The Bill Walton Experience: Listening to ESPN’s resident hippie call college hoops as only he can

The Bill Walton listening experience is unique, no doubt about that. 

I like to imagine that Walton calls college basketball games with four mental buckets sitting next to each other in his brain. One is full of adjectives, and from time to time he’ll reach in, grab a handful and throw a bunch of them out for the world to hear, whether or not they actually fit the person/team/inanimate object he started out talking about. Each and every adjective comes with an exclamation point that cannot be dislodged. 

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Two of the buckets are labeled “Have you ever”; one’s full of book titles and authors he’ll ask play-by-play man Jason Benetti — likely the only broadcaster who could possibly handle a pairing with Walton, and he thrives in that role — whether he’s read, the other’s about places he’ll ask Benetti whether he’s ever visited. The final one, and this might be his favorite, is full of Grateful Dead stories. No, Benetti hasn’t been to Austria, by the way. 

Sometimes, the buckets merge. 

“Were you on the trip to Egypt with the Grateful Dead?” Walton asked Benetti toward the end of the Texas-Indiana game the pair was calling Tuesday afternoon.

“I was not,” Benetti replied, not skipping a beat. “I’ve never been to Cairo.”

The Dead famously played in Egypt, in the shadow of the Great Pyramid and the Sphinx, in 1978. Benetti was born in 1983, and Walton knows this. Probably. Maybe.

Really, who knows?

Games called by Benetti and Walton are connected to basketball contests, but sometimes only tangentially. Benetti, bless his soul, walks the wonderful tightrope of trying to steer Walton back toward basketball while also often prodding him off course when sheer curiosity leaves no other options. Sometimes, you just gotta know where his mind is wandering off to. 

The duo worked their first game of the 2020-21 college hoops season on Monday, calling the Texas-Davidson contest that kicked off the Camping World Maui Invitational.

Because of the COVID-19 pandemic, the games were actually being played in Asheville, N.C. And neither broadcaster was there; Benetti was home in Chicago and Walton was at his home in San Diego. Despite all the locations, the pair’s chemistry was at home, too. 

Listening to that game Monday, it was clear — at least to me — how much I’d missed listening to the two call a college basketball game. Maybe they’re an acquired taste — they certainly aren’t Xs and Os together — but they are/were definitely a missed taste, so I decided to watch their first game Tuesday and write down the bizarre/crazy/insightful things Walton said and the prodding/nudging Benetti offered. 

Here’s what I heard (my notes in italics). 

As the tip is happening … 

Walton: “I always tie my shoes. And I always put my socks on properly so that I’ll never get a blister. Never be in a situation where anything that’s in your control causes you to fail. Failing to prepare is preparing to fail. Let’s go! Game’s on the line.”


Texas’ Matt Coleman made an early play

Walton: “Great defense here! Matt Coleman! I learned who he is yesterday.”


I have no context here, because it doesn’t matter. 

Walton: “I just have to close my eyes and the waterfalls appear.”


Walton: “If you sow ice, you’re going to harvest wind.”
Benetti: “That … that is our first, um, bumper sticker of the day.”


The discussion somehow turned to the University of Virginia campus.

Benetti: “You know, they don’t have a quad there, they have ‘grounds’ at UVa.”
Walton: “Grounds landscaped by Frederick Olmstead or not?” 
Benetti: “I’m not sure who did the landscaping, but we can check on that.” 
Walton: “Well, Frederick Olmstead is the grandfather of landscape architecture. He’s basically the guy who got it all started.”
Benetti: “Did he do the Biltmore?” 
Walton: “He did the Biltmore. He was friends with the Vanderbilt family. It all rolls into one.” 
Benetti: “Do you accept Biltmore Bill as your nickname for the week?”
Walton: “I’m still trying to figure it out, Ranger (Walton nicknamed Benetti the Blue Ridge Ranger for this tournament). I haven’t quite come up with it.”


Coming back from a commercial break

Walton: “Did you check out what they’re doing there with that new self-watering soil that they’ve generated at the University of Texas? We talked about isoprene levels. How are your isoprene levels today?” 
Benetti: “Still high, as you are.”
Walton: “So they’ve got this self-watering soil they’ve come up with in their scientific labs there at UT, one of the great schools ever. It pulls water from the air. They have these moisture-absorbent gels, really completing the cycle of life. As this show does as well.” 
Benetti: “I feel complete after yesterday, but we have two more days of basketball to give everybody.” 
Walton: “You are easily satisfied”


Walton: “Speaking of left-handed centers, we talked about Artis Gilmore yesterday, and I completely let the world down when I didn’t mention the greatest left-handed center I played against, which was Dave Cowens, who ended up being the coach of the Charlotte Hornets, or whatever their name was at the time.” 
Benetti: “I believe they were the Hornets then.”
Walton: “OK. I’m allergic to bees. Try to always stay as far away as I can, but Asheville is a bee city. That’s a B with two successive Es after it.” 
Benetti: “Do you like honey?” 
Walton: “I love honey. It’s all part of the cycle of life.” 


Benetti: “What makes a good outlet pass, Bill?” 
Walton: “What’s the fourth law of learning? Repetition. After demonstration, imitation and correction. So you practice it. You have to be a willing passer, in every aspect of the game of passing. You have to have guys who can catch, you have to have guys who can anticipate and think. But starting the fastbreak, that was my favorite part of basketball.” 
Benetti: “It was?” 
Walton: “Well, I loved it all. Mostly I loved winning. But to start the fastbreak and have the surge of the crowd? Have you ever been to a Dead show? Have you ever been to a Bruce Hornsby show on the lawn there at the Biltmore where the fans are fighting because they have so many different tastes and Bruce plays so many different styles of music?” 


Texas was playing well, taking a lead.

Walton: “Shaka Smart is a tremendous coach here. He’s grown his hair out enough that the hair that stayed inside is not going to scramble his brain waves.” 


I lost count how many times Walton let out what was supposed to be a “mooo” when he talked about the Longhorns.

Benetti: “Your longhorn impression sounds like a haunted house.”
Walton: “I just don’t want to be gored! I’d much rather be with Al than be gored. Asheville! Mountains! Rainbows! Waterfalls! Fauna! Flora!”


(ESPN screenshot)

Coming back from commercial

Walton: “Asheville! The Pisgah National Forest! The Hebrew biblical word for the summit. Mountains are the water towers of the earth, where all the fresh water comes from. Five hundred thousand-plus acres, and most of that was part of the Biltmore Estates, and they sold it for $5 an acre to the federal government. Now with the hiking trails, the bellypacking possibilities, and when you’re having trouble getting to the show on time, just stand on the side of the road with your backpack, put your thumb out and hopefully a Lincoln Continental will come by and Neil Young will be at the wheel.” 


Today was Walton’s dog’s birthday!

Walton: “Today is our dog Potter’s birthday.”
Benetti: “What did the birthday celebration entail?”

Benetti: “So he speaks Dog and English, is that right?”


Even Walton confuses Walton from time to time

Walton: “Somebody might want to tell the Longhorns … excuse me. I withdraw that statement.”
Benetti: “You’re just gonna redact it? It’s off the record now?”
Walton: “It never happened. Sometimes the wires get crossed.” 


Walton might be a big odd, but he ain’t wrong here …

Walton: “The fact that there is food insecurity in the richest nation in the history of the world is an embarrassment to our country. It’s a disgrace. It’s unacceptable. Please read Jonathan Bloom’s ‘American Wasteland.’”


With Texas up, 25-13, Walton disappeared. 

Benetti: “I think Bill has actually gone to Jupiter, just for a very short period of time. We’ll get Bill back on his spaceship and back into our program very shortly. But for now, it’s Texas by 12 over the Indiana Hoosiers. 

… long silence …

Benetti: Hmmm, silence. Huh. Maybe I’m just not going to say anything for a while. Just take in the ether.”


He came back after the next commercial. 

Benetti: “Hey, you’re back. Welcome back!”
Walton: “You guys threw me off the air! I started talking about ‘American Wasteland’ and Jonathan Bloom and Motzart and you threw me off the air? Please. I’m back. What is this?” 
Benetti: “I thought you were doing some interplanetary travel briefly.” 
Walton: “No, I’m doing that right now.” 


(ESPN screenshot)

I have no idea what prompted this, but I laughed. 

Walton: “Do you have your ticket book with you?”
Benetti: “What’s that?”
Walton: “Do you have your ticket book with you to cite infractions against human decency?”
Benetti: “I don’t have that. And unless it’s a citizens arrest situation, I’m not authorized like you are to do that.” 
Walton: “Wait a second. You’re a Blue Ridge Ranger.” 
Benetti: “It doesn’t come with that much clout. Durham’s free throw is good.” 
Walton: “I beg to differ. You have no idea how much power you have as the Blue Ridge Ranger.”
Benetti: “Can I say that I do believe you don’t beg to differ; I think you live to differ.” 
Walton: “I love being alive.” 


Walton’s backdrop at his house is a tree like you would expect Walton to have. 

Walton: “Would you like to come and sit underneath the spreading limbs of the tree of life behind me?” 
Benetti: “I would love to. You’re like the Johnny Appleseed of life, I feel like.”
Walton: “I love love. All you need is love. And a beard.”
Benetti: “That quickly turned into Steve Martin and ‘The Jerk.’ There’s a 3 for Texas and a 15-point lead! All you need is that 3 and this chair and it’s a 15-point advantage.”


Somehow, Snoop Dogg came up as a topic of conversation. 

Benetti: “Some people have suggested to me that you and Snoop should do a game together at some point.” 
Walton: “Really?” 
Benetti: “Yeah. Have you met Snoop?” 
Walton: “Snoop and I go way back. We go way back. He’s a Southern California guy, Long Beach-Poly High School, same high school that Billy Jean King went to. Legendary high school. What a spiritual force of nature. Snoop! Yeah!”


Another “moooo” from Walton

Benetti: “What animal was that? Because that was a moo that went into a bark.”
Walton: “That was some methane gas escaping.” 


Walton clearly loved saying the name of Kamaka Hepa, a player on the Texas bench. 

Walton: “Kamaka, he’s from Barrow, Alaska. The Grateful Dead went up to Alaska. The airlines were trying to sell some tickets back in the day, so they made a promotion: If you bought a ticket to go to Alaska, they’d allow you to come home through Hawaii. So the Grateful Dead built a tour around this fantastic experiment by the airlines, with Alaska and Hawaii all rolled into one. And now here we are, with Kamaka. Have you ever been to Barrow?”


Benetti read a promo of the Champions Classic games, Michigan State vs. Duke and Kansas vs. Kentucky. 

Walton: “Are we calling those games, too?”
Benetti: “We are not.” 
Walton: “So how come they get to call it the Champions Classic when North Carolina has the third-most championships of all and they’re not even in that Champions Classic. UCLA has the most championship and they’re not in it. Isn’t there some sort of fact-checking as to the accuracy of the names of these events.” 


Walton: “When coach Wooden was asked about having an inexperienced team when we first started, he looked at the reporter and said, ‘I’d rather have talent than experience.’ Greg Brown, that guy’s got talent, and one day soon he will be experienced. Maybe we should play some Jimi Hendrix for him.” 
Benetti: “And have an experience together?” 
Walton: “So, I was walking the streets of Haight and Ashbury the other day with Darius Miles. They’ve got this huge mural of Jimi Hendrix there, and Darius says to me, ‘Who’s that?’ I put my hands to my head and face-planted and said, ‘We have failed. We have failed as a society.’”


Walton was talking about traveling, after Texas had long ago taken control of the game

Benetti: “I have a feeling it was a ‘trip’ that changed your life, as well.” 
Walton: “I’m still on it.” 


With less than 3 minutes left in the game and Texas up, 63-42 … 

Walton: “I think Indiana’s in trouble here, trying to win this game.”
Benetti: “You do?”

They’ll be here all season, folks. Do tune in.

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