPP along with Harry Mallinder, a British rugby player turned punter.

Smyth finally told his Gaelic manager that he’d been kicking American footballs in his spare time, and that he’d be stepping away for now — maybe forever, depending on how the NFL received him. Jackson said his Wicklow teammates and boss were shocked, but supportive. He’d been playing in goal for the club since he was 18. “No one expected me to be leaving at 25,” he said.

The lads took up kicking full-time with Leader, whose volunteer work became a paid role with the NFL in January. Leader took them to Boston to get acclimatized to America before joining the other players in the IPP program in Florida in early February.

In Boston, they saw a field marked up with hashes and numbers for the first time, as well as yellow uprights (in Gaelic football, the posts are white with a black spot in the center of the crossbar). They’ve been playing “Madden” and reviewing game film to master the intricacies of situational football and spent time learning about the business side of NFL clubs and the value of each roster spot.

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“We’re quick learners, in fairness to us,” Beggan said.

Beggan said the hardest adjustment has been wearing all the gear. “Funny, we were doing all this stuff in Ireland with no helmet or pads on us. So we thought this is quite easy, then,” he said. They took to wearing their helmets for five or ten minutes at a time to get used to the weight while sitting around in their villas at IMG Academy about an hour’s drive south of Tampa.

In February, Brown visited IMG to get them ready for the combine. While some of the guys were punting, he told Smyth to “Go down there and shag.” Smyth looked at him like he was crazy. The rest cracked up laughing.

“Tadgh looked at me and he says, ‘You know, shag means something different,’” Brown said. “And I said, Oh, yeah I watched ‘Austin Powers.’”


When the lads took the field at Lucas Oil Stadium to participate in the first-ever specialist showcase, there was at least one long snapper who scoffed at their presence.

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“He thought we played Gaelic football in kilts,” Jackson said. “I stepped up for my first kick and banged it through the posts, and I think he started to take note then that yeah, these lads can kick balls.”

Brown, who coaches the NFL’s best kicker in Justin Tucker, started to believe when he saw the way the balls traveled end-over-end — and when he closed his eyes and heard a deep thud, like a fist pounding a chest, the distinct sound of an NFL kick.

“It brought a smile to your face,” Brown said. “God, they did it.”

“I was blown away by how good they are in a short amount of time,” said Cowboys special teams coordinator John Fassel.

When they interviewed in Indianapolis, the Irish trio had to explain Gaelic football to the coaches, who had no idea that although it is an amateur sport, athletes train like professionals and play in front of crowds of 80,000 people in the All-Ireland tournament.

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“When you tell the teams that you’ve played at an elite level for eight years, it kind of perks their ears up a bit,” Jackson said.

“These guys are like household names in their counties in Ireland, and they dropped everything to pursue this dream,” Rizzi said.

Beggan’s Monaghan team went 1-6 in his absence and was relegated out of the first division after ten years in the big league. He is back playing for the club while he awaits an NFL opportunity. Jackson is training with Wicklow, which also went 1-6, but doesn’t want to risk injury.

Last year, Monaghan made it to the semi-final of the All-Ireland tournament, in which every county team plays for the Sam Maguire Cup. This year’s tournament started on April 6 and runs through July. Beggan isn’t sure how long he’ll be with the team if the NFL comes calling.

“They don’t know how it’s gonna go,” Beggan said. “And I suppose over the last few weeks, we’re in the unknown.”

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Charlie Smyth signs an American football for a young Irish fan. (Courtesy of Brendan Monaghan)

When the Gaelic kickers first walked into the interview rooms at the combine, NFL coaches were struck by their size (average height: 6-3, average weight: 215 pounds). Beggan is built like a rhinoceros. Jackson’s quads compare favorably with Saquon Barkley’s. Smyth is a lanky 6-4.

The new NFL kickoff will increase returns, and a kicker who can run and make a tackle downfield could prove useful. “We played a tough sport where you have to give hits and take hits as well,” Jackson said. “We’re not just some wee fragile kickers.”

“Some special teams coaches were calling them ‘brick sh–houses’, I think that’s the phrase,” Leader said.

They were rooting for the new kickoff to pass because it will emphasize directional kicking, away from the returners in a landing zone — exactly where they’d be placing the ball on kick-outs in Gaelic football. “We feel we have a bigger strength to maybe what the Americans have,” Beggan said.

At the combine, they kicked with long snappers they’d never practiced with before. At their pro day, they chose to kick with a long snapper and holder, a risk very few college specialists take, because they wanted to address the biggest question in their NFL transition: can they consistently handle the live field goal operation?

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A perfect NFL snap, hold and kick should happen in 1.3 seconds to beat the rush, and the lads aren’t quite up to speed yet. Scouts at USF muttered that the kickers were a bit slow. But Brown is mindful that they are at the infant stage of the position. Learning intricacies, like how to adjust a plant leg for wind, will come later.

In September, the NFL announced that starting in 2024, every NFL practice squad would expand to include a 17th spot reserved for an international player. (In the past, international players had been allocated to just one division per year.) That could prove to be an opportunity for specialists.

Most NFL teams don’t carry a second kicker or punter on the roster, and most starters only practice two days a week. Special teams practice goes on without them with the help of the JUGS machine.

“Everybody probably should use that spot for a kicker,” Fassel said. “Let’s have a guy on the roster the whole time so we’re training him so we don’t have to go get somebody once somebody gets hurt.”

And in the NFL’s salary-capped world, a potential source of young, homegrown — read “cheap” — developmental talent could prove incredibly valuable. “Could they kick this year in the NFL?” Brown said. “Maybe, but the deck is stacked against them. Could they develop in the next 12 to 24 months? Absolutely.”

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“This isn’t some marketing tool,” Jackson said. This isn’t any gimmick. We’re elite-level kickers. We’re not perfect, but if we were on a roster for a year we won’t be too far off.”


As the scouts cleared out of the USF facility following a long day, Leader sat on the turf and reviewed his notes, sighing in relief and exhaustion.

His work wasn’t done yet. He’d head back to Ireland the next day to host another kicking workshop to discover the next wave of young talent. “You think I’m joking, but there’s hundreds of Irish kids just like these guys,” Leader said.

Smyth scrolled through a flurry of excited texts from his parents, who’d been watching his workout on Instagram Live from their home in Mayobridge. When he earned his IPP spot in December, his friends still didn’t believe this was legit. “Sure you’re not going to the NFL,” he says they told him.

“Just you watch, boys,” Smyth told his friends then.

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A week after the Florida workout, Smyth was in a yoga class with the rest of the IPP players. They aren’t supposed to bring their phones in, but he was expecting an important update. During the last meditation, he opened his eyes a crack to see a notification flash a message with a New Orleans Saints logo.

“We were doing our last namaste, but I knew this was happening,” Smyth said. “I was just trying to stay calm and I was like, sh–, the Saints are bringing me in!”

Smyth worked out for New Orleans that Friday morning. Afterward, coaches told him he could go shower before his flight back to Tampa. Then, Harry Piper, a Saints scouting assistant, told Smyth he should head upstairs.

They were getting his paperwork ready.

Smyth is back in Ireland until OTAs start next week, and he’s talked to what feels like every journalist in the country. He overheard his sister’s colleagues talking about him on a work call and was even a guest on “The Late Late Show,” the country’s most popular television show.

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This past weekend, Smyth’s club GAA team in Mayobridge threw him a party. When he walked in, everybody cheered and applauded. He says he hasn’t cried yet, because he always knew what he was capable of.

“It’s where I saw myself getting to,” he said. “It’s where I expected to be.”

In New Orleans, he believes he has a chance to compete for the starting job. “I didn’t make all these sacrifices just to be happy to sit on a practice squad,” Smyth said.

After a Q&A with the 100 or so kids at his club reception, he headed to Gorman’s, the local pub, with a few pals. He’s normally not a Guinness guy, but he ordered a few pints. He knows it won’t taste as good in New Orleans.

(Illustration: Eamonn Dalton / The Athletic; photos courtesy of NFL UK)

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Celtics advance to NBA Finals after completing sweet of Pacers

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Celtics advance to NBA Finals after completing sweet of Pacers

All season long, the Eastern Conference was the Boston Celtics’ to lose.

After dominating their side of the bracket, they are back in the NBA Finals.

The Celtics completed the sweep of the Indiana Pacers on Monday night to return to the bidding of the Larry O’Brien Trophy for the second time in three seasons.

Jaylen Brown #7 of the Boston Celtics accepts The Larry Bird Trophy after winning Game Four of the Eastern Conference Finals at Gainbridge Fieldhouse on May 27, 2024 in Indianapolis, Indiana.  (Justin Casterline/Getty Images)

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The Pacers did all they could to live to see another day, leading by as many as nine points, but Derrick White broke a 102-102 tie with a three-pointer with just about 45 seconds to go.

Indy led by four with 3:33 to go, but missed their final four shots and turned the ball over twice – Jrue Holiday grabbed an offensive rebound with just over four seconds left to ice it.

The Celtics are seeking revenge after last year’s utter failure, where as the No. 2 seed, lost in the first round to the Miami Heat, an eighth seed, in the Eastern Conference Finals – they had fallen in that series, three games to none, and forced a Game 7, but lost it.

Celtics win East

The Boston Celtics celebrate after winning Game Four of the Eastern Conference Finals at Gainbridge Fieldhouse on May 27, 2024 in Indianapolis, Indiana.  (Dylan Buell/Getty Images)

Boston has not won the title since 2008 – they lost to the Golden State Warriors in six games two years ago. It’s currently their second-longest drought, with their longest having been from 1987 to their most recent championship season 15 years ago. 

After beating the Los Angeles Lakers that year, Kobe Bryant got revenge by winning two years later, going back-to-back.

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Tyrese Haliburton missed his second-straight game for Indiana with an injured left hamstring.

Jaylen Brown with trophy

Jaylen Brown #7 of the Boston Celtics accepts the The Larry Bird Trophy earning the Eastern Conference Finals MVP after winning Game Four of the Eastern Conference Finals at Gainbridge Fieldhouse on May 27, 2024 in Indianapolis, Indiana.  (Dylan Buell/Getty Images)

Boston is 12-2 in these playoffs – they beat both the No. 8 Heat and No. 4 Cleveland Cavaliers in five games.

Jaylen Brown was named the series MVP, averaging 27.3 points per game.

Follow Fox News Digital’s sports coverage on X, and subscribe to the Fox News Sports Huddle newsletter.

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Eagles Flight, half brother to Flightline, makes impressive winning debut at Santa Anita

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Eagles Flight, half brother to Flightline, makes impressive winning debut at Santa Anita

As Eagles Flight was walked from the detention barn toward the paddock at Santa Anita on Monday, the 3-year-old son of Curlin could look up and see a mural of his half brother, 2022 Horse of the Year Flightline. Expectations were high for Eagles Flight’s debut after a series of dazzling workouts, and let’s just say the future looks bright.

With jockey Flavien Prat aboard and sent off as the even-money favorite, Eagles Flight won the maiden special weight race for six furlongs by 2 3/4 lengths in 1:10.07. The way Eagles Flight pulled away in the stretch and overcame being in tight quarters and having dirt kicked into his face made trainer John Sadler very happy.

“He got about four races of experience in him from one race,” Sadler said.

There was a brief delay in the paddock because Prat was wearing the wrong silks and needed to switch to those from Summer Wind Equine, the breeder and primary owner with Hronis Racing and William Farish. Eagles Flight’s mother, Feathered, also produced Flightline, who won all six of his starts and also was trained by Sadler.

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Sadler said afterward Eagles Flight acts as if he wants to run a mile, so that could be in the future plans, maybe even the Breeders’ Cup Dirt Mile at Del Mar later this year.

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Bill Walton's former colleague, Jim Gray, 'heartbroken' over death of 'best friend': 'A national treasure'

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Bill Walton's former colleague, Jim Gray, 'heartbroken' over death of 'best friend': 'A national treasure'

The sports world lost an icon on Monday as basketball Hall of Famer-turned-analyst Bill Walton died of cancer at age 71.

Walton was loved by many, especially former colleague Jim Gray, who worked with Walton for several networks, and the two shared a friendship for 40 years.

“My heart is broken. Bill Walton was the best friend a guy could ever have,” Gray sent in an email to Fox News Digital. “He was loving, generous, kind, caring, intelligent, and so much fun. He loved life, his family, basketball, and most of all, people. I always marveled at how he had time for everyone and was never in a hurry. Bill was a national treasure and brought joy to the world.”

Announcer Jim Gray, right, is shown with analyst Bill Walton during the Duke-Wisconsin game at Lucas Oil Stadium in Indianapolis on April 6, 2015. (John W. McDonough/Sports Illustrated via Getty Images)

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“For 40 years, every time we were together, we would laugh,” he wrote. “He was a library of knowledge and a fountain of wisdom. Broadcasting games together at CBS, NBC, ESPN, ABC, Westwood One, and the [Sacramento] Kings was a strange and wonderful journey. I’m grateful for all the years with Bill. It was the blessing of a lifetime. He will be in my heart forever.”

“May God rest his soul and bless Lori, Adam, Chris, Nate, and Luke. Frann and I send our love, and we will always honor Bill’s memory and be there for the Walton family, just as he was always there for us,” Gray continued.

“Bill would always say, ‘I’m the luckiest man in the world.’” No, Bill, I am, and we all are, because we knew you. Rest in peace, my friend.”

Walton once credited Gray for saving his life in 2017 by finding his spine surgeon when he had been going through physical issues and his spine “absolutely collapsed and failed” nine years prior. Walton said he “had nothing” and contemplated the worst.

Bill Walton smiles

Bill Walton as a part of State Farm All-Star Saturday Night on Feb. 17, 2024, at Lucas Oil Stadium in Indianapolis. (David Dow/NBAE via Getty Images)

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“My life was not worth living. I was going to kill myself. If I had a gun, I would have used it,” Walton said. “But Jim called every single day, said, ‘Bill, don’t give up, you can make it …’ He did everything he could to make sure I still had a chance.”

Walton won three straight national player of the year awards from 1972 to 1974 before becoming the first overall pick in the 1974 NBA Draft by the Portland Trail Blazers. His impact on an NBA court was quick as the Trail Blazers would go on to win the 1978 NBA Championship, and Walton was named Finals MVP and the league MVP for that season.

Following his time in Portland, Walton moved on to the then-San Diego Clippers, where he spent four seasons, including his final one when they moved to Los Angeles. He joined the Celtics for the 1985-1986 season, helping them to the NBA title that year, and he was named the league’s Sixth Man of the Year as well.  

Walton finished his career averaging 13.3 points, 10.5 rebounds and 2.2 blocks per game over 468 contests. He was named to the NBA’s 50th and 75th anniversary teams.

Walton’s color commentary was exceptional as he would always keep viewers – and his play-by-play partners – on their toes with wild stories from his playing days while providing excellent analysis and insight on the game at the same time.

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Walton was also a father who passed the game down to his children, including Luke Walton, who won back-to-back NBA Finals with the Los Angeles Lakers in 2009 and 2010 during his playing days. Luke currently serves as an assistant coach for the Cleveland Cavaliers after previously head coaching the Lakers (2016-2019) and Kings (2019-2022).

Bill Walton calling game

Bill Walton (Ethan Miller/Getty Images/File)

Chris Walton (San Diego State), Nate Walton (Princeton) and Adam Walton (LSU, Pomona College, College of Notre Dame) all played college basketball as well.

Fox News’ Scott Thompson contributed to this report.

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