The man bent over his guitar,
A shearsman of sorts. The day was green.
They said, “You have a blue guitar,
You do not play things as they are.”
The man replied, “Things as they are
Are changed upon the blue guitar.”
And they said then, “But play, you must,
A tune beyond us, yet ourselves,
A tune upon the blue guitar
Of things exactly as they are.”
–Wallace Stevens, The Man With the Blue Guitar
Stevens’ poem describes the artists’ dilemma: trying to describe the world, using tools that by their very nature leave the task incomplete, and at the same time, trying to change the the world, using those same inadequate tools.
My dilemma today is to describe the world with Bill King in it, using a blog. But figuring out the right notes to play, right thing to say, and the right way to say it, is hard. Even when I have all day to think about it. The words don’t just flow out naturally. It’s a struggle.
There’s so much to say. I’m old enough to remember the days before King was the voice of the A’s (he joined them in 1981). But King was still the voice of my childhood, as his Holy Toledos punctuated the broadcasts for all the Warriors and Raiders that I listened to as a kid. So where to begin?
Let’s consider this. Get yourself a stopwatch, and see how long it takes you to read the following paragraph out loud:
Love with the ball. Gives it back to the top of the key to Sloan, then over to Walker on the right, looking for Love running a pattern, but Love has to come out to the right. Seven seconds on the timer. Walker one-on-one with Rick. Walker on the right side…turn, fallback, twist in the air, shoot…IN AND OUT! A rebound, taken by Love. GEORGE JOHNSON BLOCKS THE SHOT! Wilkes has it! And again defense gets the ball for the Warriors.
It takes me about 18-19 seconds to read that paragraph. To read it. Bill King said all those words during the 1975 NBA Western Conference Finals, live, instantly, both deciding what to say, and then saying it–in less than 17 seconds.
Now read that paragraph again. Look at what King did in those 17 seconds. He didn’t just describe where the ball went and who had it. He also described Bob Love running a failed pattern away from the ball. He gave us a shot clock update. He described the defense, that Rick Barry was defending Chet Walker without help. And then he summed up the whole sequence in less than ten words.
I listened to the Bill King tribute on KNBR today, and every time they played a tape of his basketball calls, I just sat in awe. Pure awe. Words just aren’t supposed to come so easily.
Bill King is the greatest basketball announcer ever. Some say Chick Hearn may have been just as great, and I can accept that, but I just don’t think it is humanly possible to be better. King completely mastered the art of announcing basketball. (For awhile, Hearn and King both announced Bradley college basketball at the same time for competing radio stations in Peoria, Illinois. Must have been something in the water.)
The faster the action was, the better Bill King was. That’s why he was so great at basketball. He also excelled at football: next time there’s an old NFL Films story about the ’70s Raiders, pay attention to the calls they use from Bill King. Watch how the pictures match his words, even though he was talking on radio. It’s amazing how much detail he packs into those moments.
Baseball is slower, so King’s greatest strengths weren’t put on display quite as often, but when the big moment arose, King nearly always had the right call, just the right words at just the right time.
But because baseball is slower, the fans got the time to come to know him and love him. King was both an elitist and an everyman. He’d put on his tux to attend the ballet, yet he wore shorts and flip-flops in the booth. He knew all the fancy restaurants in every city, yet he’d chow down popcorn between innings. His vocabulary was a veritable Oxford English Dictionary, yet he once called a referee a m–f–er on the air. He was beyond us, yet at the same time, he was just like us.
He was like the family member we’re most proud of, the one who went off to bigger and better things, but always came back home as if nothing had happened. The person who understood that we’re all imperfect, yet got as close to perfection as anyone we knew. The person who demanded our best, yet always forgave us our failures.
We lost the best part of ourselves today, but we’re all better for having had that part at all.
Thank you, Bill King, and may you rest in peace.
I cannot bring a world quite round,
Although I patch it as I can.
I sing a hero’s head, large eye
And bearded bronze, but not a man,
Although I patch him as I can
And reach through him almost to man.
If to serenade almost to man
Is to miss, by that, things as they are,
Say that it is the serenade
Of a man that plays a blue guitar.