Champion of the Conference of Champions

Bill Walton was the best spokesman our conference ever had. Rest in peace, big man.

Before I talk about Bill Walton, can I ask you to do something? It’s easy, I promise. Reply to this email with one word: dang. Hit send.

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Thank you.

As someone who was born in 1974, I didn’t get to know Bill Walton as a basketball player. Not really at least.

I mean, I remember him playing, but at that point he was the old guy whose hair was cut short by the time he experienced something of a renaissance late in his career with Boston. I did not care for the Celtics, though, which was admittedly short-sighted. In fact, one of the things I truly regret is not fully appreciating Larry Bird’s transcendence in real time.

When Walton segued from his playing career into the announcer’s booth, I didn’t like him at first. I found him to be a back-in-my-day grump, who was way too harsh in his assessments of contemporary play. If a team committed a turnover, he was liable to call it the worst possession in the history of basketball. If a player missed a jumper, he’d exclaim, “Make a shot.” I found him to be fairly ridiculous.

The truth is that I just didn’t get him. Not yet at least.

My first clue on what I was missing came when I read “Breaks of the Game,” which is an absolute master class in reporting by the incredible David Halberstam. He followed the Trailblazers through their 1979-80 season and came away with as insightful a book as has ever been written about a pro sports team.

Walton had been traded to the San Diego Clippers before that season began, but his health is a plotline in the book as he had a great deal of animosity about the treatment he’d received for a foot injury suffered in 1978. Ultimately, he wound up suing the franchise.

The book allowed me to understand that Walton was haunted to a certain extent by his pro career. He had been — after all — the anchor of a perfect team at UCLA, someone who cared very deeply about the game and worked to achieve that same level of success in the pros — his Trailblazers winning a title in 1977 — only to have his feet fail him. That would loom over anyone, and we haven’t even gotten through the excruciating physical pain the man lived through.

I don’t know if it was my understanding of Walton that changed over the past 20 years or Walton’s outlook. Probably a fair bit of both, but Walton became one of the people I loved most in sports, and I say that never having met the man.

It wasn’t that I loved the perspective he brought to the game — though I did enjoy it. I just loved his perspective. There are hundreds, maybe thousands of people who can keep you updated on the how many points Joe has scored and how many fouls Jack has. There was only one guy who might instead wonder about what it would be like to peer into a live volcano instead of explaining the type of defense one team is playing. I’m not sure what I liked more: the goofy thoughts that ran through his head or the total and complete willingness to share these thoughts with a television audience. In an era of increased conformity, Bill Walton was unapologetically himself.

I know he annoyed some viewers because he did not necessarily feel compelled to pay full and complete attention to the game he was watching. I understand that. I loved the fact that he did not necessarily feel compelled to pay full and complete attention to the game he was watching.

He was goofy. He wore a UW rowing singlet while calling a Huskies basketball game for the Pac-12 Network. He took batting practice while wearing catcher’s gear. He repeatedly pretended not to know the first name of Dave Pasch, and when he did so on Pasch’s birthday, while holding a cupcake with a candle, Pasch had a suggestion.

“Take a bit out of it while it’s lit,” Pasch said.

“While it’s lit?” Walton responded, eyeing the object in his hand.

“Oh my,” Pasch said, “I was kidding.”

Walton shook his head as if he were savoring the taste and then prepared to mash it in Pasch’s face before restraining himself.

What I loved most about Walton was how much he loved the Pac-10/12. “The conference of champions,” as he invariably called it.

I loved the Pac-12, too, and I felt like Walton was the best spokesman that we ever had. He got what made it great, and I totally and completely respect how upset he was with his alma mater for being part of the defection that destabilized and ultimately doomed the conference. Honestly, I feel somewhat similar about my own alma mater.

Plenty of people have observed the fact that Walton died a day after the final event of the Pac-12 as it is currently constituted. It’s a coincidence that will inevitably be described as symbolic.

What it made me realize is that people like Walton are who make college sports mean something to me as opposed to whatever corporate configuration the schools contort themselves into. The history. The characters. The personalities. That’s what matters to me.

I really wish I had gotten to see Walton play at the peak of his career. I wish I’d understood exactly what he meant at an earlier point in my life. However, I’m really grateful that I got to watch him and listen to him over these past 20 years because there weren’t many people I’d rather listen to.

Rest in peace, big man. Dance like nobody’s watching. If you’re interested, we talked a bit about Walton in this week’s episode of “Say Who, Say Pod.”

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