Advertisement

Dave Boling: Remember Bill Walton as one of basketball's great poets, on and off the court

May 27—Today's column fulfills a promise I made to Bill Walton.

Not that we were buddies or anything, or that I have any extensive insights into his extraordinary life. But a promise is a promise.

Walton, in the pantheon of great basketball players, college and pro, died on Memorial Day of cancer.

In January, 2023, I'd been writing a number of columns on the exploits of Gonzaga's All-America big man Drew Timme.

Timme was such a charismatic and joyful player, endlessly creative in the lane and on the baseline, and such a sensational teammate and representative of the university, it seemed that almost every game demanded praise of his work.

But you can't beat the same drum at the same tempo all season, so I wanted to find somebody else to comment on Timme.

In some specific ways, in a somewhat smaller font, Timme's play was reminiscent of Walton's at UCLA in the early 1970s.

I got some contact info from a media friend and took a shot with a text to Walton, asking if he could spare a few minutes of his valuable time to talk about Timme.

He got right back to me and went on for well over half an hour in one of the most memorable, wild and wide-ranging interviews ever.

"I love Drew Timme," Walton said. "He's an exuberant force of nature like few others. He plays with boundless enthusiasm, he's got an incredible skill level, he's got a mind that separates him from the crowd ... he has the creativity of a genius and he has a very vivid imagination. And he's super fun. What's not to love?"

I didn't tell him at the time, because when a source starts talking like this, you're a fool to slow him down, but his description of Timme sounded to me a lot like a description of Walton, himself.

His own exuberant commentary, hyperbole and non-sequiturs polarized some basketball broadcast viewers.

What critics forgot was that you can't take poets or philosophers literally.

Some felt he wasn't talking enough about the basketball game in front of him. I think they failed to see that he was talking, in a larger sense, about humanity and high aspirations and art — the things that, he obviously believed, were exemplified when the game of basketball was at its best.

A couple times during the interview, I had to reel him back for explanations.

"Our job as human beings is to try to make other peoples' lives better — Drew Timme has made my life better."

Okay ... what?

He explained that he could sense Timme's "glorious" dreams by watching him play.

Huh?

"Can't you?" he asked. "He's very much like the Spokane Falls, he just keeps coming, even the hardened lava can't stop him or make him change directions. It's fabulous."

Analyst Bill Walton not at a loss for words praising Gonzaga

Meet Bill Walton, huge Gonzaga fan. Walton, college basketball's most unique and unpredictable analyst, couldn't have lavished more praise on the Zags in a five-minute interview prior to Gonzaga's 77-73 win over South Carolina on Saturday at University of Phoenix Stadium. And he couldn't have been more vintage Walton. — Read more

Walton, a child of the '60s, was one of the highest-profile athletes trying to effect social reform through his sport, and frequent protests, in that period of unrest.

What developed between Walton and his legendary coach John Wooden, was a beautiful relationship based on respect, with the occasional butting of heads over cultural differences, and the eventual learning from each other.

Some of the stories about the two were illustrated with photos of the aging Wooden being towered over by the 6-foot-11 Walton. I told him that I thought their relationship, and size differential, seemed very similar to the wonderful collaboration Timme had with Zag head coach Mark Few.

Mentioning Few to Walton triggered more ebullience.

"What Mark Few has done there is just exhilarating," he said. "It makes you feel good about the world, and feel good about our future, that we have a chance."

I agreed that Mark Few's coaching greatness was indisputable. But does he have a global influence?

"When you watch Gonzaga basketball, they epitomize all that's good in the world in terms of their style, their culture, their identity, player development, physical fitness, the volcanic eruption starts ..."

Once he got to volcanic eruptions, one could tell we might have gone past the turn-off.

But why wouldn't Walton have a grand perspective of life and its possibilities. He was a scrawny kid with a speech impediment and profound introversion, but became a spokesman for social causes, a Hall of Fame athlete, and one of the most voluble speakers in any medium.

He played through injuries, illnesses and pain, often amid the chorus of criticism. But he still took an ineffable, unrelenting joy in his world.

Yes, he ranted at times. But with purpose.

He was teaching, interpreting, entertaining — translating the wonders of art and music and literature and philosophy through the prism of basketball.

He was larger than life. But not too large to share his time. And therein lies his greatness from my perspective.

The man returned my call, and beyond that, he filled my notebook with great quotes and soaring analogies. He became a first-ballot member of my all-time Interview Hall of Fame.

I was so appreciative that I promised that "I would forever write nothing but kind words about Bill Walton."

"I appreciate that," he said, but then had a fair question: "How old are you?"

When I confessed to being a year older than he, he laughed, as if my promise probably wouldn't do him much good when it came time for a eulogy.

Turns out it did.

Thanks again, big guy.