Dock Ellis pitched a no-hitter while tripping on LSD. Bill Lee descended from deep space and threw strikes for the Red Sox. Ricky Williams was banned from the NFL for smoking dope, took a season of hand-offs in Canada, then returned south to search for holes in the O line. All three are deserving of a drag, but no freak ever flew so athletically high as Bill Walton. In the early ’70s he was the best player on two national championship basketball teams at UCLA. He wore sweatbands to keep his long red hair in place and threw passes like a prophet. His 1977 Portland Trailblazers won it all by playing faster and more telepathically than their opponents. He was a key player on the title-winning 1986 Boston Celtics, a squad that anyone who cares about ball can comfortably rate as one of the greatest of all time.
Walton likes tie-dyed t-shirts and the Grateful Dead and in 1993 he was inducted into the hoops Hall of Fame — even though his oft-injured feet destined him to double as both a what if and a best ever.
After he was done playing, he became a television color commentary man and spoke about the game in mystical and Manichean terms.
He also wrote a book about bicycling.
When did you realize that you thought the game better than most players? I need to put things in context before I can answer that question. My favorite player of all time, on and off the court, is Bill Russell. It’s hard to imagine any athlete, with the possible exception of Muhammad Ali, who was more cerebral than him. You have to understand that the great body is a given. It’s the mental acuity and decision-making capabilities that distinguish the great champions. Russell thought about how he was going to win. That’s where the creativity comes in. You have creative artists like Magic Johnson, Larry Bird, Steve Nash, Michael Jordan, Neil Young, Jerry Garcia — these people have the ability to spawn new ideas. That creativity is what sets them apart. And none of them played the power game. The power game, basically, is unappealing unless you have some sort of attachment to that performer, like he’s your son. But the ability to inspire through creative brilliance is a transcendental bridge that draws people to the cause. That’s why Jordan, the Celtics, Ali — even if they weren’t on your team you wanted them to win. It’s like the Brazilian soccer team — their style, their imagination, the thought processes that go into the attempt to put on a perfect show and ultimately win. That is what is most stimulating and exciting.
Do you think that– Everytime down the court is a totally different game. A good team is like a great rock’n’roll band. The activity happens so fast that it has to be the players. The coach teaches how to be creative in conjunction with disciplined organization. Creativity and imagination, that’s what makes it fun. That’s what makes you wait for the next release from Bob Dylan.
Isn’t it possible that– My thoughts aren’t written down like yours probably are. I was onto something. I need to follow my thought through.
Let it flow. I’ve lost it.
Let it flow, Bill. I’ve got it! You can listen to a song from any era and any age. If it’s truly great, it’s going to be new to you based on your feelings at that time. When you go to a great concert, you feel as if that person is performing to you and singing to you. That creative ability is what sets talent apart from something that is packaged or fake. The ultimate battle is the attempt to try to conquer hype with substance, to try to supplant luck with skill. That is the essence of the creative genius.
Do you think a physically dominant powerful player like Shaquille O’Neal is necessarily less creative than a fluid, flashy player like Pete Maravich? You’re judging substance based on taste. I can say that a given player is more creative to me. You can’t say that for me. That’s where my creativity as a fan comes into play. I can sit here and recite all the statistics you want, but I can’t control your mind.
So we can’t objectively say that any one player is more creative than another? Shaq plays in straight lines. Maravich played in spirals. I happen to think that Pete Maravich is one of the most creative people I have ever known. He out-thought history. He did things that no one else had ever done before. He came up with ideas and executed plays that no one else had ever even dreamed of. That’s why I have such respect for Harlem Globetrotters like Meadowlark Lemon and Curly Neal. Their ability to entertain, create, and dream was right at the top. Bob Cousy, Wilt Chamberlain — no one ever thought of dunking from the free throw line before him. Kareem — nobody had moves like that. Kevin McHale. Larry Bird. These players were phenomenal in their ability to think. The body is a given. That’s why the skill and the intelligence always beats power. Power is basically unappealing.
What about the notion that– Look at the great teams and the great musicians. Its not how loud they play or or how high they jump. It’s not how impressively they flex their muscles. It’s the greatest brilliance of a mind, thinking as part of a unit, towards the success and accomplishment of a team. You say, OK, that’s why I love Bill Russell and the Celtics, the Knicks of the ’70s. Magic and Kareem and Lakers. The Trailblazers of the ’70s. That’s why teams love the way that Phil Jackson’s squads play. Look at Pau Gasol — there is not one aspect of his game that is based on power and he’s an incredible player. Incredible. He’s the antithesis of what the modern game is based on and he’s a champion.
Before we go on, thank you for your time. I’ve got all the time in the world for things like this. I choose to creatively spend my time. And I choose to spend it on things like this.
What was your moment of greatest creativity on the basketball court? Jerry West said it perfectly and it’s never been said better: By the time you’re smart enough to really play this game, your body won’t cash the checks your mind so readily writes. There’s no way that your body can keep up with your mind. That’s why the great master teachers — John Wooden, Neil Young, Garcia, Dylan — encourage you to train your mind. Your mind is where ultimate success, happiness, achievement, and accomplishment come from.
What was the last creative thing you did? This interview. I thought about it in advance. I tried to come up with something to say. I hope I did.