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.
1. The most zany, unbelievable, absolutely impossible, DREAM of an announcer There's no time left There's no real announcer left in the WORLD anymore
Thousands upon thousands of people, are STUNNED. They are standing, looking at each other, looking at the sky. They don't believe it. NOBODY believes it. I don't know if I MYSELF believe it. It's not real.
A man would be a FOOL to try to invent a story of such an announcer, and make you believe it. This man will be relived FOREVER.
2. Thank you for your rememberance ...
Being on the east coast, I never got to hear him do P-B-P, but I always appreciate a good announcer.
3. What a wonderful tribute to BK.
The games just won't be the same... I wish I could say I'm excited about whoever teams up with Ken, but I'm not.
Rest in Peace, Bill... you'll certainly be missed.
4. I remember when he quit calling basketball games. At the time I thought how can he stop calling Basketball games. The A's are my favorite team and baseball is my favorite. But how can Bill King stop calling basketball games!?!? Could you imagine being that good at something and walking away from it? An incredible man.
5. He made me cry from time to time. Profound beauty with headphones in the dark. In a split second he could take a moment, a nuance, a memory -- run it through his mind and heart and pour it into our souls. No "holy Toledo" was ever faked or forced. Always authentic everything. He was a respectful teacher. Baseball, I feel, is somewhat mystical -- so too, Master King. What you have written for him is just right. Thank you for your words. Bart Giamatti wrote that "the real activity was done with the radionot the all-seeing, all falsifying televisionand was the playing of the game in the only place it will last, the enclosed, green field of the mind." Live there Bill King, live on. With gratitude and love. P.S. I have never gone to Cooperstown, but will for his induction.
6. I don't want to think about the spring when the first games are broadcast without him. Reread your homage. Even better the 2nd time. Must thank you for "Stop Casting Porosity". What phrase could be more associated with a trip to see the A's, (and less). It comes to mind at the oddest times and I have never known what it meant. I like to think of it as a protest (against, for example, the Visigoths). Goes hand in hand with Bill King, the post game and the ride in my dad's old (new then) 260Z after a Warrior game. Thanks for the smiles and tears.
7. Living in Southern California in the seventies, I first got to hear Bill doing the Warriors in a game that came in at night on a clear channel station. At about the second sentence after I started to listen, he said "so and so comes off a double stack to the left" and I thought, "My God, this is the best play-by-play announcer I have ever heard!" Two sentences. That's all it took to convince me. And when I had a chance to listen to him do the Raiders, I realized that this man was extraordinary. Bill King is without a doubt the best play-by-play man in the history of both football and basketball. And I have been listening to both since about 1954. Goodbye, Bill, we'll all miss you.
8. As his son, I understood the zest for the game that he brought to the microphone. He brought that same zest to life and it was reflected in his keen interest in so many diverse things. He loved the ballet, Russian History, and gourmet cooking equally. He described the pivital battle of Gettysburg in the American Civil War with the same passion as any given call for the Raiders in the 70's. He was a remarkable and unforgettable man.