Bill Walton may be known to some as a legendary NBA player, but to us he’s just one of our tallest family members. Walton has been a diehard Deadhead for decades now, even making his debut as a Rhythm Devil in the recent Dead & Company tour finale. With Walton’s high-profile fandom, the basketball player has shared some thoughts on the late great Grateful Dead guitarist Jerry Garcia in a new post on Mickey Hart’s website, on the 21st anniversary of Garcia’s death.

Walton writes about his experience learning about Garcia’s death, the aftermath, and the legacy. You can read his note below.

August 9, 2016

It was 21 years ago, in early August. It was in the morning. I was at home in San Diego. The fog was still in. But it was bound to be another perfect day. It was summer in San Diego. I was playing the piano, practicing for the lesson that would come from Dmitry later on. The house and everything around was very, very quiet, just like always, before the children woke up. The phone rang. I never answer the phone when I’m working my way into the zone on the piano–the time and moments are just too precious. But for some reason, I got up, walked to the phone and picked up. It was Ram Rod. He was very quiet, and sad. Jerry had just died. And things were never the same again. Ever.

A few days later there was a service, at Saint Stephen’s church in Belvedere, half-way up a small hill that jutted out into San Francisco Bay. It was foggy that day too. We got there real early. It was overwhelmingly sad. What to do ? What to say? Where to go?Everybody was there. Ken Kesey and Robert Hunter spoke. David Grisman played. Bob Dylan came to silently pray. So did Bruce Hornsby. Mostly, people cried. Sad, lonely and fearful tears fell like stones from our eyes. We stayed late, at the church, until there was nobody else there.

Everybody reconvened at Bill Graham’s old house up on top of the hill. Michael Klein had bought it after Bill had died. There was no sense of time, or anything else. Everybody and everything was numb. Jerry was a rare and different force of nature. He personified excellence at whatever he chose to be important.

Jerry lived in a sad, hard and cruel world that had grown dark and mean. But with a promise of the glow, he was able to beautify that existence with his spirit, his soul, his heart, his mind, his voice, and his guitar. Jerry could make people happy. He was happy himself. Life with Jerry was like a spiritual quest, but he didn’t see things that way– -at all—ever. He was fun, and he had fun. He was welcoming to so many; and the inclusiveness that was his own life was infectious. He had so many remarkable and enviable qualities. He was kind, sweet, playful, joyous, sharing, gentle,loving, contemplative, creative, imaginative, unpredictable, warm, funny, thoughtful, empathetic,adventuresome and innovative–for starters.

And he was most curious about nearly everything; and more than willing to explore and experiment beyond the edge.Jerry was always able to float seamlessly between so many personalities: from the soft and awestruck freshness of a young child; to the rambunctious wildness and freedom from restraint of unbridled and unconquerable adolescence; to the laser focus and steeled determination of the guy charged with getting things done now; to the wizened sage of the poised, serious and composed master-teacher responsible for everything.

But it was never easy for Jerry. Everybody always wanted something from him, mostly help. Of all the people I’ve ever known, Jerry and Bob Dylan always get the weirdest trips laid on their doorsteps. But Jerry had kindness, elegance, style and taste. He had incredibly high moral standards. And he wouldn’t get involved in things that he didn’t think were right or pure; nor sing songs that delivered a message that he thought inappropriate. Jerry carried a very heavy burden–the failures, flaws and limitations of others. But having given the best he had to give, his heart eventually just broke down. The load was simply too heavy.The scope of his life, dreams and aspirations were universal–and beyond, to places that only he could see, and get to.

It was his selfless integrity, class and dignity, at an unparalleled level, that helped create the culture that was so alluring to all of us. And as his melodies touched the themes and chords of our lives, he sang directly to each of us about love, death, forgiveness and renewal. Jerry was a great leader in many classic ways. He made it fun. He made it fair. He made it authentically real. He made it cool. He made you want to come back for more–forever. He knew that the band had something very special going, and he was most often able to fight off the forces of greed and selfishness.

At the end of the day, Jerry dreamed of a world as it could be. He was a man of honor who was personally able to make good things happen. And keep the bad things at bay. And that is really hard to do. And as we all said a long, sad, quiet, silent goodbye, we knew that it would never be the same again. We thank you, Jerry. We thank you for your sacrifice. We thank you for your life.

We’ll always remember you, Jerry, more so today than ever before, now that we’re all alone, in the great unknown.

~Bill Walton