There’s a great divide between the past and present of UCLA basketball.
Today we have T.J. Leaf and Lonzo Ball, moving the ball around the court as fast as they can, lighting up scoreboards and enjoying what will probably be their only year in Westwood.
In the ’60s and ’70s, we had John Wooden, first teaching his players how to put on their socks and shoes before he taught them anything about the sport.
As great as the divide is, one man has found a way to bridge the gap: Bill Walton.
He sits on the sideline, splicing bits of political opinion and UCLA pride into his commentary for Pac-12 Networks and ESPN.
And it’s getting the students excited.
The 6-foot-11 commentator who used to be Wooden’s starting center has found a way to connect to current Bruins – basically because he acts like he’s still in college.
Snoop Dogg recently attended a game Walton called. The producers of the broadcast made the mistake of putting him on TV while Walton had a microphone.
“Spark it up, Snoop,” Walton said on air. “I just wonder if Snoop was behind the alteration of the Hollywood sign on Jan. 1, when California joined the land of the reasonable.”
Just a few days later, Walton appeared on ESPN’s coverage of the College Football Playoff National Championship. The producers of that broadcast made an even bigger mistake – cutting to Walton ranting about how marijuana shouldn’t be a Schedule I drug.
A side note: Walton’s attire was best fit for a USA-themed frat party.
But it’s things like these that connect Walton to current Bruins, and not the ones on the court.
Walton at times seems like a member of The Den student section with a microphone and a spot next to the play-by-play broadcaster.
“T.J. Leaf,” he said on the air. “This is just spectacular. I am obnoxiously proud and very happy.”
UCLA students should strive to be as outspoken, eccentric and as pumped-up about UCLA basketball as Walton is. Especially because with one-and-done basketball, we might not see another year like this.
But beyond appreciating our nearly undefeated basketball team, we need to take note of the ties Walton gives us to Wooden. And that connection needs help. We have a statue and a fitness center, but only one class has ever been offered on the topic of John Wooden – a freshman seminar that began this quarter.
In a postgame interview, Walton sent a barrage of questions toward T.J. Leaf, but one stuck out to me: “What are you studying here in school, T.J.?”
His response: “I’m undeclared as of now.”
Of course he is. All the guy needs to do is not fail for a couple of quarters and punch his ticket to the pros.
It wasn’t like that in Walton’s day. Walton earned a degree in history, and even spent two years at Stanford Law School.
As many championships as Wooden brought to UCLA, winning basketball games was never the main goal. Wooden always said he was a teacher first.
“Once you become a good person,” Wooden said, “then you have a chance of becoming a good basketball player.”
Our ties to Wooden are fading. The one year that college stars get isn’t enough to develop their characters in the way that Wooden helped develop Walton’s.
As Bruins, we’re lucky to have a weed-smoking, hippie-dressing color commentator on the sideline. He’s one of the few living connections to Wooden we have left.