Bill Walton is once again the only reason to watch college basketball

Courtesy of Christian Petersen/Getty Images


College basketball season used to be my reason for existence. Sure, I’d keep an eye on offseason events, following which players transferred where, and how schedules shaped up for the upcoming campaign, but that was all a pale substitute for the lightning-in-the-veins thrill that carried me on a Mario Kart star-boost from November ’til early April.

I stepped back from all that some five years ago, burnt out. But I still watch games, especially if I find out that Bill Walton is on the televised call.

Walton is enjoyable precisely because he remains blissfully unaware of the cult that has grown up around him. Appears to, anyway. So many analysts quickly recognize the stardom that has been associated with them, and like toddlers entranced the attention commanded by some cute act of theirs, transform into an agonizing caricature of their former selves.

You might blame ESPN for this, as the sports media empire has a noisome habit of elevating their media personalities into the sort of lodestar that would make the most unscrupulous political apparatchik blush—remember Dream Job?—but somehow Walton has remained blissfully ignorant.

Reminds me of Tom Bombadil in Lord of the Rings. Effectively an allegory for the spirit of the forest, when Bombadil comes into contact with the One Ring, which is, in turn, an allegory for the pure evil emanating from Great Power that inevitably corrodes men’s souls until they are a broken, unrecognizable shell of their former selves—he simply ignores it. The beauty of that passage in the book will always remain with me. It’s one of the best bits of advice you’re likely to get in this world.

Jay Bilas, once a great commentator with a decent sense of humor, started to unravel when he was granted starring roles in commercials. It is now quite telling when ESPN puts Walton and Bilas on a broadcast together. Like Dick Vitale before him, Bilas’s act becomes cringily forced when in close contact with a spirit of the forest like Walton. He devolves into a chattering mess of abstractions and forced jokes.

Even before the pandemic gutted the enjoyment of sport, I was watching games on mute and listening to a podcast or music instead. Comes with the onset of adulthood, I guess—but it’s not too hard to see that sport is quite silly. Clay Travis, of Outkick, had a good description of it on Megyn Kelly’s podcast: it’s the dessert of life. Once you take it out of the realm of pure enjoyment and diversion, you’ve ruined the experience.

Somehow, the fact that Walton provides diversion is always lost on his critics. It always makes me laugh. If you listen to Walton, and are able to push aside your programmed taste for broadcasters, you’ll realize that not only is he a repository of information, he actually speaks with players and coaches and their families and thus unearths some of the most incredible anecdotes you’re likely to hear during a broadcast.

This is a man who cares deeply about humanity and freedom. Some of my favorite sound bytes of his came when Walton was interviewed for “The Other Dream Team” documentary, about the Lithuanian national basketball team at the ’92 Olympics. It was incredibly moving to witness how fully he empathized with the journey, at times Odyssian in scope, the Lithuanian starting 5 in those Games had taken to get to that point. Here were men fighting to throw off the Communist yoke that had shackled their country for the better part of a century. Walton immediately saw that this story was about freedom.

Wait—maybe sport can amount to something more than simply being silly.

There is also the professional relationship Walton shares with play-by-play guy Dave Pasch that has grown into one of the greatest unintended productions of the Odd Couple, Pasch playing the eternal straight man to Walton’s zany unpredictability.

ESPN hasn’t paired them together yet this season, and one would think that when they do meet again, as usually happens during the network’s coverage of the Pac-12 conference season, it won’t be the same. They’ll either be six feet removed from each other, or divided by a plexiglass screen, or on separate ends of the arena. It’ll negate everything that makes Walton great—utter unpredictability, in close proximity to a target.

Walton was once again on the call for the Maui Invitational—only this year, it was the Camping World Maui Invitational…played at a Harrah’s Cherokee Center in Asheville, N.C. devoid of fans and any real sort of spirit.

Walton announced along Jason Benetti, the sort of stand-in to Pasch I wish Walton would greet with the disbelief Brick evinces when he shows up to work in Anchorman and, seeing Christina Applegate in the chair normally occupied by his friend Mr. Burgundy, is able only to utter “You’re not Ron…”

Benetti does what everyone who isn’t Dave does when paired with Walton: tries way too hard to recreate the magic those two conjure up organically. Of course it doesn’t work. The best way to “handle” Walton is to follow the advice Phil Jackson gave Steve Kerr in the final timeout in Game 6 of the ’98 NBA Finals. Kerr joked at the championship parade that as he watched Jackson drawing up a play for Michael Jordan for that fateful possession, he reminded his coach that, y’know, the year before he had hit the series-clinching jumper against the Jazz.

Jackson looked up from his clipboard, stared at Kerr, and told him, “Get the ball to Michael, and get the hell out of his way.”

It’s just human nature, I guess, to try and recreate what you’ve seen work so well with others. It’s not too hard to see how it would work: a guy like Benetti thinks, hey, I’m a talented broadcaster; I’ve got a sense of humor—why shouldn’t I be able to pair well with Walton?

Maybe someone other than Pasch will come along one day and pull it off. So far, it’s a no-go, the likes of Benetti commenting always with one eye on how a perceived phrase might suddenly go viral on Twitter, or blow up on social media. You can always tell when someone starts doing the Bilas; it’s awful to see.

Sport has always taken itself too seriously for its own good—think of English public schools waxing poetic upon their capacity for shaping the future stewards of empire—now we’re indoctrinated that it will play a leading role in re-shaping society.

Huge, if true. I’m more for the likes of Walton; who never takes the viewer for granted, and certainly never takes him to task during a game. He just provides a bit of enjoyment, which is a godsend of a respite in a broken world. There will always be time to change the world. Right now, we’d just like to watch the game.

Game of life, with a twist—and shout. Twitter: @alleywhoops

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