Bill Walton spent the opening minutes of last Saturday's broadcast of UCLA's 75-67 win over Alabama at historic Pauley Pavilion talking about the Bruins being innovative on offense and getting up and down the court, and he made a point to highlight how the players were no longer constantly looking to the sideline for direction.
"Couple of veiled Ben Howland references just four minutes into the game," noted Walton's television partner, Dave Pasch, and the broadcast just sort of took off from there.
Walton said this coming out of the first media timeout: "After years of shadow-boxing the apocalypse and wandering the land, the clouds have parted and people are having fun here. The atmosphere is totally different. [The Bruins are] up and down the court and they're passing the ball around and they're scoring and putting on an entertaining product. So things are getting a lot better here. People couldn't be happier or more proud."
Now I'm not nearly high enough to figure out how a Grateful Dead lyric about "shadow-boxing the apocalypse and wandering the land" applies to UCLA's program under Howland in recent years, so I won't even try. But, at this point, is there anything longer and stranger than Walton's obsession with Howland? If you watch closely, you can almost see Pasch rolling his eyes at the UCLA icon, and it's pretty bad when fellow ESPN employees are publicly calling for Walton to shutup or at least backoff.
"Ben Howland deserves better," tweeted ESPN analyst Seth Greenberg. "Give it a break Bill."
I couldn't agree more.
Walton's obsession with Howland was awkward last season, but at least those shots were focused on the present. Now, as aging legends sometimes do, Walton is living completely in the past, seemingly unable to move on, and the whole thing is just ... weird. I asked Howland last season if he'd had some personal falling-out with Walton, and he swore he had not. Which makes it all weirder because, if you're Walton, what's the point of publicly and constantly kicking a guy you already helped get fired -- particularly when most of your criticisms are rooted in ignorance?
To be clear, if somebody wants to argue that UCLA needed to make a change for the sake of change after last season, fine. I get that on some level, I guess. But the idea that Howland hadn't won enough or wasn't winning enough is lunacy, and anybody with access to Howland's wikipedia page should be able to realize that.
Presumably, you know about the three Final Fours in 2006, 2007 and 2008.
But do you realize Howland actually won the Pac-12 last season?
This is hilarious but true: In a year when Walton consistently criticized Howland for not playing fast enough, not scoring enough and not winning enough, UCLA won the Pac-12 by averaging a league-best 74.7 points per game while playing at a tempo that rated in the top 30 nationally. That's proof that Walton had already made his mind up on Howland and wasn't paying attention to what was actually happening on the court. Granted, some might counter those facts by arguing that Howland went five straight seasons without escaping the opening weekend of the NCAA tournament, and that's fair if only because it's true. But it should be noted that UCLA's second-leading scorer (Jordan Adams) broke his foot in last March's Pac-12 tournament, and that, either way, Howland isn't the only coach to miss the second weekend of the NCAA tournament for five straight years after making a Final Four.
Billy Donovan did it from 2001 to 2005.
Good thing Florida didn't give up on him, huh?
That said, whatever.
I'm not here to argue that Howland should've kept his job in Westwood because what good is that going to do anybody now? And I'm not here to remind you that this UCLA team that Walton just loves is led by six players recruited to campus by Howland, and that Howland would almost certainly have them off to the same type of start that his replacement, Steve Alford, has them off to this season. All of that is beside the point.
Ben Howland is no longer at UCLA.
Right or wrong, that's done.
So Bill Walton should be done talking about it.
(That's the point.)
But, for some reason, Walton just cannot stop talking about it.
Watching Walton last Saturday night reminded me of that old Robert Rodriguez movie "From Dusk Till Dawn." In an early scene, Harvey Keitel's character is talking to an irrationally angry character named Seth [played by George Clooney], and he asks him, basically, why he can't realize that he's won and just let the past go.
"You won, Seth," Keitel's character says. "Enjoy it."
Similarly, in this case, Bill Walton won. I'm not sure he should've won. But he undeniably won in his quest to poison Howland with UCLA fans. To continue talking about it, all these months later, incessantly and maniacally, only makes the "Big Red Head" seem small.