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Monday, October 14, 2019  Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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Grip on Sports: Love him or not, Walton has a story to tell … lots of them in fact

ESPN announcer Bill Walton gets some love from the Kennel Club members before the Gonzaga/Washington game Dec. 5  in the McCarthey Athletic Center. (Dan Pelle / The Spokesman-Review)
ESPN announcer Bill Walton gets some love from the Kennel Club members before the Gonzaga/Washington game Dec. 5 in the McCarthey Athletic Center. (Dan Pelle / The Spokesman-Review)

A GRIP ON SPORTS • In the spring of 1979, the UC Irvine women’s basketball team held their awards banquet in Newport Beach. The featured speaker? A big redhead guy with long hair and a bit of a stutter. Read on.

••••••••••

• Bill Walton has always been an interesting person with a good heart. At least as far as I could tell. When he spoke at the banquet that night as a gift to a friend, he was not comfortable speaking in public.

But my wife Kim (at that time my fiancée) and her teammates didn’t care. He was the best player in the world (or at least in the top five) and he was taking the time to share his insights with a group of players who were playing the game for the same reason he did: They loved it.

I was there. I remember talking with him as the waves lapped up against the shore of the pavilion. He had no trouble getting his thoughts out as we spoke in a small group.

But when he had to speak in front of the team and the people there to share their moment, it was different. He got through it, but it was obvious it wasn’t easy for him. Like everything in life, though, Bill Walton was confronting it head-on. He was trying to get better.

He accomplished his goal. Listening to Walton do basketball commentary these days, one would have no idea of the struggle he went through. It’s part of why I admire the man so much. (The fact he was either the most successful college basketball center of all time or the second-most – and played for my favorite school – also has something to do with it.)

But part of my job is to represent you folks. To try to give voice to what I believe you are thinking. Of course, that’s not easy. Not everyone feels the same way about everything. And it’s especially hard in Walton’s case.

After my most recent TV Take about his commentary on the Gonzaga/USD game, I received seven emails, the most since my encounter with Dick Vitale last year.

The vote on Walton? Five emailers hated his act, two loved it (including a friend of more than 20 years). Most every reason for where they stood on Walton the commentator was thought out. No one was mean.

It just illustrates the divide engendered by Walton’s way of doing basketball analysis. And why ESPN (and others) want him to continue.

Having a strong opinion about someone in broadcasting leads to ratings. Just think of Sean Hannity and Rachel Maddow. And ratings mean everything. Never forget that.

(Years and years ago, a man I used to work for who had spent a long time at ABC quoted a verse from Revelation to illustrate why controversial people were big in TV: “So, because you are lukewarm, and neither hot nor cold, I will spit you out of my mouth.” No one in TV wanted to be spit out. And who am I to argue with the Good Book?)

Walton has an exceptional understanding of basketball, not just because he was such a great player but also because he has a brilliant mind. It pains me at times to hear him go off into directions that seem manufactured to keep the banter going with Dave Pasch, the guy who sits next to him most college basketball nights.

I would rather hear him explain why Gonzaga, say, is so good at the high-low pass, thus improving my knowledge of the game I love, than spending time on why San Diego became a hub for the cellular industry.

But that probably doesn’t play as well in Peoria, so we get snippets of Bill pounding on his drums or walking with Rui Hachimura in a seemingly scripted exchange.

Fun, sure, in a way. But it’s not for everyone. And that’s OK.

•••

Gonzaga: The bottom line on the road is simple. Win and head home. In that regard, the Zags earned passing grades, at least from Jim Meehan as he looks back to the road trip. … The polls this morning should have Duke as No. 1. Will GU be two? Jim examines that as well. … Around the WCC, If you had BYU penciled in second place in your preseason WCC prediction, you are looking pretty good. The Cougars have another big week.

WSU: Around the Pac-12, Arizona is not going to finish in the top part of the standings this season. The Wildcats lost for the seventh consecutive time, this one against Colorado in Boulder yesterday. The Buffs have won five consecutive games. … Utah seems better on the road than at home. … I like reading stories about past I witnessed, such as this one. When my wife Kim was playing basketball at UC Irvine in the 1970s, not only was the NCAA not involved, the women used the same basketball as the men and her team had one paid coach. One. The men had three.

EWU and Idaho: Our two local Big Sky teams meet today in Cheney – twice. The men and the women will battle. Ryan Collingwood not only has a preview of the doubleheader, he also has a story about the Eagles’ Eagle Scout. (Say that fast three times.)

Mariners: Nice guys don’t always finish last.

Seahawks: Bobby Wagner is the best linebacker the Hawks have. Right now, he’s the only sure thing they have at that position.

•••       

• You know, of all the college basketball analysts I could sit down and have a beer with, Bill Walton may just be No. 1. (Though, if I need free legal advice, it would probably be Jay Bilas.) I’m not sure I could come up with a subject he wouldn’t have a well-thought-out opinion about. … By the way, if you were wondering why this was a little late this morning, about an hour ago I was finished and the S-R site logged me out. I lost all my work and had to start over. I came this close to quitting. Not just today, but forever. Maybe the computer gods are telling me it really is time to sail off into the retirement sunset. Until later …

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