Why you should care
Because you don’t have to love sports to find these guys addictively watchable.
There were no candles to blow out, but the cake, though covered in a vaguely disgusting tie-dye fondant, looked nice enough. Dave Pasch had just been named Arizona Sportscaster of the Year, and the celebration seemed like just another blandly forgettable work party, albeit one broadcast live on ESPN during the Arizona-Colorado men’s basketball game.
But as the cameras rolled, Pasch’s broadcasting partner, Bill Walton, pulled out a gift. “Here we’ve got The Origin of Species, by Charles Darwin,” twinkled Walton, as everybody else all but exploded in laughter. “We … we want to make sure that you believe in evolution.” As a creationist, Pasch holds about as much stock in Darwin as he does in Stan Lee. The prank wasn’t malicious, though. In fact, it was pretty much par for the course. “There’s nothing Bill can say that’ll I’ll take personally. Or vice versa,” Pasch says. “I think that’s sorta why it’s worked.”
And work it has. If you live on the East Coast and aren’t addicted to NoDoz, you’re missing out. While you’re sleeping, those of us out west in the Walton-branded “Pac-12: Conference of Champions” catchment area are watching the most entertaining basketball broadcasts on television. Spontaneous ridiculousness (“There’s virtually no discussion or planning whatsoever,” Pasch says) is guaranteed during broadcasts that manage to satisfy both sporting interest and the voyeuristic impulse to peer inside a loving and high-functioning but dysfunctional relationship. Pasch — the traditional and conservative straight man in the odd couple — and Walton (picture a 7-foot anthropomorphic Grateful Dead bear with a love of wide-open spaces and marijuana) have built on previous oddball broadcasting partnerships (Dick Enberg and Al McGuire; Al Michaels and John Madden; Dick Vitale and whichever poor person is assigned to wrangle him) to elevate otherwise run-of-the-mill games to true events.
During a recent Arizona-California broadcast, Walton cheered Cal center Kingsley Okoroh as “a man among shriveling midgets!”
Growing up, Pasch wanted to be an actor or a stand-up comedian. “But I wasn’t very good,” he says. “And then I wanted to be an athlete. But I wasn’t very good at that either.” By the latter stages of high school, he says, he knew he wanted to be in broadcasting. Like so many of his broadcasting brethren (Bob Costas, Mike Tirico, Sean McDonough), Pasch studied at Syracuse University and earned his stripes doing score updates and play-by-play for the college radio station. “It was somewhat embarrassing,” he recalls, “but to get on the air, you’d have to go sit in the bleachers with a tape recorder and call the game with all your friends around you.” After graduating, Pasch covered the Syracuse Orangemen for local radio before moving on to stations in Detroit and Chicago. In 2002, he headed for Arizona, to cover the Cardinals (today, when not traveling with ESPN, Pasch calls the Cardinals games). Shortly thereafter, he got his shot with ESPN, calling women’s college basketball and a handful of NBA games, including a few with Walton.
For Walton (who declined to be interviewed), that shared NBA booth was the culmination of a journey that led him from UCLA to the NBA to the operating table. A gangly kid with a stutter who became a headband-wearing, anti-authoritarian Teen Wolf doppelgänger and arguably the greatest college basketball player ever, Walton saw his career ruined by injuries and some 37 surgeries. After retirement, he made his first foray into broadcasting as part of an NBA on NBC unit that included Steve “Snapper” Jones and Tom Hammond, and became a fixture on league broadcasts.
But everything changed in 2007, when Walton found himself incapacitated by a back injury that forced him to spend entire days on the floor of his bedroom. Unable to stand, let alone work, he fell into a depression that robbed him of the joie de vivre that was as quintessentially “Walton” as his random anecdotes and the hemp clothing he presumably purchased at the world’s weirdest big-and-tall store. According to Jeff Fellenzer, senior lecturer in sports, business and media technology at the University of Southern California’s Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism, and a longtime friend of Walton’s, “He was at an extremely low point in his life, in a dark place. He couldn’t get away from the pain.”
Back surgery in early 2009 proved the turning point, and in 2010, Walton returned to broadcasting. ESPN, which had recently acquired the rights to the Pac-12, took a flyer on him. Over the years, Walton and Pasch’s broadcasts have achieved a level of performance art, with Pasch as the long-suffering professional saddled with an eccentric, charming, uncontrollable maniac prone to fits of hyperbole that put even Dick Vitale to shame. “He’ll call a coach ‘great,’ ” says Fellenzer. “And I’ll think, ‘Great? Really, Bill?’ ” But Walton doesn’t limit himself to coaches: During a recent Arizona-California broadcast, he talked up Cal guard Sam Singer (averaging 3.1 points per game) — “an exquisite basketball player on all levels” — while cheering Cal center Kingsley Okoroh as “a man among shriveling midgets!”
Walton’s outsize personality and proclamations mean he’s not exactly everyone’s cup of tea, and it’s possible his bluster, like Vitale’s, might ultimately exhaust audiences. “Maybe there’s a shelf life with those larger-than-life personalities,” says Fellenzer. Given his injuries, the 63-year-old may not be up for continued travel indefinitely. And that’s assuming he retires before driving Pasch insane. But, says Fellenzer, “his preparation is there. I’m still seeing someone with the expertise that I find necessary to really get me involved in a broadcast.”
Walton and Pasch won’t last forever. While they’re here, they’re worth seeking out: a true sports legend and the (mental health) professional tasked with keeping him under some semblance of control. As Pasch said at the Arizona-Colorado game not 10 minutes before the Darwin ambush, “If no one gets fired, we’ll be back for the second half.” Here’s hoping for overtime.