After a three-year absence from announcing basketball games Bill Walton has returned to the broadcast booth this year to be the voice of Pac-12 Basketball for ESPN. After undergoing numerous surgeries and years of physical therapy it is a heart-warming and miraculous tale that Walton is even able to be on TV again. When he is on his game Walton can be incredibly entertaining, hilarious, knowledgeable and insightful. Bill is a lovable character and his 'crazy uncle having acid flashbacks' persona can be a welcome respite from the conservative, no-nonsense, don't interfere with the game color commentators that most broadcasts use. Now that I have said all these nice things about ol' Bill it is time to get to the thesis of this article; there is no broadcaster in the world who destroys a game you care about more than Bill Walton.
Every sporting event, in a vacuum, is inherently meaningless. There will be a winner and there will be a loser and many people will be happy and many people will be sad and many people will be drunk but overall nothing really, truly happened. You still have credit card debt, the Arab Spring hasn't turned into the Arab We Love America Winter and your parents still blame you for their divorce. The only people whose lives are meaningfully impacted are the players, coaches and employees of the two teams involved. We all know that sporting events have no real, tangible outcome on the lives of us as fans but that doesn't stop us from caring deeply about them. What are real are the emotions we feel as we watch these games. I like to argue that sports are a little bit like currency. Paper money by itself is utterly worthless; it only has value because we perceive it to have value and that is enough to make it valuable. Sports operate in a similar way. It may not be actually important, but as we watch we believe it is important, we are told it is important and therefore a sporting event can become the most important thing in the world at a given time. Perception can become reality. Sports fans watching a game at home happily enter a bubble where the outside world is unimportant and the pursuit of victory is all that matters. Bill Walton seems to take pleasure in bursting that bubble.
The biggest issue I have with Bill Walton is that he makes the game you are watching feel meaningless. His random non sequiturs, his comical over exaggerations and his constant Grateful Dead references make him endearing if you are someone who just happened to flip on to the channel, but they are infuriating when you are emotionally invested in one of the teams involved. It seems as if he is just having a good time chatting about whatever comes to his mind and it is obvious that he has no real attachment to the game he is announcing. He is there to have a good time and to entertain and that is fine for a casual observer but it is awful when you are a fan.
Watching a game that is being called by Al Michaels or Gus Johnson is always great because just having those guys in the building makes the game feel important. Dickie V may annoy people but there is no denying that he thinks every game he calls is of the utmost importance and Brent Musberger is always kind enough to point out the best looking woman in any crowd. Just by being in the building, those men lend credibility to the game at hand and they amplify the illusion that sports are incredibly meaningful. Bill Walton has the exact opposite effect when he calls a game. The game feels like a joke and it makes the viewer feel stupid for wasting their time caring so much about the outcome. When I'm sitting on the edge of my seat at home watching my team locked in a tight battle coming down to the wire, the last thing I want to hear about is Bill Walton's thoughts on Colin Kaepernick or Linda Ronstadt. By the way Linda Ronstadt's name was not chosen for comic effect, Bill actually brought her up not once but twice during the Arizona-Stanford game he recently announced.
What I find ironic in all of this is that Walton's employer, ESPN, is the station that has been at the forefront of turning each game into a major event. ESPN is never content to just let a game be a game. There has to be a crew of 19 analysts arguing about the game for days beforehand, then there has to be panel on how the game will affect Tim Tebow, the Red Sox and the Lakers, and finally they finish by producing two documentaries about the game that will air just before tip-off. They have turned sports into something much bigger than just a game and then they ruin it all by putting someone like Walton in control of the actual live, viewing experience. All the hype surrounding the game that gets fans so excited wanes very quickly when you hear your fourth Jerry Garcia story of the first half.
This would be a much easier blog to write if I just despised Walton or if he were a bad guy. I actually really like the guy and I do think there is a place for him in broadcasting. Any man who say can with a straight face that watching Boris Diaw play reminds him of Beethoven in the age of the romantics deserves to stay on television. Luckily, there is a simple solution to the Bill Walton problem: Bill should only announce games that are less important and ESPN should make room for him in their pre- and post-game analysis. Pregame and post-game shows are meant to be entertaining. Someone like Charles Barkley is allowed to say preposterous things and everyone loves him for it because he in no way ruins the actual, in-game experience. Bill can still announce preseason games, or early season games or even NIT games, but ESPN needs to realize that by having Bill Walton announce important late season games, they are alienating their biggest demographic, die-hard sports fans. So Bill, for the sake of all of us who love college basketball, please make the move next year to a Charles Barkley-esque analyst role. It will be the best decision made in the history of Western Civilization.