It was this time of year that I would plop myself down in the living room while my dad was working on adulting nonsense: paying bills and catching up on the mail and what-not. I would turn on the television to watch the professionals on the basketball court, as they gradually faded out round-by-round in their respective playoffs to determine the champion. It was then that my father encouraged me to cheer for the underdog (maybe that was more so his Cleveland pro teams fanatic complex of not winning too many crowns in his lifetime, but minor detail). So, as much as I probably didn’t realize that I was witnessing epic greatness in His Airness (aka Michael Jordan), I gravitated towards plenty of underdogs who didn’t seem to stand a chance. However, what made those summer evenings all the more enthralling was Bill Walton.

Walton was what sports broadcasters called an “analyst.” And although he did his fair share of analyzing the structure of plays and the athleticism of players, he was also an artist at making you feel what you were witnessing (whether Jordan or otherwise) was more than worth your summer evening hours’ attention. I know some of my friends found his…infectious enthusiasm to be a bit over-the-top, perhaps even annoying. But, what can I say: he drew me in every time.

As the years went by, Walton took a job “analyzing” college basketball games on the west coast, where he grew up and still claimed as his pride-and-joy home. In his own playing days, he thoroughly dominated the collegiate ranks, learning under what many consider to be one of the greatest coaches of all time in John Wooden at UCLA. Now, his…infectious enthusiasm might have been a bit much for his coach (and plenty of others) to take as he carried himself, from many perspectives, as a prototypical hippie in the early 1970s, being captivated by the Grateful Dead and protesting government and war. Supposedly, after an arrest due to such anti-establishment efforts, it was none other than the sage Wooden, who bailed him out.

Decades after listening to Walton on those summer evenings, without a care in the world of adulting nonsense, I would be drawn in, yet again, by his…infectious enthusiasm, as fatherhood became a reality for me with late-night responsibilities. As Walton analyzed games starting at 10pm or later, I was being convinced that what was going on in California or Oregon or Washington between two teams that were no where near that of the Chicago Bulls of the 1990s, to put it mildly, was still worth my attention. He wouldn’t just stop with the talent ensuing on the court, but the culture ongoing beyond the arena. It was as if life in a variety of ways, including the ones we take for granted, was utterly fascinating.  

Unfortunately, Bill Walton died this past Monday after a bout with cancer. And maybe it seems rather strange, but I have this feeling the church has something to learn from him. After all, Walton witnessed the game he cherished change in seemingly countless ways during his lifetime. Although he didn’t dominate the professional level as much as he did at Pauley Pavilion and other campuses, his voice was still treasured nonetheless. He had audiences convinced that something was still worth being marveled over on the court, in spite of new three-point lines and shot clocks defensive philosophies. Many others would have taken the national broadcast spotlight opportunity to complain non-stop about a game that wasn’t the same. And yes, Walton did his fair share of speaking out, to be sure, but he still had this…infectious enthusiasm. One can only hope the church follows suit for as long as we have left to play on the earthly court. Many things have changed, and we could complain non-stop (and we certainly have our moments, to put it mildly), but may the Holy Spirit never stop from invigorating our infectious enthusiasm for the Gospel, as if goodness is still more than alive in this world, because, well…Christ is still Risen, indeed! Alleluia!

In Christ,
Pastor Brad