Bill WaltonApril 7, 2015
I am sick of worrying over every sentence, every word, and so without stopping, jamming, hoping to find pure play, I am going to write about the greatest moments in sitting on the bench in the history of the world, starting with this moment captured on the cover of Sports Illustrated in 1978 and burned into my brain forever as the prototypical image of being on the outside looking in or perhaps more accurately being withdrawn from the game, being so far inside as to be removed from that which brings the most joy: connection with others.
Bill Walton dropped off the face of the earth right around the time of this cover and would not resurface for many years, for so long as to seem as if he had disappeared forever, and so for those years when he was altogether gone—actually he was an oft-injured member of the roster of the San Diego Clippers, which is one step beyond being gone—it seemed he was never going to come back. He had been to me, in his free-spirited ways and his joyous enthusiasm and in his untimely removal from the center of the action, a basketball counterpart to Mark Fidrych, who disappeared from the world at around the same time, the late 1970s, the Malaise Years, and as with Fidrych I had a yearning for him to reappear, to rise from his glum remove on the bench and be what he once was.
Fidrych never returned. That’s one difference between the two. The other is that Walton was when healthy among the greatest to ever play his sport, something that could never be claimed for Fidrych, despite his inarguably great rookie season (he deserved the 1976 Cy Young Award). The more complex Walton was not as magnetically likable as Fidrych, but like Fidrych Walton’s magnetism was based in joy. When his faulty body let him he had a volcanic joy for the game he loved, and he channeled that joy into connection with his teammates. Fidrych’s similar compulsion bubbled up outside the crux of the more solitary demands of his game, most notably when he bounded from the mound to shake the hand of a teammate who’d made a nice play; conversely, Walton’s happy need to share the love was woven into the fabric of his game. His greatest gift as an athlete—besides being a nimble, powerful giant—was vision, a gift he used to become the player generally considered to have been the greatest among all centers in setting up a teammate to score.
But how would I even know this? I never once saw him play during his time at UCLA or with the Trailblazers. His talents were entirely word-based and imaginary to me, but perhaps for that reason they were more intimately known to me. I saw him in my mind grabbing a rebound and in that very instant, airborne, locating a streaking teammate far upcourt and hitting him in stride with the perfect court-traversing outlet pass. I saw him exulting, fist raised, as his teammate scored the open lay-up that Walton alone had seen as a possibility.
And so to see this beauty disappear into the slumping misery of one on the bench was rough. Add to this that Walton’s disappearance from the world mirrored not only Mark Fidrych’s but also my own. I’d been a happy kid, laughing, reveling in the back-to-the-land sprawl and mess and joy-dreams of my parents—dreams shared by Walton above all among athletes of his time—but as the wide 1970s narrowed to a new, more constricted decade I edged into an adolescence that looked pretty much exactly—thematically speaking—like this picture of Walton on the bench. I was not connected anymore somehow. I was benched.
To be continued.