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Bill and Russ’ Excellent Conversation: In which the sports scribes talk about what they’re reading this summer

By: Bill Doolittle and Russ Brown

Photos By: Matt Johnson

RUSS -- BILL, I hate to open our monthly chat on a downer. But the 2024-25 college basketball season isn’t going to be quite as much fun for me -- and I am sure for many others -- as it has been for years because we will be denied the pleasure of listening to the legendary Bill Walton on the telecasts. Colon cancer claimed the big redhead and his wonderful wackiness at 71 on May 27.

BILL – Well, Russ, you warned me you wanted to talk about Bill Walton. And his book. So why don’t I just go get a sandwich and you can hold forth. When you wear yourself out, we’ll talk about some of these other books. You’re up!

RUSS -- There has been nothing in the sports world to compare with Walton, whose trademark lines were frequent references to the Pac-12 as “the conference of champions” and his dismissive description of all other leagues as “those truck stop conferences.” I wonder what name Walton would have come up with for the Big Ten now that his beloved UCLA is parked in one of those spaces.

No matter which teams were playing, if Walton was the analyst/color guy, I would tune in for the goofy philosopher’s rambling hyperbole and interesting observations on love, friendship, world history, music (he was a dedicated Deadhead who estimated he had attended nearly 900 Grateful Dead concerts), geography, John Wooden life lessons, nature, UCLA athletics and occasional hoops nuggets. He never disappointed and he always left me wanting more.

Walton was not only widely considered one of the top five basketball players of all-time, but he was admired by virtually everyone who knew him. I was lucky enough to have known him and Coach Wooden through my association and friendship with former University of Louisville coach Denny Crum, who of course played and coached for Wooden and recruited Walton. But I met them before that because UCLA was a part of the first Final Four I covered for The Courier-Journal, in 1973 in St. Louis. 

Sitting on press row next to the UCLA bench and the beautiful Bruin cheerleaders -- a sampling of those ‘California Girls’ the Beach Boys sing about -- I was in awe for one of the few times in my career. I was among Hollywood royalty, privy to the UCLA mystique up close. 

The Bruins defeated Indiana and its second-year coach, Bob Knight, 70-59, in the semifinals, then routed Memphis 87-66 in the championship game with Walton hitting an historic 21-of-22 shots while scoring 44 points. It marked UCLA’s seventh consecutive championship. (Walton, no fan of Knight, describes the coach during the semis as “spending most of the time yelling, cursing, screaming and drawing attention to himself.”)

BILL – Sounds like he was able to type as well as he talked.

RUSS – Yes. Walton’s larger-than-life personality and skill as a storyteller makes his 2016 memoir, Back From The Dead: Searching For The Sound, Shining The Light, and Throwing it Down, such an engrossing, entertaining read. 

Walton endured chronic pain while suffering through a lifetime of injuries that included 39 surgeries, including a catastrophic spinal collapse in 2008 that left him unable to move except crawl, and contemplating suicide. The book spotlights his eclectic interests, his UCLA and NBA careers and, naturally, his relationship with Wooden. It’s a dramatic story.

One story Walton relates that Crum frequently enjoyed retelling involved his recruitment of the San Diego redhead. One morning Crum walked into Wooden’s office and said, “Coach, I’ve just come from watching the greatest high school basketball player I’ve ever seen. . .” At the time, Lew Alcindor (later, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar) was starring for UCLA, which was on its way to its third straight national title and fifth in six years.

As both Crum and Walton tell the story, Wooden got up from his desk, closed the door and advised his assistant, “Now Denny, don’t make a stupid statement like that. You’ve recruited other guys who were probably a lot better than Bill Walton. San Diego has never even had a Division I player that I’ve ever heard of. People are going to think you’re crazy, Denny.”

But Crum convinced Wooden to accompany him to watch Walton play, and the rest is history.

BILL – Good report, Russ, though a bit lengthy. As you can see, a lot of my books are from decades ago – but read even better with age. Especially baseball books.

One thing to note is that many baseball biographies, and “autobiographies,” are penned by skilled sportswriters hired by major publishing houses to produce books on sports stars. A lot of people turn up their nose at that. Looking for the dirt, I guess. But I’m much more interested in the baseball than hanging out dirty linen.

Which is what makes The Story of Pee Wee Reese, by Gene Schoor, such a good book. It’s kind of aimed at younger readers, but the baseball is real. Harold “Pee Wee” Reese was born in nearby Meade County, and grew up in Louisville -- where he got his nickname Pee Wee not from his regular-sized size, but as a marbles-shooting champion. Reese played for the high school state champion Manual Crimsons, and signed straight on to the professional Louisville Colonels. Boston Reds Sox owner Tom Yawkey then bought the Louisville club – the whole team -- just to get Reese. But that didn’t sit well with Boston player/manager Joe Cronin, who didn’t care for a talented young shortstop coming to the Sox behind him. So, in a typical bone-headed Boston move, Reese was sent along to Brooklyn, which pretty much sat third chair behind the New York Yankees and New York Giants. But not for long!

Schoor’s book was published in 1954, as Reese and the Dodgers were reaching the peak of their “Boys of Summer” fame. After he retired, Reese partnered (or podnered) with Dizzy Dean broadcasting Saturday afternoon games on NBC. He was also the factory representative and ambassador to baseball and golf for Hillerich and Bradsby. And he was certainly one of Louisville’s all-time favorite citizens until his death 1999. 

There’s so much revisionist history going around today, and one good example is with Jackie Robinson. Reese, of course, was Robinson’s teammate on the Brooklyn Dodgers. Before buying into all the new stuff being peddled by persons who weren’t there to dismiss Reese’s role in Robinson’s acceptance into major league baseball, I suggest readers take in The Pee Wee Reese Story. And find out more in Robinson’s own book, Breakthrough to the Big Leagues. 

RUSS – I like how your dusty old paperbacks seem to held together with scotch tape and bubble gum. 

BILL -- From the same era, Hank Aaron, who preferred to be called Henry, but didn’t insist on it, collaborated with Atlanta Journal- Constitution sports columnist Furman Bisher for Aaron – which chronicles Aaron’s rise from poor beginnings in segregated Mobile, Alabama to baseball stardom. The book does document the horrific racial badgering and constant death threats Aaron faced in his pursuit of Babe Ruth’s 714 career home runs record. But Bisher, a genuine newspaperman, keeps the baseball going through all -- just as Aaron never wavered through pennant drives that kept the Milwaukee (and later Atlanta) Braves in the thick of things. 

Interesting perhaps to fans today, Henry Aaron and Willie Mays both began pro baseball as teenagers, playing with grown men. Mays played with his dad, Kitty Kat Mays, for the Birmingham Black Barons in the Negro Leagues. Aaron signed with the Indianapolis Clowns, a dusty-bus, barnstorming team. Aaron thought it was funny that the whole time he played for Indianapolis, the Clowns never got to Indiana. Quickly making it to the majors, Aaron and Mays compiled decades of stardom. Mays was a National League All-Star 20 straight years, Aaron 21. Though his home run record has since been bested, Aaron remains baseball’s all-time Runs Batted In leader, with 2,297 RBI. 

RUSS -- Walton’s book is one of two I’ve read recently that I enthusiastically recommend. The other is Vukovich: The Man Who Wouldn’t Lift. As the title page notes, it’s the story of the greatest race driver of his era, a grim, hard-charging product of an impoverished and difficult childhood. He was called “the man who wouldn’t lift” because he kept his foot on the throttle deeper into the turns than other drivers. 

Bill Vukovich dominated the Indianapolis 500 in the early 1950s during some of its most storied years. After honing his skills on the West Coast, the Fresno, Calif. native made an impact in only his second start at Indy. In 1952, starting in the middle of the third row, he quickly moved up to take the lead, and stayed in front for 150 laps before steering problems knocked him out on the 192nd of the 200 laps. He proved that performance was no fluke by winning the race in 1953 and 1954. 

Vukovich was favored to win his third straight 500 when he was killed in a chain-reaction crash while holding a 17-second lead on the 57th lap of the 1955 race. Exiting the second turn onto the backstretch behind three slower cars, a wreck pushed a car into his path. He couldn’t avoid it, his car went airborne and cartwheeled multiple times before coming to rest upside down and bursting into flames. Vukovich was killed instantly at the age of 37. 

The book is an engrossing tale not only of Vukovich’s toughness, bravery (some would say recklessness), generosity and complex personality, but the culture, camaraderie and rivalries that exist among drivers, as well as their relationships with their pit crew and mechanics. Overall, it paints a vivid picture of the 500. 

The book itself has an interesting history. Angelo Angelopolous, a former sportswriter for the Indianapolis News who died of leukemia in 1962 at 43, is credited as the author. However, that’s only part of the story. Angelopolous had a contract to publish the book in 1960, but for unknown reasons that never happened.


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