Every year while the college athletic world is obsessing over the NCAA basketball tournament, otherwise known as March Madness, I can’t help but recall my own little March Madness moment with basketball legend Bill Walton.
This year’s trigger for that memory occurred well after midnight, when, still wound up after playing a gig in town, I found myself in front of the TV, channel changer in hand, clicking away. The clicking came to an abrupt halt when I saw the highly recognizable “mug” and heard the unmistakable voice of Bill Walton erupt across the screen.
There was Walton, smiling face, donned in a brightly colored T-shirt, in typical Bill Walton fashion, pontificating about life, pop culture, Jerry Garcia and, when he got around to it, commenting on the Pac-12 basketball game being played in front of him. As always, he was doing it his way - eccentric, funny, at times profound, at other times, simply nutty, but more than anything, entertaining.
Of course, after his career on the court, he has earned the right to do it any way he wants. A member of the Basketball Hall of Fame, Walton has always been one of my favorite athletes for two reasons.
First is that he was the ultimate team player – one of the best, if not the best, passing big men of all time. As a fellow player who didn’t quite have the physical tools to score consistently in one on one situations, I had to rely on moving without the ball to create scoring opportunities. That meant playing off screens and making crisp cuts and hoping that the ball would be delivered at the right place at the right time to be able to take advantage of the space I had created for an open shot. There are several players who I would have loved to play with. Walton, Magic Johnson, Larry Bird and Steve Nash to name a few. If you were willing to work hard and move strategically without the ball, they would deliver it to you on time and on target. That would have been basketball Nirvana.
Walton was one of my all time favorite athletes for another reason. He did it his way and broke the mold for athletes. This is the guy who convinced his coach at UCLA, the legendary John Wooden, that it was not only in his (Walton’s) best interests, but also the team’s, that he be allowed to smoke pot. He also was a passionate Grateful Dead fan who played with the Dead in front of the Pyramids. How cool is that?
I’ve always admired athletes who broke the mold. Muhammad Ali for his willingness to put everything on the line for a political cause such as opposing the Vietnam War or a social cause such as human rights. In his case, he risked everything, including being jailed and stripped of his heavyweight title during the prime of his career. That takes uncommon courage. Joe Namath has always been a favorite because he proved that you could have long hair, drink whiskey and chase women and still be a great athlete. None of these athletes were going allow themselves to be defined by or put in to a box by the athletic establishment.
Seeing Walton’s face on the screen brought me back to 1986 in Boise, Idaho when I had a chance encounter with him. Throughout that year, the basketball community was in the middle of a nationwide campaign to celebrate basketball’s invention by Dr. James Naismith 100 years earlier. There were all kinds of events throughout the year commemorating that milestone.
At the time, I was serving as associate commissioner of the Southeastern Conference and Louisiana State University was appearing in a first round NCAA basketball tournament game. Conference representatives always attended those games and I was assigned to fly from Birmingham , Alabama, site of the SEC”S offices, to Boise to represent the SEC.
My Walton moment came at the end of LSU’s practice the day before the game. Walton was slated to do the color commentary for the game. As the players and coaches filed off to the locker room, I found myself in an empty arena with him. He was walking across the floor headed for the exit when I thought, “Hey, who better to commemorate 100 years of basketball with than the Big Redhead?”
“Hey Bill”, I called to him.
He turned and looked over his shoulder.
Can I ask for your help with something?” I continued.
“Sure”, he responded.
“Can you help me to celebrate the 100 years of basketball?”
He looked puzzled, but he was game. I grabbed a basketball and asked him to plant himself in the lane. I posted up against him and launched a half-hearted hook shot that he promptly smacked away. I’ve had my fair share of shots blocked many, including by the likes of Alex English, Larry Nance and Orlando Woolridge. While having your shot stuffed back in your face is never fun, this was one block I could gladly live with.
“Thanks”, I said. “I can’t think of a better way to celebrate 100 years of this game I love than having Bill Walton block my shot.”
He looked at me like I was a little bit crazy, half smiled and said, “Glad to help.”
He turned and began walking off the court.
While I was happy with my small, personal celebration of James Naismith’s wonderful game, as a bit of a Deadhead myself, I need just a tiny bit more from him.
“Hey Bill,” I called. “ American Beauty is one of the all-time great albums, isn’t it?
With that, he turned, gave me a “double take” sort of look, broke into a big smile and with a thumbs up, replied, “It’s awesome!”
And as he exited the court and entered the bowels of the arena, I swear I heard the faint sound of him singing “Sugar Magnolia, blossoms blooming, heads all empty but I don’t care…”