Wednesday, December 14, 2016


There have been few more polarizing figures in the history of basketball than Bill Walton. When I first started paying attention to college basketball, Walton was the star of the UCLA teams that ran off an 88-game winning streak. I remember the feeling of elation I felt as an 11YO when UCLA lost to NC State in the Big Dance. Walton dropped off the map for a couple of years after turning pro, and then in his third and fourth seasons, won an NBA championship and was part of the biggest what-if in NBA history before his chronic foot injuries took root in earnest. He couldn't play much for nearly ten years, then surfaced as sixth man on a strong contender for best team of all time, the 1985-86 Celtics, before one more injury ended his career. Through it all, his personality was even more polarizing than his play. He was a hippie at a time when hippies were going out of fashion, and he was an outspoken athlete in a country that does not appreciate athletes having opinions on the society they live in, especially if they are liberal opinions. After his career ended, he ended up in the broadcast booth, where, unlike most former players, his outspokenness landed him in controversy after controversy; although he doesn't do NBA games anymore, I suspect he must be apoplectic at the adulation the media is giving a ballhog like Russell Westbrook these days.
My own opinions of Walton were generally positive, shaped by the way he is portrayed in The Breaks of the Game, David Halberstam's masterpiece about the end of Walton's Portland team. Until I read this book. And although I retain some sympathy for Walton because of the litany of soul-crushing injuries he has had to endure over the course of his life, the Walton that emerges from his autobiography, Back From the Dead, is a complete narcissist, incapable of understanding that there might be a divergence between what he wants to do and what is best for the others around him. He drones on and on and on about the influence of the Grateful Dead and other bands on his life, which is fine for a high school or college student, but really is kind of silly and immature in a grown man. He glosses over his divorce and admits, in a sentence, that he was largely absent for his children's childhood; I would be willing to cut him more slack on the latter because of the time he was laid up, but he seems to have time for all the stuff he wants to do. His utter cutoff of some of his "friends" that landed in some sort of trouble is disturbing, and another mark of his narcissism; when it became inconvenient or dangerous for him to stay friendly with Jack Scott, for example, away Scott went, never to return.
And I realize that that is my own peccadillo, my own peeve showing through--I do not care for self-centered, self-absorbed people. The hero worship of John Wooden is extremely ironic, given that his UCLA career at the time was characterized by rebelling against almost all aspects of Wooden's coaching. And there's really no way around it. Walton the player, when he could play, was beautiful to watch. Walton the broadcaster was interesting, if occasionally infuriating to listen to. But Walton the person, by his own admission, is a toxic overgrown adolescent that has no real idea that mouthing "thank you" for people that have moved mountains for you and put up with your selfish ass for decades, without giving back anything in return or changing, isn't particularly endearing or edifying. And even the reminiscing about the teams he played on and the players he was with seems forced and dishonest; those he liked were "great", those he didn't were assholes, and the main point of determination seems to be whether or not they were willing to let Walton or whatever center they played with to be the focal point of the offense.
And one opinion in particular jarred me. The late 1970's were perhaps the nadir of the NBA. There were serious drug problems all over the league, there were a lot of franchises hanging on for finanical dear life, there was an epidemic of selfish play and selfish players, and the violence in the game was at a level that today's fans simply would not believe was allowed. And Walton writes, more than once, about how it was the best era in the history of the game! Walton's championship team won 47 games in the regular season, and the champion of the league the year after won 44. There were dozens of careers ruined by drugs. A player like George McGinnis, an absolute turnover machine, was an All-Star. There were ballhogs and attention-seekers everywhere; Walton actually praised his teammate World B. Free for being exactly the type of player he claims he detests when that kind of player isn't on his own team.
But that's typical of the way Walton has lived his life, and why he has pissed off so many people for forty-plus years. I don't think he's evil, but I do think he's not even aware of what a hypocrite he is, that the things he excoriates others for are things that are OK when he or someone he likes does them. And it makes him hard to like, and ultimately it made his autobiography a little hard to read.

No comments: