Russia’s unprovoked invasion of Ukraine, now just over a week old, has already included thousands of civilian deaths, multiple explicit nuclear threats, and the targeted shelling by Russian soldiers of Europe’s largest nuclear power plant. It’s a very bad and dicey and extraordinarily volatile ongoing military conflict. As such, it makes for an uncomfortable, awkward reference point for anything going on in a Pac-12 college basketball game.
Where other, lesser broadcasters would naturally shrink away from that challenge, 69-year-old human tie-dye t-shirt Bill Walton boldly forged ahead. Or, at least, he made what seemed like a game attempt at it, at least before a hastily muted microphone or an absolute death-glare from play-by-play partner Dave Pasch brought him to a premature close. In the first half of Thursday night’s Stanford–Arizona game, following a turnover by the home team, Walton emphasized a point he was making about Stanford’s hopes for a victory by launching into an ominous hypothetical having to do with Russia’s imperial ambitions. This was about to get extremely wild, and then….silence:
The Defector staff has discussed several possible theories for what caused the hilariously timed premature end of Walton’s thought, each perfectly plausible given Walton’s delightful and longstanding weirdness. The funniest, to me, is the possibility that several people stationed inside ESPN’s production facility were on red alert about just this sort of tangent, as one must be during all Walton After Dark Pac-12 broadcasts, and that whole team flipped out all at once, smashed their hands down on every button within reach, yanked multiple levers, and jerked loose several power cords in time to mute Walton’s microphone, all while he calmly completed his thought for the benefit of Pasch and no one else. I spent a solid 20 minutes this morning laughing aloud to myself about this scenario.
A second theory is that Pasch, who has now been paired with Walton on Pac-10 and Pac-12 broadcasts for 10 years and leaned into the exasperated straight man role that those duties require, has learned and refined a knack for resting a hand on Walton’s arm and communicating with his eyes that he is prepared to destroy the planet if Walton does not abandon whatever course he is presently pursuing. Pasch told The Oregonian last year that he and Walton walk a fine line with their schtick, and that sometimes it is his job to cut Walton off before he crosses that line and gets into trouble:
“Years ago we were doing an NBA game in Chicago with LeBron James and the Cavs. LeBron took his headband off and threw it toward the scorer’s table. Bill started going off and saying it was technical foul. I was just happy to be there. I was alongside a Hall of Famer and happy to be there. Mike Tirico called me the next day and said, ‘You have to stop him. It’s your job to cut him off.’ I sort of filed that way.”Dave Pasch in The Oregonian
This scenario is also very funny to imagine! Pasch and Walton bantering loosely in the early stages of a March broadcast and in the span of time it takes Walton to utter the two syllables of the word “Russia,” Pasch’s honed reflex has kicked in and he is communicating in perfect silence a sobering capacity for cold-blooded murder.
The third theory, and possibly the likeliest, is that Walton never intended to finish the thought, that everything that came before the specific Russia quip described the point he was making, which is that it would take something Earth-shattering for Arizona to drop a game to the Cardinal (they did not). In this scenario, the ten seconds of silence are caused by Pasch knowing better than to respond or in any way encourage onward this line of thought, and waiting calmly for something to happen on the court to prompt the conversation in any other direction. That would be good and agile Walton–Pasch chemistry: Walton getting in his line-crossing quip, but without belaboring it so that Pasch would have to interrupt, and Pasch just letting it fade before redirecting everyone’s attention back to the basketball game.
Whatever happened, it made for a surreal, potently awkward moment of random basketball commentary. Reggie Miller would simply never.