Sports Nut

Bill Walton, Broadcasting Genius

The NBA’s most hated announcer is also its best.

Bill Walton
Bill Walton

Bill Walton has taken the dreariest NBA Finals in years and made it weirdly gripping. After every Shaquille O’Neal slam dunk, Walton shrieks, “Throoooooooow it doooooooown, big man! Throw it doooooooown!“No official’s whistle passes without the NBC color man’s praise—”That’s an easy call to make!“—or his disapproval—”Terrrrrrrrrible call!” At other times, Walton eschews sports jargon altogether and lapses into trippy ‘60s nature-speak: “The Lakers’ offense, flowing like a river, downhill, over the waterfall …”

It’s a shame Walton acts like such a loon, because minus all the bluster, he’s the best NBA color man out there. ABC, which inherits the league’s TV rights after the finals, understands this: The network has already tapped Walton to be its top analyst next season, and he’ll call every important game, including the finals. But ask any NBA fan what he thinks of Walton, and you’ll get a tirade about his verbal diarrhea.

Walton turns off viewers left and right because he’s bombastic. He fancies himself the curator of NBA history, never sparing viewers a lecture on how Wilt and Kareem used to do it. But then, moments later, he’ll throw history out the window by pinning a strange superlative on some unsuspecting mediocrity: “Marc Jackson, the best young passing big man in the history of the Central Division, dribbling, passing, shooting …” When Walton speaks, his sentences rarely, if ever, end. During Game 6 of the Western Conference Finals, he said of Shaq: “The footwork, the balance, the determination, the poise, the decision-making …And then he just trailed off into oblivion.

Then there’s his delivery. Walton speaks in a deep, oafish drawl, as distinctive as Howard Cosell’s rat-a-tat and equally as grating. To compensate for a lifelong stutter, Walton also overpronounces words, which gives his speech an arrogant twist.

But for all his drawbacks, at least he has a pulse. The NBA’s other TV analysts—Danny Ainge, P.J. Carlesimo, Hubie Brown, etc.—are safe, dull types who do for the viewer what a sedative does for the insomniac. They’re underopinionated. Where Walton blabs too much, they commit the far greater TV sin of speaking too little.

Walton asks, “Where’s Jason Kidd?” Take Game 3 of the NBA Finals, where Walton was paired with one such sphinx, Steve “Snapper” Jones. Trailing by five in the fourth quarter, Lakers coach Phil Jackson made a surprise move and ordered Shaquille O’Neal to the bench. This is the kind of thing TV analysts are supposed to weigh in on. So what did Jones come up with? “Shaq getting a breather here,” he intoned, without further comment. Then there was a long pause. Then Walton, perhaps amazed that Jones had nothing more to say, added, “Phil Jackson taking a huge gamble.”

It’s been that way for most of the playoffs. Walton—arrogant, irritating, on top of things. Jones—soft-spoken, calming, barely sentient. Watch the clip above from Game 1 of the NBA Finals, where Walton chides the Nets for benching Jason Kidd and watching their offense fall to pieces. Walton on the Nets’ centers Walton is also the only TV analyst who played his entire career at the center position. Thus, he explains the finer points of Shaq’s dominance better than anyone else. Click on the clip at left to watch Walton explain how the Nets are using their big men against Shaq in precisely the wrong way. They’re employing Todd MacCulloch and Kenyon Martin as offensive creators, when they should be finishers or weak-side rebounders.

Walton vs. Jones: Things get ugly And as for Walton’s most aggravating tics, well, they’re more NBC’s creation than his own. The network paired Walton and Steve Jones eight seasons ago and apparently ordered them to stage an on-air argument every five minutes. At first, their sparring was merely annoying, like the brain-dead patter of sports radio. But in recent weeks, the Walton-Jones debates have turned nasty. During Sunday’s Game 3, Jones questioned Shaq’s fortitude at the free-throw line. When the big fella proceeded to sink two charity shots in a row, Waltons declared, “That’s called face.” They taunted each other for the entire first half. (Click on the clip at left for a small portion of their exchange.)

But when you extract Jones from the booth, Walton is an altogether different—which is to say sane—presence. For proof, check out his side gig as an analyst for local Los Angeles Clippers telecasts. In Los Angeles, Walton isn’t paired with another color man. Without anyone to egg him on, the histrionics disappear. Which is why it’s good news that, according to USA Today, Jones won’t be following Walton to ABC. Finally alone in booth, Walton can truly soar: The game analysis, the opinions, the focus, the determination, the on-air charisma …