Lay It Down, Big Man

 Bill Walton put out a spoken word album in 1994 called Men Are Made in the Paint: An Audio Guide to the World of Basketball (where women are made is anybody’s guess). In fairness, spoken word is kind of a misnomer, especially if you associate the genre with self-indulgent slam poetry a la Saul Williams or self-indulgent pontification a la Henry Rollins or Jello Biafra. Anyway, Walton is probably the greatest college basketball player ever; he was the center on John Wooden’s UCLA teams from 1971-1974 winning two national championships and National Player of the Year (before it was called the Wooden Award) three times. He was also a great NBA player—one of the 50 Greatest of all time—who led the Portland Trailblazers to the 1977 NBA Championship and finished his career with the Boston Celtics in a diminished capacity because of back and leg problems that forced him to retire in 1987.

But that barely captures what makes Walton interesting—and why I was so excited to discover this album. For one thing, the fact that the album was even made is a testament to his perseverance, since he’s suffered through much of his life as a stutterer, making his longevity as broadcaster a truly remarkable feat. But he’s also a pretty radical dude. In college he was jailed for taking part in a peace rally at UCLA that forced the legendarily square Wooden to bail him out. He once remarked that because of continued oppression black people would be justified to shoot white people and that no one over the age of 35 should ever be president. He’s also among the most famous Deadheads in the world, having attended over 835 of Grateful Dead shows. He’s probably the only person who has been inducted into both the Basketball Hall of Fame and the Grateful Dead Hall of Honor.

Like I said, he’s an interesting guy. But I didn’t always feel this way. He was the analyst for the NBA on NBC broadcasts in the 1990s and he was insufferable. His righteous and absolutist pronouncements were infuriating—and a bit pretentious (Boris Diaw and the age of the Romantics?). Now, though, I kind of love him as an announcer because, although he’s still self-righteous and absolutist, he doesn’t really seem to give a shit. He also might be crazy:

Like I said, he’s an interesting guy. But I didn’t always feel this way. He was the analyst for the NBA on NBC broadcasts in the 1990s and he was insufferable. His righteous and absolutist pronouncements were infuriating—and a bit pretentious(Boris Diaw and the age of the Romantics?). Now, though, I kind of love him as an announcer because, although he’s still self-righteous and absolutist, he doesn’t really seem to give a shit. He also might be crazy:

So when I bought Men Are Made in the Paint, I was excited to listen to what Walton had to say. The album cover does nothing to quell my lofty expectations. Around an orange border is a painting of four basketball players apparently playing two different games. In the foreground a green-uniformed Walton (a nod to his Celtics days) calls for a pass and is guarded by what appears to be Keenan Ivory Wayans. In the background a blue-uniformed Walton (a nod to his UCLA days) finishes a layup and as he does lightning strikes his hand from above. The court seems to be located in the middle of a mountain range, sort of like how the Field of Dream was in the middle of a cornfield, and dark clouds hang over both the mountains and the court. This is some mystical stuff.

The liner notes include testimonies from Walton’s former coaches and teammates, and, as you might expect, members of the Grateful Dead. Drummer Mickey Hart calls the album a “compelling romp through the fertile mind of Bill Walton,” and goes on to add, “Basketball is a rhythmic dance…[the album] contains the inside scoop on what it is (or takes) to understand the interplay of mind, body, and psych [sic]. It’s the Zen of Basketball…To be conscious, in the moment.” Jerry Garcia compares a basketball team on a “magic” night to a magic night for an improvisational band. He claims, “Bill shares a little of his special experience as a shaman of basketball to help you learn something about that kind of timing.” A shaman! Adding to my mounting expectations: Ray Manzarek of the Doors plays a keyboard accompaniment to Walton’s speechifying. Walton even concludes his acknowledgements section thusly, “Basketball is a Celebration of Life. Let’s Party!” So everything thus far had led me to believe this was going to be some kind of mystical journey, an aural vision quest that seeks to find the harmony of the universe as exemplified in the game of basketball.

But alas, there’s no mysticism to be had. At almost 2½ hours (142 minutes to be exact), the album is more of an endurance test. When Manzarek opened the album with the keyboard riff from “Light My Fire,” I knew I was in trouble. Walton quickly informs us that basketball is a test of one’s physical, mental, emotional, psychological, spiritual make-up, and then descends into instructive, technical (read: boring) thoughts about ball handling, shooting, and rebounding. Here’s Bill on practicing dribbling: “Just get out there and do it.” Here’s Bill on rebounding: “Jumping is important in basketball.” Here’s Bill on playing defense: “You never want to foul a guy in his shooting motion because he’s either going to make the shot or be on the line for two free throws.” All of this is rather boilerplate. A bit of unintentional humor does seep in at Larry Bird’s expense when Bill talks about shooting in a chapter called “Getting Your Shot”:

If you think back to all the great players, the great photographs you’ve seen—still photographs of the players executing plays—it’s not with everybody up in the air at one time. It’s with one guy, a Michael Jordan or a Jabbar or a Bird, way up in the air—Bird’s not gonna be way up in the air…

What emerges is not the mystical harmony perceived by the members of the Dead or any of the other testimonies. Instead, a very physical, violent game comes to the forefront with Walton talking about shoving off and putting elbows in people’s necks and in their faces, because, as Bill says, “Nobody likes the taste of elbows.” The most intriguing aspect of the album is the tension that develops between the harmonious, aesthetic way that Walton perceives the game of basketball and the grueling, prosaic way of playing he describes on the album, and it’s difficult to reconcile them.

Perhaps the real story of Men Are Made in the Paint has to do with its production. The album came out on Issues Records, a short-lived subsidiary of SST Records, which was probably the premier independent label of the 1980s, putting out records by Black Flag (of which SST founder Greg Ginn was the guitar player and prime mover), Sonic Youth, Minutemen, Husker Dü, Dinosaur Jr, Meat Puppets, Descendents, a veritable who’s who of 1980s independent music. So in the 1990s, when multiculturalism rose to prominence, Walton’s record represents a kind of masculine multiculturalism with jocks, hippies, and punks (groups that normally don’t get along very well) all coming together to make a really boring record about basketball. But this tenuous unification of cultures stands as a testament to Walton and his legacy of trying to bring people together through basketball, one he’d surely be proud of but one you’re better off not listening to.

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