I had originally planned on posting this after I got home from the Heat/Kings game as an alternate view from Section 214 (a section my friend bought tickets in by pure coincidence). Then I got lazy. Instead, I'll just cut to the best part of my time at that game. Mostly because you don't need me to tell you that we suck in the third quarter and need to stop settling for jumpers. So let's get to Bill Walton...
I should note that I, along with many others, have been a big critic of pre-back injury Walton on commentary. A lot of this has to do with how he would constantly criticize the early-2000 Kings teams for not pounding the paint when they were clearly a speedy team built around the threat of the 3. His love of the inside game that the Lakers employed didn't exactly endear him to me during some of my more impressionable years. Hell, I'm pretty sure I criticized the move the Maloofs made to sign him this year. Obviously, I was dead wrong.
Never have I gained more respect for one person than I have for Bill Walton in the past couple months. I'd always respected his tragically short playing career, but this season has given me a newly-found appreciation for Bill Walton the color commentator, and Bill Walton the person. It took all of one quarter of Walton's Kings commentary for me to realize how perfect an addition he was. Now that we have a frontcourt overflowing with talent that can make a difference in the paint, Walton's insights on rebounds and shot blocking suddenly became applicable to the Kings for the first time I can remember. Walton is also a master at pointing out some of the littler, mental mistakes that a younger player can make that often go overlooked in the grand scheme of things. I truly believe that this team is talented enough to get results now, it's just a matter of harnessing those talents (and those of your teammates) and implementing them at the right time. Walton knows how to do that. Sometimes with young teams the problems are very simple and Walton's good at pointing out simple problems because he, more than anybody else perhaps, because he has a strong grasp of "The Secret".
The Secret is a concept used in Bill Simmons' Book of Basketball (which, at a legit 700 pages, I just finished last month) that essentially means valuing the concept of the team over individual accomplishments. Simmons uses the claim that "The Secret is that it's not about basketball" to make it seem like he's not recycling a decades old idea, but almost every example he uses of the Secret's success is one in which the team that essentially gets along the best (whether through trading the team asshole, valuing wins over individual stats, and/or bonding through pranks/bets) succeeds. In the last chapter of the book Simmons visits Bill Walton to discuss The Secret (which Walton calls The Choice). I won't spoil the end, but just know that the last chapter is worth reading the sometimes insufferable 690 or so pages that precedes it. Walton explains the concept of The Secret/Choice in once sentence better than Simmons does in those previous 600+ pages. Bill Walton knows basketball and that sometimes it isn't about basketball. Sometimes it's the little things.
So yeah, I've almost done a complete 180 on my opinion of Bill Walton. Dude's awesome. Since I can't keep my opinion to myself, I had to tell him so. I knew this Heat game would be my opportunity. Coincidentally, the Heat game also fell just a few days before my Dad's birthday. This was fortunate because Bill Walton was the center of one of my Dad's favorite stories from his playing days. When he played high school basketball there was a game in Berkeley where the fans randomly decided to chant "Walton!" at him for reasons I'd like to believe had to do with his ability to spark fast breaks off of tipped rebounds and not the fact that he was a white basketball player with a headband and a beard on an East Bay Area high school team in the 70s. Somehow I had to take advantage of this timing. I thought about getting Walton to sign something for him, but there's something sad about a grown man standing around for an autograph so I settled on what I thought was an appropriate backup plan.
After being unable to locate him before the game, I somehow persuaded my companion to hang around after the game and hopefully catch the big red head during a commercial break. Some kids had beaten me to him so I had to wait for a bit. During that wait I met the Bee's Jason Jones who seemed like a nice guy. Slowly, the remaining people who hadn't left to beat traffic began dwindling while I sat patiently behind the broadcast team. Eventually, an usher asked us to leave. Needless to say, I ambled away very slowly. I may have faked a knee problem, I'm not sure. I really wanted this. I had refrained from drinking too much during the game so I wouldn't act/appear like a drunk asshole. I wore my tye-dye shirt (Kings colors of course) instead of the Peaches shirt because I knew it would appeal to him. I knew if I had a chance to just catch his attention for a second I could pull this off. Then the headset came off.
I had only made it up 3 steps in the past 3 minutes so I was able to quickly catch him as he grabbed his coat. "Mr. Walton," I asked politely, "it's an honor to meet you." I'd make fun of myself for laying it on pretty thick, but I meant it. As soon as his huge hand enveloped mind it hit me. Holy shit. This is one of the top 5 centers of all time. Last great protege of John Wooden. Hall of famer. 2-time NBA Champion. I've met plenty of NBA players before, but this was Bill fucking Walton. My voice cracked as I spoke. "Mr..um, Bill, my dad was your..er, I mean you were one of my dad's favorite players growing up. His birthday is Wednesday, would you mind recording a short birthday message for him?" (Paraphrasing for the obvious reason of my mind being blown) "Sure sure, just give me a second to get ready." Just as I was getting over the fact that I was meeting a living legend, he blew me away by being the coolest guy ever.
In the best case scenario in my head, I was hoping for something along the lines of "Happy Birthday Tom from your pal Bill Walton". You know, something short and sweet but still effective. As I fumbled to get my cell phone's camcorder ready, he began peppering me with questions "Alright, Tom, right? Where's he from? What's he turning? I respond, "Right, Stockton, 52." "You ready?" he asks. "Ready."
Walton goes on for about 30 seconds, going above and beyond any expectations I had going in. He includes an anecdote about his wife being from Tracy. He gives me a shout out for being a good son. He even closes with (and I swear on my life that this happened) "Go for it all. You're a great champion."
I have no idea what that really meant, but he inadvertently made my gift exponentially awesomer. Now my Dad and I have an inside joke. Now when we want to express gratitude for something, we just say "You're a great champion." Needless to say, my Dad loved his gift and has had a great time showing it to all of his friends. I can't thank Walton enough for taking the time to record this. Dude's a class act. I finally got around to posting the video on YouTube, so here it is if you're interested. Sorry the audio's crap, I recorded it with my cell phone. If you decipher what Bill Walton calls me a true fan of, let me know.
Merry Christmas everybody. You're all great champions.