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Sports media: If Bill Walton is trending, a debate is normally in store

PK-80 - November 24, 2017
Bill Walton acknowledges the crowd at Veterans Memorial Coliseum in Portland, Ore., during the 2017 PK-80 Phil Knight Invitational college basketball tournament on Nov. 24, 2017
(Eric Lars Bakke / ESPN Images)

If Bill Walton is trending, tend to your memes.

Don’t fear the worst. It’s likely that a live debate on social media has spawned from the college basketball game he is working on ESPN or the Pac-12 Network. And that it might morph into a larger phenomenon that borders on a sociological experiment that might seem like Walton is manipulating for his own devious pleasure.

If formatted as a Zagat review, Walton is the most “insufferable,” “out-of-control,” “must-mute,” “aggressively annoying” “complete buffoon” on TV. Unflattering emojis optional. GIFs include people hitting themselves in the forehead with a hammer.

“I’d rather listen to Fran Drescher call this game” posted @GatorNation1911 on Twitter during last week’s Gonzaga-Washington telecast.

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On the other side …

Walton is “poetry in motion,” the most “original,” “hilarious” example of “a sonic voyage … of cosmic exploration.”

“Bill Walton is such a treasure. The games he calls are more performance art than anything. Pure bizarre entertainment,” posted @MarshallOsborne during Sunday’s UCLA-Notre Dame broadcast.

To say he is polarizing is an understatement. The best advice might be to say that if you can’t accept Walton’s eccentric personality, turn down the volume or find the local radio call. But many people don’t, and continue to transcribe.

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What odd thing did he say again about former Notre Dame coach Digger Phelps? What was the reference to a former disgraced U.S. senator after a referee talked about a player taking a charge with a “wide stance?” And did he really need to take his shirt off during a Thanksgiving weekend broadcast in Hawaii?

This is the seventh season of Walton’s resurrected broadcasting career, which focuses exclusively on the college game. Debilitating back surgeries sidetracked what was a 20-year run of working NBA games, nationally as well as with the Clippers locally on Prime Ticket in the 1990s.

The 66-year-old Basketball Hall of Famer no doubt puts his UCLA history degree to far-reaching use. The mind-bending methodology behind his long, strange two-hour Tilt-A-Whirl ride of a broadcast is something even fellow Grateful Dead devotees can’t figure out.

“I apologize if the noise in my head is bothering you,” is one way Walton frames his on-air persona as he straddles the line between an endearing character and one who becomes a caricature of himself.

You would think this must all be maddening for his play-by-play partners.

Not really, the say.

ESPN’s Dave Pasch, who has worked with him for six seasons, has said Walton makes him better.

“There was some sticker shock when we started,” Pasch acknowledged. “Some think I don’t like him. I do like Bill and I’ve always said that.”

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Anne Marie Anderson recently called a Loyola Marymount-UCLA game with Walton for the Pac-12 Network. She said she finds it interesting viewers assume there is a fight for air time taking place.

“You’d be foolish to do so,” she said. “None of it felt chaotic for me. Bill knows exactly what he’s doing. If a game gets one-sided, he understands it’s his job to be entertaining, and he’s right. I won’t even try to pull him back until it gets to under 10 points. And it’s not a struggle to get him back.”

Walton’s prep work shouldn’t be doubted, either.

Maui Invitational - November 23, 2015
Bill Walton, with Jon Sciambi, during the 2015 Maui Invitational for ESPN at the Lahaina Civic Center in Maui, Hawaii.
(Scott Clarke / ESPN Images)

“If anything, Bill is prepared to do a six-hour game with his iPad,” Pasch said. “If we ever did a game that was six overtimes, we’d never run out of material.”

Said Anderson: “There is no way he’s flying by the seat of his pants. His curiosity is genuine. I wonder if anyone knew that, for our game, he was there at 9 a.m. (for an 8 p.m., tipoff), talked to the coaches and players in their walk-through, and might have had 27 pages of highly detailed notes.”

His employers are on the same page.

“Having had the good fortune of working with Bill for over 15 years now, I can’t think of someone who brings a greater combination of experience, passion, personality, knowledge and enthusiasm to each broadcast,” said Larry Meyers, Pac-12 Networks executive vice president of content.

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“Regardless of whether or not viewers agree with his style and topics of conversation, it’s commentary people stay with throughout each game. He’s a unique voice among the greats who have played the game.”

David Ceisler, the coordinating producer for ESPN’s college basketball the last four seasons, said closely monitors Twitter during a Walton broadcast if only for the intellect and comedic effect of posts that are entirely different from when Dick Vitale or Jay Bilas are on a call.

“You can follow his game just on social media and get caught up on some rant he may be on, then turn the game on to hear more,” Ceisler said. “He’s at the top of the list driving social conversation, and that’s a good thing. Some may be negative at the beginning, but he can convert people. Other broadcasters may say something to get under someone’s skin and get a reaction on social media. Bill is doing it unknowingly and unwillingly.

“To me, he loves the game, and that above all stands out. He never loses sight of the game, and if he did, then it would be harder to understand. I find him so interesting. My dad is 78 and my son is 22, and both will take away something from a game he does. We’re very lucky to have him.”

UCLA followers may be the most vocal, especially when Walton is critical of the program he once starred for. He has done three of the Bruins games as part of his 40-some game broadcast schedule. A couple more may come during the Pac-12 men’s tournament in Las Vegas in March.

“My goal this season is to simply have the best year I’ve ever had,” said Walton, who will work Colorado-New Mexico on Tuesday for ESPN2. “It’s about making each day my masterpiece, and that’s still my greatest challenge. We do our personal best, incorporate our purpose and learn to love the pressure. I love the pressure. That’s one of the reasons I’m still in broadcasting.”

He insists he doesn’t pay attention to the social media racket during his games, but has an active Twitter account himself. He recites lyrics from a Bob Dylan classic, “Maggie’s Farm,” when questioned again about how he answers critics:

“Well, I try my best to be just like I am. But everybody wants me to be just like them.”

He pauses. “I hope you’re writing all this down,” he adds.

Maybe there’s a new social media meme there.


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