For the most part, the people calling college basketball games on television are effectively interchangeable. On play-by-play, there’s usually the khakified tones of Jim Nantz, a man who both is and sounds like a close personal friend of President George H. W. Bush, or the smoothly interchangeable delivery of one of the youngish, reliably bald and competent commentators in the ABC/ESPN stable. Color commentary duties nominally fall to an ex-player, who will be exclamatory and catchphrase prone and not necessarily preferable to the alternative, which is a retired or unemployed or unemployable college coach. The coach-commentators work in a variety of coaching accents—Indiana Folksome, New South Humble, Voluble Northeastern Ethnic—and fall into two broad categories: Those still looking to get work sound like versions of Tony Robbins, if Robbins were especially concerned with players fighting through screens; and the retired coaches who either ease into raconteur mode or simmer grumpily, palpably missing the experience of yelling profanities at other peoples' children from close range. If they are named Bobby Knight, they’ll do this while acting as if they were sitting on a hemorrhoid the size of the Carrier Dome.
There are exceptions to these types—the spectacularly insightful, entertaining, and positive Bill Raftery is every basketball fan's scotchy party uncle and generally the greatest; Reggie Miller, an overenunciative troll who will move between NBA games and college games during the upcoming NCAA tournament, is the opposite of all those things and generally the worst. And during the all-day chaos of conference-tournament week—wrapping up now—and especially during the furious first days of March Madness, which starts next week, every semiqualified broadcaster available will be getting work. You may get to hear former Alabama coach Wimp Sanderson, who sounds like one of the detectives from The Thin Blue Line; you will definitely get to experience the indiscriminate verbal huggings of Dick Vitale, who sounds, at this point, like a tired and half-drunk person doing an imitation of Dick Vitale. But you will hear no broadcaster anywhere—no one anywhere on television, really—who sounds or acts like Bill Walton.
Walton is a towering ginger who is probably the greatest college basketball player of all time. He led UCLA to a pair of undefeated championship seasons, didn't lose a game between his junior year of high school and the middle of his senior year of college, and led the Portland Trail Blazers to a NBA title in 1977 before his impossibly frail feet gave up on him; he still managed to play a crucial part on another NBA championship team in Boston nearly a decade later. It is not necessarily difficult to reconcile that hypercompetitive Bill Walton—the one who won and won and repeatedly subjected himself to the brutal surgical ministrations of the Nixon era so that he could keep winning—with the one who went to scores of Grateful Dead shows, or the one who now free-associates, negs, bluffs, snarks, and explores the outer boundaries of off-message sarcasm into an open microphone for ESPN. Bill Walton has always been more serious than he seemed (how many free-wheeling hippie-leftist types who went to UCLA with him would have endured playing for years in terrible pain?), and at the moment, Walton is serious about either destroying or elevating the idea of color commentary.
He has, during his time in the booth, demonstrated a deep understanding of the game, but he’s hamstrung by a Hall of Famer's intolerance for players and teams he deems unworthy. This manifests mostly, and mostly hilariously, through sarcasm—describing a sloppy 12–2 run by Oregon State as one of the great stretches of basketball in the sport's history, hanging Shaq comparisons on a gangly seven-foot doof after some oafy dunk. The worse the basketball gets, the better Walton gets at projecting his disdain for it. Walton's color commentary for a Clippers team that played like a sinus headache feels for a consecutive decade alternated between bitingly sarcastic message-board speculation—“Why wouldn't Tim Duncan come here as a free agent, raising a mighty twin towers of powerful big men with Michael Olowokandi here in the City of Angels?”—and outright trolling. I remember watching a game in which Pete Chilcutt, a small forward who looked and played a bit like an ear of corn, stepped to the foul line; his season averages of 2.2 points and 2.4 rebounds (or so) flashed onscreen. “As you can see,” Walton deadpanned, “just some special numbers for Chilly this year.”
When the mood strikes him, Walton can be insightful, or at least disarmingly frank. When he doesn't care, though, he really doesn't care. During a Pac-12 game on Thursday night, Walton improvised a story about sharing a limousine with newly hired ESPN commentator Ray Lewis that referenced the part of Lewis's resume that includes (um) a suspected role in a murder. Mostly, though, he was his avant-garde self.
“Shades of Pistol Pete Maravich,” he crowed as a University of Washington guard whipped a pass off an overmatched and unprepared teammate's throat. “He used to fake out everyone, including his own teammates. Fig Newton, Apple Saunders, all the food products.” (As it turns out, both Newton and Saunders were real, and played with Maravich.)
The game drew closer—in college basketball fashion, this was mostly due to reciprocal turnovers and so impossibly many bobbled entry passes and crazy-eyed, wholly unwarranted surges in confidence from balling-out-of-control guards—and Walton offered some insights, albeit with the indignantly baffled diction of someone imitating Dr. Steve Brule. He served some underminery compliments at Washington’s center, who played as if he were wearing roller skates. He confidently proclaimed that Oregon's 6–7 Turkish transfer student was the best player on the floor. The game went into overtime, and Walton exulted in five more minutes of basketball. It was, as ever, hard to tell if he was joking, or if he even knew whether he was joking. It was late, and I couldn't turn it off.
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