(Written By Tom Shanahan)
Significant milestones mark the growth of college basketball with prominent announcers riding shotgun. What began as a regional sport broadcast on radio from smoky arenas has evolved to a national stage that allows us to watch games on cable TV from pristine campus arenas.
Marty Glickman was a special voice who described play at the smoky old Madison Square Garden in the days of New York’s famed double-headers that gathered teams from across the country.
Dick Enberg, Al McGuire and Billy Packer came along in the late 1970s on television. They had a special rapport, with Enberg the voice of reason between McGuire’s off-the-wall sense of humor and Packer’s reverence for the game.
McGuire and Packer eventually lost their shooting touch — Enberg, though, remained the Satchel Paige of broadcasting — and their places in history have yet to be matched.
Yes, I know Jim Nantz is recognizable from the NCAA tournament for CBS, but where is he the rest of the year? Isn’t he a golf guy?
We miss a national college basketball voice with the cable games that seem to run together these days. Unless, that is, you’re observant and awake to listen to Walton’s World — Bill Walton on ESPN’s late-night Pac-12 games from the West Coast.
Walton’s World is a wide range of sage comments from the Basketball Hall-of-Famer to his quirky humor from a free-spirited personality that we didn’t know as a player at UCLA or in the NBA. Walton had yet to overcome his stuttering until he decided to take up broadcasting. Now we know a Bill Walton whose personality matches the enthusiasm with which he played.
As an analyst Walton breaks the sport down in simple but colorful terms. He likes to highlight “exquisite footwork” from players focused on fundamentals rather than dunks.
“In this sport, men are made in the paint and championships won in the paint,” he said at a recent Stanford-Arizona game.
He no sooner finished that thought that he quickly transitioned to listing all-time great post players. He went on in no particular order and finished with “the regal gentleman, Hakeem Olajuwon.”
Walton, of course, belongs on any such list, but he speaks as a fan with praise of peers in a manner most superstars are unable to genuinely duplicate. You feel like Walton is in the room talking hoops with you.
That same night when Stanford threatened to upset then-No. 1 Arizona before a home crowd at Maples Arena, Walton raised his voice during a Stanford rally.
“Never discount the power of the crowd!” he said. “We’re seeing it here with a raucous crowd cheering guys on!”
A moment later Walton’s Word mentions alumni from Palo Alto High, which is a neighboring campus to Stanford. He skips over the athletes and mentions Joan Baez, the folk singer who needs no introduction, and Bill Kreutzmann, who does. Thankfully, Bill’s partner, play-by-play man Dave Pasch, who is forced to suffer in the role of straight man when Walton runs off on tangents, explained to the audience that Kreutzmann played with Walton’s favorite band, Grateful Dead.
ESPN doesn’t miss a beat, flashing Palo Alto yearbook photos of Baez and Kreutzmann. What do Baez and Kreutzmann have to do with an Arizona-Stanford basketball game? Nothing. But Walton’s World embraces everything around him; he provides a community history lesson that no other announcer could offer.
Then it’s back to the game.
With 11 seconds to play, Arizona’s Aaron Gordon missed a free throw as the Wildcats cling to a 58-55 lead. Stanford pushes the ball up the court with a chance to hit a 3-pointer and force overtime.
Pasch wonders out loud if Arizona should foul to limit Stanford to two free throws. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard a play-by-play announcer ask that question and the analyst doesn’t provide an answer in time.
“ABSOLUTELY!” Walton bellows. “You’re up by three.”
Arizona’s Nick Johnson fouls with seven seconds to play. Stanford makes two free throws, but time has run out on the Cardinal. They are forced to foul and Arizona escapes Maples Pavilion with a 60-57 win.
That same week, Walton and Pasch worked a USC-Stanford women’s game with Rebecca Lobo, the former Connecticut and WNBA player. Few men analysts could have pulled off Walton’s work that night. You could tell listening to him he didn’t need a crash course to prepare for the game. He knew his history.
At one point Pasch talked about the legends of the women’s game. Lobo was slow to respond. Walton jumped in with a long list spanning decades from UCLA’s Ann Meyers in the 1970s to a player on the court before them, Stanford All-American forward Chiney Ogwumike.
Walton then went on a tangent. He lamented that Ogwumike, who is from Cypress, Tx., near Houston, had never met Olajuwon, the University of Houston alum and legend with the Houston Rockets.
“That’s a travesty,” Walton said.
He knew this tidbit of information because he spoke with her during that time before the game when true stars warm up additionally on the court before the team appears from the locker room to warm up.
From Walton’s pre-game chats with players and their families you’ll also learn that this Hall-of-Famer once identified with the counter-culture loves his country for its freedom and respects the military that defends our freedom. That will come as a shock to a generation that lived through Vietnam and remembers Walton was arrested as UCLA student on May 9, 1972 for protesting the war. John Wooden, his conservative but fair-minded coach, had to bail him out.
Walton was painted with a brush from that era. Some people never forgave him. The late Tom Hamilton, then a retired Admiral, barred Walton’s admission to the San Diego Hall of Fame when he sat on the board at the San Diego Hall of Champions.
There are three Mt. Rushmore faces among athletes from San Diego high schools — Ted Williams, Marcus Allen and Walton. Williams was inducted while still playing for the Boston Red Sox and Allen the year after he retired from the NFL. Walton had to wait three years. Hamilton told fellow board members that Walton wouldn’t be admitted to the San Diego Hall of Fame as long had a say preventing his election.
Walton’s protest was with an unjust war the government tried to justify with deception. But in today’s America, he has done his share to support wounded veterans returning from America’s ongoing war against terrorism.
At the USC-Stanford women’s game, one of the players he chatted with was Stanford’s Amber Orrange.
“What a great story — Amber Orrange,” Walton said. “She comes from a military family; both of her parents went to West Point.”
Then he was off on another tagent.
“There’s a fabulous book about life at West Point, written by the Pulitzer Prize winner, Rick Atkinson — ‘The Long Gray Line.’ It’s about the West Point Class of 1966; the class that lost more service members in the war than any other class in the history West Point.”
Some of those young officers were dead by the time Walton protested in 1972; others might still have been in Vietnam.
Not long ago Walton spoke candidly about death when he was in such back pain he began to feel life wasn’t worth living. But he recovered and celebrates every moment of life. He laments he didn’t get a chance to help Junior Seau, another San Diegan, before he committed suicide in 2012.
And that brings me to one more Walton moment at the mike during a recent Colorado-Arizona game. Play dragged on while Colorado fouled and called timeouts in a futile attempt to overcome a 10-point deficit. One minute of clock time dragged into 10 minutes.
“Is it me or this the longest minute in the history of college basketball?” Walton groaned. “When the doctor tells me I have one minute to live, I want to spend it at a basketball game like this one.”
There’s no place better to enjoy hearing Bill Walton than at the mike at a basketball game. Move over, Marty Glickman, Dick Enberg, Al McGuire and Billy Packer.