The first time Bill Walton shook my hand, it felt like I had arrived.

When I covered Utah men’s basketball for The Salt Lake Tribune nearly a decade ago, getting a shoutout on the air was a big deal. Texts started flooding in during an ESPN game: Walton had mentioned one of my bylines. After the buzzer, I ambled down the stairway at the Huntsman Center to tell him thanks.

When I told him who I was and why I came, Walton’s eyes lit up bigger than mine: “What a wonderful story,” he said with a sweeping sense of grandeur. “It will change lives.”

I don’t know if my work ever really changed lives, but I know for a fact that Bill Walton did. His 71 years before he died on Monday from cancer were full of zany energy and unique insight. Being able to talk to the 6-foot-11 Hall of Famer, even for a few moments, felt like life itself was altered after you met him.

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That shift in perspective varied from pure inspiration to the downright psychedelic. I’ll never forget hearing him on a Pac-12 Network broadcast when he suggested Colorado’s star forward’s bones would end up in the Boulder Museum of Natural History. He constantly made not-so-subtle euphemisms about his affinity for altered states on air — when he wasn’t talking about classical art, Native peoples, incense or cycling. You could not pigeonhole Bill Walton, you could only join in on wherever his rambling took him.

When I went on to cover the Lakers, I got a view into how unusual being a Walton was: His son, Luke, told me that the kids didn’t have their own clothes; they selected what they wanted to wear that day from a communal rack. A longtime Lakers PR man tweeted Monday that Walton used to leave him rambling voicemails, always starting off by introducing himself as “Luke’s dad.”

I came to learn that Bill Walton treated everyone with the same sense of wonder that he treated me. Through his days as a star center at UCLA, Portland and Boston to his unforgettable broadcasting career spanning the NBA and college, he believed in indulging in the moment, understanding that every game he played in or called on air was a blessing.

He treated every person he met with kindness and the deference most of us might reserve for our closest friends. He had the power to make people feel special, and he used that gift as generously as anyone I’ve ever known. But tellingly, he thought he was the one reaping the benefits: A documentary about his life made last year was called “The Luckiest Guy In the World.”

Bill Walton was bigger than college basketball — bigger than college sports, honestly — but it’s hard for me not to associate him with the Pac-12, a conference he constantly lavished with praise for its storied history, phenomenal athletes and role-developing values that would carry over off the field. He talked often about John Wooden, the glory of teamwork and the opportunity for every athlete to achieve something great. “The conference of champions!” he would exclaim nearly a dozen times per broadcast, with an earnest energy that was impossibly charming, even if it was like listening to a broken record.

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I don’t think college sports were actually ever quite as grand or as principled as Bill Walton thought they were, but he believed in their possibility and potential. He saw that any game was a stage for greatness, that any day could be a catalyst in changing someone’s life. It’s something I’ve thought about as the conference he lauded for so long breaks up thanks to the greed and short-term thinking of university presidents, and college sports moves further into a murky, unknowable era.

It almost certainly is coincidence that he died days after the conference he played in and loved finished its last championship. But it’s hard to feel that the two endings aren’t somehow connected.

There is some good change coming: A $2.75 billion settlement in the biggest antitrust lawsuit against the NCAA likely signals that a sizable chunk of revenue will likely wind up going to athletes, who deserved to be paid all along. Revolutionizing the economic model will likely force college athletics to confront the conference-hopping of the last few decades and adopt models that best serve athletes.

I didn’t always see the college sports industry with Bill Walton’s sense of wonder, especially in a model that has only gotten more cynical through the years that he helped prop up the operation. But there were days when it reminded me that sports is a blessing — a celebration of our bodies, of the lessons we’ve learned, of the hard work we’ve applied over time waiting for a moment to shine. When those moments came, Walton made sure we all appreciated them.

College sports feels diminished by his loss and ideals. But thankfully, we get the memories, and certainly now, we know how precious they were.

Thank you for your life, Bill. With your time, you changed countless lives. Including mine.