Book of Jobbed #8: Bill Walton & The Ballad of the Hippie (2024)

Book of Jobbed #8: Bill Walton & The Ballad of the Hippie (1)

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It’s obvious what the secret was to the recently departed Bill Walton’s success as a broadcaster: He didn’t take his job too seriously.

Walton was a Hall of Fame basketball player at the college and NBA levels, but as a color commentator, he seemed to understand that a sports broadcast is fundamentally theater—a special entertainment product, not a religious ritual.

You can see it by watching any “Best of Bill Walton” video on YouTube. You could see it when he called a Chicago White Sox game and claimed to have no knowledge of baseball (“How many outs is that?” “One.” “How many do they need?” “Three.”). You could see it when he sang happy birthday to billionaire Oregon University alum Phil Knight and then snidely referenced preferring the rival Oregon State team, and in this exchange with broadcaster Tom Hammond:

Bill Walton: “John Stockton is one of the true marvels, not just of basketball, or in America, but in the history of Western Civilization!”

Tom Hammond: “Wow, that’s a pretty strong statement. I guess I don’t have a good handle on world history.”

Bill Walton: “Well Tom, that’s because you didn’t go to UCLA.”

You can also see it just by scanning through a list of his one-liners:

  • “Come on, that was no foul! It may be a violation of all the basic rules of human decency, but it’s not a foul.”

  • “When I think of Boris Diaw, I think of Beethoven in the age of the romantics.”

  • As a running gag with any one he’s on the air with: “I’m here with the incredible, the amazing, the absolutely brilliant… what’s your name again?”

  • “Mick Jagger is in better shape than far too many NBA players. It’s up in the air whether the same can be said of Keith Richards.”

  • “I had the only beard in the Western Hemisphere that made Bob Dylan’s look good.”

These last two quotes are central to understanding what made Bill Walton stand out. At his core, he was not a jock. He was a hippie.

Yes, his basketball career at UCLA in the early 1970s included 88 consecutive wins, two national championships, three straight player of the year awards, but also participation in campus protests and one arrest for taking part in the takeover of a campus administration building during a protest against the Vietnam War.

A 1974 Time article dubbed Walton the “vegetarian tiger.” He claimed in his autobiography (which everybody should read) that he’d attended over 800 Grateful Dead concerts, and called his induction into the group's Hall of Honor the highest tribute he ever received. He was a pothead, once quipping “I’m much better at getting high than getting low.” When Abbie Hoffman died in 1989, he didn’t just attend the funeral, he gave the eulogy.

This worldview is anathema to the world of professional sports. Competition is the end all be all of that world ideologically, and that competition is sacred. Arguments can take the tenor of a religious zealots debating which particular messiah is god’s chosen vessel.

Walton was the rare broadcaster who could approach sports with the understanding that, while it could feel important in the moment, it was all just a silly, low stakes excuse to bring people together and a relatively productive outlet for otherwise destructive tendencies in the human spirit. That made him the one sane man on a ship of fools.

To be clear, I’m not saying that every broadcaster thinks that they’re doing hard hitting journalism. I’d argue that guys like Reggie Miller, the Van Gundy brothers, Joel Klatt, and Greg McElroy are great color commentators in their respective sports because they are able to at least partially embrace their roles as both self-serious analysts and deeply unserious entertainers.

But there is still a detached irony Walton had which they can’t embrace. Not fully. They want and need people to take them seriously as experts in their sport. Being the adult in the room is part of some people’s schtick (particularly Klatt and McElroy’s). That’s fine, but it’s not a recipe for interesting television and, I’d argue, a commentary on the increasing teacher-I-did-my-homework-ification of the culture industries.

I guess what I’m saying is that ESPN needs to hire more hippies. If sports executives are interviewing someone for a spot on the color commentator roster their first question should be “how many Grateful Dead concerts have you been to?”

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Book of Jobbed #8: Bill Walton & The Ballad of the Hippie (2024)
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