A Natural State Slant to Honoring the Late, Great Bill Walton

Bill Walton, Nolan Richardson, Arkansas basketball
photo credit: Sports Illustrated / Arkansas Athletics

The best part of watching basketball was Bill Walton.

An icon of both the NBA and college basketball, Walton died Monday, Memorial Day 2024, from a prolonged fight against cancer. He was 71. 

Countless stories are being published in remembrance of Walton, a player who won two NBA titles, two NCAA national championships and was an NBA MVP. And in some ways, this is just like those. But for reasons I am struggling to put to paper, as it were, it feels like a big part of the game is now gone, too.

Why would a guy born into poverty, in the foothills of the Ozark Mountains three years before Walton played his last NBA game, be so profoundly affected today? Walton played against the team I grew up watching, Arkansas, just once.

His No. 1-ranked Bruins beat the Razorbacks by 22 points in 1973, 10 years before my birth. Injuries sapped his playing time in the 1980s and I have zero memories of ever having watched him play.

The way Walton loved the game, though, and more importantly, the way Walton loved the world drew me into his orbit nonetheless.

Remembering Bill Walton

A six-year-old boy watching the NBA with his elder cousins, wanting so badly to be cool like them, to know sports like they did, was keenly aware of the baritone voice on the microphone, a voice inextricably tied to the playing of “Roundball Rock” in George H.W. Bush era. 

That voice, so arresting, oozed knowledge, like a rural grandfather teaching you to bale hay or change the oil on a car. But the personality underneath was nothing so demanding. 

Walton was West Coast, through and through. To this day, California and Arkansas/Oklahoma have little in common. The states have different politics, different values, different tastes. But as much as Bill Walton served as a symbol of the west coast, the San Diego native held certain views on life we would be wise to try to emulate regardless of geographical locale.

The tenacity and open-heartedness he showed in overcoming that which ailed him is an inspiration to everyone, everywhere.

One of the biggest stars in college basketball, Walton was arrested after his sophomore season at UCLA in 1972 for protesting the Vietnam War. Photos of the arrest, during which Walton was peacefully raising his arms, made waves nationally.

About two years later, the Portland Trail Blazers selected him first overall in the NBA Draft. Had the arrest come in 2022 and the draft in 2024, Walton almost certainly wouldn’t have been taken first. He might not even be picked, given the constant scrutiny and overwhelming belief of keeping politics out of sports. Walton would have done it, anyway. 

A man not afraid to stand up for the things in which he believed succeeded in his chosen profession. He was, in fact, embraced, and not just because he had been a superstar. 

By the time he joined the NBA on NBC broadcasts in 1990, Walton was 10 years removed from star status. He was not far beyond a stuttering malady, something he later said debilitated him throughout his childhood and into his 20s until he was able to shed it at age 28. And with national basketball telecasts still a nascent medium, it would have been easy for NBC to not bother out of fear of Walton creating a scene.

He certainly did make some scenes. Much like that proverbial grandfather, Walton did not suffer foolishness. Only he poked fun of inanity, refusing to take seriously the things that did not matter, while still taking seriously the things that did. 

Late in Walton’s broadcasting career, people of a certain disposition knocked him for his dalliances into the absurd, claiming he made the game more about him than the goings-on for which he was hired. 

They’re the people who missed the point. Consider this clip in which Walton justifiably criticizes the NCAA for its treatment of players who use marijuana. 

Or this, in which he compares then-Phoenix Suns forward Boris Diaw to Beethoven:

To those who would criticize, the clips are comical, emblematic of the old hippy who speaks about things that matter little to anyone other than him.

Nay. Those clips are poignant, speaking the truth and beauty of the sport and life; too many things have been lost to a culture that demands a one-thing-at-a-time mentality. The phrase “appropriate time and place” did not apply to Walton, nor should it apply to anyone. It’s always the time. Always the place.

A Lesson for Arkansas

For too long, this was rarely the Arkansas way. At least not until after the fact. It wasn’t the time for Nolan Richardson to talk about race when he and the university had an ugly split. Only years later, when the state and school caught up with the times, did he have the court named after him.

Darrell Brown, the first black Razorback football player in 1965, was forced to suffer through 1-on-11 kamikaze kickoff returns in practice before finally limping away from his dream. He did get honored on midfield at a Hogs game, in 2011.

The blowback the Razorbacks women’s basketball team suffered in 2016 when six players knelt for the national anthem was a supreme example

Arkansas fans chose not to support most of those players, leading to transfers and the destruction of a program. Time has proven them right and, thankfully, the university had at least given lip service to the players’ rights to do it. 

In 2023, Devo Davis and Trevon Brazile were seemingly dismissed by a number of fans who didn’t agree with their right of self-expression, suggesting that fingernail painting and hair dyeing was a distraction to what should have mattered more: entertaining the fans with victories. As though one has anything to do with the other.

Bill Walton would have been appalled. Rare was the chance for him to call Arkansas basketball games. One of the last came in the Razorbacks’ NIT second-round game at Cal-Berkeley in March 2014, just before the nation lost its proverbial mind. Walton was a staple on the ESPN west-coast broadcasts, specifically in his home territory of the Pac-12, a home territory that knew and embraced him and one he loved to the roots of his soul. If you don’t believe that, watch “The Luckiest Guy in the World” by Steve James

The Big Red Deadhead admitted to plenty mistakes of youth, but they’re not the ones you might think. He embraced, to the end, his stances on war, politics, art, life and he spoke to them joyously, hoping to rub off on anyone who heard his words through a game of basketball with results that have long been forgotten – unlike those things about which he loved to rhapsodize. Last year’s profile of him in The Nation remains my favorite piece about Walton: “Bill Walton Was Once a Trail-Blazing Radical.”

And that’s it. That’s how, despite never having watched him play, but paying attention to the way he lived, this 40-year-old Native from the conservative sticks of Green Country became the art lover, political activist, hippy and basketball fan I am today.

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Watch this beautiful tribute to one of the game’s best centers of all-time:

More from Michael Wilbon on Bill Walton’s legacy at 7:30 here.

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More coverage of Arkansas basketball from BoAS… 

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