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‘Truck stops’ and ‘Rome of the Northwest’: Following the twists and turns in a conversation with Bill Walton

Hall of Famer Bill Walton calls a college basketball game between Stanford and San Diego on Dec. 21, 2019, in San Francisco.   (Associated Press)
By Larry Stone Seattle Times

Yes, Bill Walton is reacting to the Pac-12’s runaway success in the NCAA men’s basketball tournament precisely as you’d expect.

“It’s fantastic, it’s exhilarating – and it’s what we expected,” Walton said to begin a 40-minute telephone call Thursday night that was fantastic, exhilarating – and what I expected.

That is to say, I expected Walton to wax not just enthusiastic, but lyrical, about the “conference of champions” (I documented 21 uses of that term in the course of our conversation). He had predicted their success, which includes an 11-1 record and four teams in the Sweet 16 (and three into the Elite Eight). Walton actually forecast all five Pac-12 teams in the Final Four and told me, “I stick with my picks.” Of course, Walton predicts Pac-12 domination at all times, in every walk of life.

“I’m very proud, very loyal, and I’m extremely grateful for what the conference of champions has done for me, and what they’re now doing for the world at large,” said Walton, who at 68 seems to be only gaining in energy.

I expected the conversation to take myriad twists, turns and detours. I’ve watched enough Pac-12 broadcasts to know that. In the course of a 17-minute soliloquy in response to my opening question about the Pac-12’s NCAA showing, Walton heaped praise on all the conference’s teams – including those not in the tournament – and then executed the equivalent of an Allen Iverson crossover.

“I do have some complaints, which I will vent on you right now,” he said. “I was appalled when I saw the lack of equipment and support for the women’s tournament in San Antonio. That is unacceptable. I was heartbroken. These women are trying so hard, and they deserve our support. I’m encouraging the top women’s coaches to get together and prepare a request list, and send the list to the NCAA, and at the same time, send it to the media. Outline the levels of inequality that are just unacceptable.

“Next on the list, I support the athletes in their ongoing struggle for the economic opportunities, currently spotlighted by the NIL (name, image, likeness) issue. But whatever can be done to help the athletes and support the athletes, I stand with them on that front.

“I stand with the fans in clamoring for better referees. And I’m disappointed that somebody at the NCAA level did not look at this bracket when it was finally put together and say, ‘You cannot have USC and Oregon playing each other in the round of 16.’ That is completely unfair to the conference of champions. I don’t know of any other conference that has to play their own members in the early rounds. Somebody has not done their job.”

I expected grandiose phraseology and uniquely Waltonesque comparisons, and wouldn’t you know it, I got that, too.

In routing Kansas, USC played “one of the great games in their school’s history, and I think one of the great games in the history of basketball.”

The fact that the father of Oregon State men’s coach Wayne Tinkle was once the dean of students at Loyola Chicago – whom the Beavers beat Saturday – “is one of the great harmonic convergences ever.”

Oh, and Walton loves him some Loyola: “This guy Porter Moser (the Ramblers’ coach), I hope I’m pronouncing his name correctly. I don’t say those words in succession very often. Porter Moser, he’s got a team of a whole bunch of Steve Nashes, with Dave Cowens playing center.”

And this: “It is mind-boggling to me that Mark Few, Dana Altman and Lon Kruger aren’t in the basketball Hall of Fame. These guys epitomize sustained excellence. I am embarrassed – embarrassed and disappointed that the Hall of Fame has ignored the contributions and the level of perfection that Mark Few, Dana Altman and Lon Kruger have given the world for decades.”

And then there are the “truck stops.”

It’s a phrase Walton uses often, and it seems to be shorthand for the basketball world outside the paradise that is the conference of champions.

Asked why he thinks the rest of the basketball world didn’t recognize the prowess of the Pac-12 like he did, Walton responded, “I think those are questions better suited to the NCAA and to the people who are promoting truck stops.”

What constitutes truck stops, I asked? All the schools not in the Pac-12?

“Most of them,” he responded. “Not Gonzaga. I’m a huge Gonzaga fan. I’m a huge Timothy Egan fan. We’ll leave it to the reader’s choice who the truck stops are. We are the conference of champions. There are no truck stops here.”

(My guess is that he’s referring to noted author Timothy Egan, who grew up in Spokane and attended Gonzaga Prep High School.)

And later: “The conference of champions is part of the solution. These other truck stops, man, they’re part of the problems they’re having out there.”

I know there are a lot of people who don’t warm up to Walton’s act. And “act” is the precise word they would use.

I personally find him endlessly entertaining – and if it’s an act, he never seems to get out of character.

“I love broadcasting, and I love the conference of champions,” Walton said. “It’s a dream. It’s a dream I never thought I’d have, being a lifelong stutterer. Now here I am in my 31st year. I love my job. And I love the people I get to meet and learn from.”

More of the best of Walton:

On Pullman: “Pullman is the Rome of the Northwest. Rome has its seven hills and its Tiber River, and Pullman has its four hills and the Snake River, and it’s beautiful.”

On Stanford’s women’s team: “I never miss one of their games. They are so fun to watch. Their little guards, Kiana Williams and Russell’s sister, Anna Wilson, and then the front court is just superb. They’re long, they’re lean, they’re lithe, they’re nimble. They’re so light on their feet, they just float over the court. They pass the ball, and they attack constantly. It is really, really fun.”

On the NCAA transfer portal: “The transfer portal is the tinder of college athletics. There’s two ways to look at it. … One is opportunities for the athletes to do what’s best for themselves. But it’s also the challenge of trying to create the loyalty that’s necessary for group success. There are ways you react to adversity. Some people, when things get tough, they go to tinder. They go to the transfer portal. Other people, when things get tough, they say, ‘OK, I’m going to get to work here. I’m going to fix this.’ ”

On whether the stream of transfers indicates that coach Mike Hopkins has lost control of Washington’s men’s basketball program: “Heavens, no. Mike Hopkins is just superb. I think he’s outstanding on every level. I am a huge fan of what they’ve got going on at University of Washington, between Mike Hopkins, (athletic director) Jen Cohen, and (university president) Ana Mari Cauce. It is an incredible school in a phenomenal city, in a place that represents the future. You have to think long and hard before walking away from that.”

Walton is so unequivocally bullish on the Pac-12 that he even worked in praise for outgoing commissioner Larry Scott, whose tenure has been roundly criticized. “I know the conference is in a much better position today than when he took over,” Walton said.

Of course, Walton raved about each of the Pac-12 men’s teams still vying for the title.

“The question is, can they keep this going?” he said. “When you have true greatness, whether it be Bill Russell or Wilt or Oscar or Kareem or Larry or Magic or Michael or LeBron or the Grateful Dead, Bob Dylan, Neil Young – when you have true greatness you never worry about how they’re going to do.

“But these are young players. You never know. It’s a basketball game. Anything can happen. But I have supreme confidence in the conference of champions.”

You can raise your eyebrows at Walton’s pronouncements if you like. But of that last statement, there can be absolutely no doubt.