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.”

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