Wednesday, February 23, 2011

The Legend of Billy Ray

For a writer, it is impossible not to be taken by the story of Billy Ray Bates.

The enigmatic Bates played in only 187 games in the NBA from 1979-'83, but he achieved immortality from his bit part in David Halberstam's "The Breaks of Game," cited in this space and nearly everywhere else as the greatest basketball book ever written. Bates also pops up in Rafe Bartholomew's immensely enjoyable "Pacific Rims," a study of the insatiable basketball jones in the Philippines.

Bates is that elusive complex character whose tale might be without rival in sports history. You'd be hard-pressed to find another son of sharecroppers in the backwoods of Mississippi who rode his athletic talent from a small college like Kentucky State to the minor leagues and then to the NBA. All of that despite a legendary wild streak and a body constitution that could overcome world-class drinking bouts to play basketball at the highest level.

That's just the beginning. When the booze eventually washed Bates from the NBA, he took his talents overseas. Bartholomew chronicled Bates' improbable second act as a near-deity for the hoops-mad Filipinos. Bates couldn't outrun his demons there, either, and he bounced around a few more basketball outposts before drunkenly trying to rob a Texaco attendant with a knife in 1998. Since his release from prison, Bates has tried to scrape together a life by trading on his basketball fame and working menial jobs.

It's almost too much to believe. With so much excellent reporting on Bates, you're often left hankering to see footage of him in action. On YouTube, you can find clips from his apex in the NBA, when he averaged 28.3 points per game against the Seattle SuperSonics in the 1981 playoffs, and also from his run in the Philippines Basketball Association.

But what about witnessing Bates in the full context of a complete game? How about Dec. 30, 1980, when Bates and the Portland Trail Blazers beat the Philadelphia 76ers, 109-108?

That game came during Bates' most successful regular season the league, when he played 20.3 minutes per game and averaged 13.8 points.

Against the 76ers, Bates checked in at the 1:31 mark of the first period. He quickly got in on the action, knocking the ball away from 76ers guard Lionel Hollins and missing a half-court shot at the final buzzer of the period.

Bates played for nearly the entire second quarter. A few minutes into the period, the Blazers' Mychal Thompson snared a defensive rebound and loosed a long outlet to a streaking Bates just across mid-court. Bates got a couple steps ahead of Hollins then took off for a "Statue of Liberty" dunk from just inside of the free-throw line.

The crowd at Memorial Coliseum went crazy. In a game that included pantheon dunkers Julius Erving and Darryl Dawkins, Bates stole the show with that slam. His effortless athleticism looked remarkably similar to a player that would thrill those Portland fans in the coming seasons, Clyde Drexler.

Bates was incredible on the fast break, but often looked out of sorts when coach Jack Ramsey had the Blazers run their disciplined half-court sets. Later in the second quarter, when it looked like the 76ers' Steve Mix was going to drop in an easy lay-up, Bates flew in to force a mix. Then Bates sprinted up court and found Jim Paxson with a nice pass under the basket.

That freakish athletic ability could also spin out of control, as Bates missed two wild forays to the basket in the final minutes of the second quarter.

It's easy to see how Ramsey could get frustrated with Bates, even without bringing all the off-the-court nonsense to bear. After Bates looked like he was lost on defense in the fourth quarter, Ramsey pulled him in favor of Michael Gale

But all that talent was too tantalizing to keep on the bench. Bates checked back in with one second remaining and the Blazers trailing, 108-107.

Kermit Washington took the ball out on the side for the Blazers. Bates started on the opposite side and sprinted toward the basket. Washington lofted the ball toward the rim. Bates leaped from one side of the basket to the other, catching the ball at the peak of his leap and laying it in for the winner. He was tackled by Washington and Calvin Natt in the euphoria.

Bates scored only six points in the game, including a long jumper over Hollins. It was a game befitting his career: Flashes of brilliance that somehow make you forgive Bates for everything else.

Monday, February 7, 2011

Long, Strange Trip

Bill Walton is a national treasure. He could have been a tragic figure when horrific foot injuries derailed his professional career. But the big redhead, who overcame a childhood speech impediment, created a comic second act for himself as a beloved — often divisive — broadcaster. On the mic, Walton achieves an alchemy of John Wooden philosophies, stoner axioms, dated Grateful Dead references and non-sequiturs that would give comedian Steven Wright pause.

Sadly, a painful back condition almost ended Walton’s broadcasting gig. This season, he has dipped his toes back in the water, including filling in for Tommy Heinsohn on some Boston Celtics broadcasts.

Walton’s return sparked this question: How would he sound calling one of his own games?

How about Walton’s piece de resistance, the 1973 NCAA championship game in which he scored 44 points on 21-of-22 shooting and lifted UCLA over Memphis State, 87-66, for the Bruins’ seven straight title and 75th consecutive victory?

Here is a sampling of what could have been:

Walton’s first shot. He got the ball with his back to the basket on the left block, then hit a fade-away, eight-footer off the glass:

“What a transcendent moment in time, to play for the championship of all the world. It’s as if the Medicis of Florence gathered all of the artists in creation, placed them in a salon with a giant canvas and said: Paint, my friends.”

Walton’s second shot. He spun away from Memphis State’s Larry Kenon and took an inbounds pass from Larry Hollyfield for an easy layup:

“Most people will never experience a complete telepathic connection. I am reminded of the time Jerry Garcia and Bob Weir exchanged licks during a symphonic 47-minute rendition of “Brown-Eyed Women” at Winterland in ’72. It was a virtual dissertation on the nature of time and space.”

Walton’s third shot. Another spin on the blocks, this time leading to an acrobatic reverse:

“Coach Wooden taught us that all things are possible. This professor emeritus instilled in us the confidence of conquering heroes twice our age. When the final chapter in the history of this great nation is written, John Wooden will be mentioned in the same sentence as Allen Ginsburg and George Washington.”

Walton’s fifth shot. An up-and-under move into the lane, finishing with a jump hook despite a foul:

“My parents knew nothing of sports. My father was a man of letters, more interested DeBussy than Tom Meschery. But he understood the essence of artistry. So when he saw me play, he said: Billy, even I realize that your movements are on the order of philosopher kings.”

Walton’s eighth shot. A beautiful back cut for a lay-in that was disqualified for being a “dunk,” which was verboten by the NCAA at the time:

“Sometimes you must fight the oppressive forces of your day. Don’t believe that might makes right. Stand up for your ideals for that is truly all we have to show for during our brief stay here on Earth.”

Walton’s only missed shot. An alley-oop that he caught and tried to flip over his head, but the ball bounced off the back of the rim:

“Bill Walton, what are you doing out there? You had the opportunity of a lifetime, to catch immortality by its tail. This is a travesty, a soul-crushing exercise in futility. Coach Wooden needs to take Walton out of the game and let him know that this behavior is unbecoming of a champion.”

Walton picked up his third foul with 4:18 remaining in the first half. Swen Nater filled in until halftime, when both teams went into the locker room with the score tied at 39. Walton had 22 points:

“This young man needs to understand the gravity of the situation. 20 minutes amount to just a small bit of salt in the hourglass of time. But what inspiration can come from just a few seconds of concentrated effort.”

In the second half, Memphis State switched to a zone and packed its defenders in to try to cool down Walton. UCLA’s center instead found the holes at the back end of the zone and scored the majority of his 11 second-half baskets on lobs from Greg Lee:

“These are heady times indeed. Chaos on the streets of Los Angeles. Unjust wars in the jungles of Vietnam. But sometimes, supreme beings can block out the travesties and deliver what gods and goddesses have done since time immemorial.”

Walton’s greatest game ended three minutes early, when he rolled his ankle on a shot-block attempt. It was a dark foreboding of all the foot problems Walton would have as a professional:

“Glory is fleeting. One must drink from the cup of wisdom when it is placed in front of him. Delight in your youth, they say. But the irony of it all is that you can never understand that statement until it is too late.”