ESPN Finds Hoopster Walton's Soft Side


Bill Walton — the often over-the-top primary analyst on ABC Sports and ESPN's National Basketball Association packages — is actually less intense in real-life.

At least that's the impression you're left with after watching Bill Walton's Long, Strange Trip, an ESPN and NBA Entertainment co-production that's also the total sports network's first foray into The Osbournes-style celebrity verité.

If you're like me — and you find Walton the analyst a bit overbearing — this show might actually make you see the Hall of Famer in a less harsh light. Out among the crowd, Walton's charm and sense of humor is far more apparent. And the series has more than its share of funny, warm-hearted moments.

The series tracks Walton and Al, his driver and assistant, as they travel around the U.S., shepherding the big (former) redhead to and from games. The pilot opens in Boston, and we travel with Bill as he visits nephew Cam at Harvard and attends some Celtics games. There's a funny bit in the nephew's dorm room when Bill lectures Cam and his roommates — "Here you are, sleeping — what are you guys thinking about?" He urges the college kids to go out and seize their moment. It's a pep-talk theme that permeates all of his interactions, whether with NBA superstars or grade-school kids.

And it doesn't come off like Walton's playing to the camera, either. After visiting with the Celtics and reminiscing with Boston fans about his time on the team — the heyday of Larry Bird, Kevin McHale and Robert Parrish — Walton then travels to Cleveland. He's calling a game there for ESPN involving high-school superstar LeBron James, alongside his college-basketball alter ego, Dick Vitale.

There are some funny exchanges as both Vitale and Walton give pep talks to the assembled high-school players, and as Al furnishes Bill with a series of catchphrases he can use to counteract his high-volume counterpart: "fetal fantastics" to Vitale's "diaper dandies."

Judging from the pilot, it looks as if this basketball trip will be an enjoyable ride.

Bill Walton's Long, Strange Trip
bowed Feb. 2 on ESPN and airs on Sundays throughout the month.