Who Was That Guy?
I am not, in general, a big fan of Big Red. Bill Walton often tends toward bombast, florid language and, of course, incessant references to John Wooden. One of the first posts I wrote for TSF was, in fact, a lengthy diatribe about Walton. Oh, and did I mention the incessant references to John Wooden.
Well, having watched more of the FIBA Americas qualifying tournament than I expected, and in the spirit of giving credit where credit’s due, I gotta say – damn.
Before last night, I’d only caught a few minutes here and there over the past few days, but I’ve enjoyed watching the American team. I know the competition isn’t great, and Argentina, the toughest competition, is still to come (Brazil does feature two bona fide NBAers, Barbosa and Nene). But, the Americans look great. They’re really moving their feet on defense, and they’re simply running their opponents off the floor. With JKidd quarterbacking the break (backed up by Billups and Deron Williams), and Carmelo, LeBron and Kobe filling the lanes, USA basketball’s been unstoppable. With mobile big men in Amare Stoudamire and Dwight Howard, and zone-busting shooters like Michael Redd and Mike Miller, the team is, to trot out a well-worn cliche, hitting on all cylinders.
Last night, for some odd reason, I actually recorded the game against Puerto Rico, which tipped at 11 pm, and was glad I did when I woke up with insomnia at 4 am. So, I watched that whole game. The Americans ran away and hid, 117-78. But, an unexpected pleasure was Bill Walton’s color commentary alongside play-by-play man John Saunders. I had noticed, in the previous snippets of games I’d caught, that Walton was well-prepared, knew the players on the other teams surprisingly well, and was refraining from his usual, incessant John Wooden, “right way” talk.
But, over the course of last night’s game, Walton was truly entertaining. He was extremely well-informed about the Puerto Rican players – their tendencies, their previous international experience. He was knowledgeable about international basketball, pointing out how many Argentinians and Brazilians (several hundred in all) play in the Italian and Spanish professional leagues, which Walton described as the two best in the world outside of the United States. Walton also noted that both Italy and Spain have liberal citizenship laws when it comes to individuals who can trace ancestry to those two countries. This helped explain, Walton pointed out, why Brazilian and Argentinian nationals were in high demand in the Italian and Spanish leagues.
Walton is very well-traveled, and kept a running travelogue of Puerto Rico’s great natural tourist destinations (Saunders asked at one point whether there was any place in the world that Walton hadn’t been. Walton laughed, and said New Zealand, and then discussed New Zealand’s recent surprise win over basketball power Australia in the Oceania play-in tournament).
Walton also provided an overview of Phil Jackson’s literary oeuvre, including his book “Sacred Hoops,” written before Jackson became the Bulls’ coach, that described Jackson’s experience coaching basketball in Puerto Rico (at one point, late in the game, Walton read a passage from the book that illuminated Puerto Rico’s passion for basketball.) He took the time to criticize the United States for the environmental damage it has caused at the bombing range in Vieques, Puerto Rico. Walton also mentioned how tragic it was that Puerto Rico’s baseball league, the oldest running in Latin America, was closing down because of a lack of funds, and rattled off a list of Hall of Famers – including Willie Mays, Hank Aaron, Mike Schmidt, Tony Gwynn, Sandy Koufax and, of course, Roberto Clemente – who played ball there.
At one point, the conversation turned to the Chinese Forward Yi Jianlian (who signed with the Bucks today), and whether his refusal to sign with Milwaukee could subvert the draft system. I was certain that Walton would take this opportunity to lament the passing of the good old days. Instead, he quickly and dispassionately rattled off a list of players who, in the past, have managed to refuse to accept being drafted by a particular team. Among the players Walton mentioned – Steve Francis, John Elway, Eli Manning and Kiki Vandeweghe.
Despite keeping up an extremely wide-ranging and, as I said, well-informed commentary about sports, Puerto Rico and even gun control at one point, Walton and Saunders did a really nice job of calling the game. They were relaxed, insightful and the telecast entirely lacked the cheap psychologizing and stale references to character that so often mar the typical American sports broadcast.
Walton didn’t overstate what the Americans have accomplished, noting that the competition will, of course, be much tougher in Beijing next year and that Argentina’s impressive starting five of Ginobili, Oberto, Nocioni, Delfino and Luis Scola won’t play in the current tournament. But, he gave credit for their play while not mentioning, one single time, John Wooden, or UCLA basketball or how much better things used to be. Whether it was because no one is watching, or because the American team has played so flawlessly and selflessly that there’s little to criticize, or because the fact that it’s an international tournament has somehow shut off Walton’s less desirable instincts as an American sportscaster, I found listening to Big Red to be a real pleasure.
I’m looking forward to the next game.