When Bill Walton first met the bench, he greeted it with utter dejection. You want life to be one unbroken moment of play, but it won’t be. Sooner or later, you’ll be benched. If you’re lucky, you’ll get the chance to come off that bench again. This happened to Bill Walton when after a long exile as an oft-injured Clipper he joined the Celtics, my favorite basketball team. When this transaction occurred, it was for me like when, a few years earlier, Mark Fidrych was signed to a minor league contract by the Red Sox. Both had been legends of the 1970s not only for their truncated, spectacular professional accomplishments but for the way the two longhaired free spirits represented the wide, spazzy wonder of the times. Fidrych, despite my hopes, never made it back onto a big league field, a failure that weighted the acquisition of Walton with pessimism. Beautiful comebacks never occur, I believed. I had been in junior high school, that national institution for pessimism, when Fidrych arrived for his futile last stand at Pawtucket, and Walton’s arrival in Boston occurred three years later, in the fall of 1985, a few months after my expulsion from high school. I wasn’t sheltered in any kind of institution, pessimistic or otherwise, for the first time in over a decade, was living in Boston with my aunt and uncle, had nowhere to be except to wander around town and smoke pot from a one-hitter and pretend to look for a job and fish the Globe out of the trash, which is probably how I found out about the pulling of Bill Walton into my world from oblivion.
Please just let him be healthy for one season, I said. I remember the words if not the specific moment. Probably I was holding the gleaming garbagecan news in my hands. Call it a prayer.
And it worked. For that one season, 1985-86, Walton’s faulty body miraculously held up, and the Celtics had a dream season just when I needed it most. I’ve never enjoyed anything in sports more than that team, that season, and when I think of that season I think of Bill Walton flicking a behind the head pass to Larry Bird on a backdoor cut. I think of Bill Walton’s uncanny vision, the way he could see the court with something bordering on omniscience. I think of Bill Walton awakening. Wake up to find out that you are the eyes of the world. I think of Bill Walton beaming with joy.
My guess is that the picture at the top of this post is from the following season. The starting five all show evidence of having been in a game, but Walton, the Sixth Man for the ’86 Celts, seems to have not taken off his sweats in a while. He’s benched. This is what happened to him after that one miraculous season—his body started breaking down again and he never managed to stay on the court for long. It was a disappointment, especially since it contributed to the Lakers being able to beat the Celtics in 1987 and claim the “team of the decade” crown. But Walton mainly seems to have taken it in stride. Sooner or later, you’ll be benched. If you’re lucky, you’ll realize how lucky you’ve been, or maybe even how lucky you still are to have a seat so close to the action.
This past weekend something happened that I can’t quite put my finger on. I was at a golf course where my wife’s parents spend a lot of time. My four-year-old, Jack, likes it there. There’s grass, for one thing, which he doesn’t get a whole lot of in the city. Also, there are golf carts. He loves riding around with his grandpa. So the thing that happened was nothing special, really: Jack rode off in a golf cart with his grandpa. I was on the bench, as it were, to see it. More exactly I was sitting at an outside table overlooking the course. I knew that Jack knew he was about to zip out into the wide greenness and go bouncing over bumps. He was wearing the Avengers baseball cap he had picked out for himself at Target, and it was a little askew, and he was sitting straight up, attentive. I’m at a loss to explain my joy. To see my son happy!
I’m lucky. I’ve been benched, my life defined by the bench, and this has all been through no doing but my own. But to be benched and to see such a thing, to see my life open in such a way.
This weekend I’ll spend all the time I can with Jack and with my other son, Exley, who just turned one and is on the brink of walking, and on Sunday right before they go to bed for the night I’ll be heading to Soldier Field to see Bill Walton’s and my favorite band, the Grateful Dead, in what’s being billed as their last show. My friend Pete will be there with me and has been asking me what I think they’ll play. I’m trying not to think too much about that so that whatever they play won’t have to battle in my head with any hopes and expectations. But I can’t help hoping I hear Eyes of the World. Life is a long, gradual benching, but in that benching, I believe, there’s the possibility of awakening, of seeing, of joy.