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Loquacious Walton brings New Mexico to Lobos telecast

Did you know that Sandia means “watermelon,” that Manzano means “apple”? That New Mexico is the fifth largest state geographically in the U.S., yet only with 2 million in population?

That Albuquerque has three u’s?

You did if you were watching ESPN2 Tuesday night, thanks to Bill Walton.

The Long Strange Trip meandered into New Mexico for the long, occasionally strange, occasionally trippy Big Redhead/Deadhead, the color commentator for the Colorado-UNM men’s basketball game.

“I love college basketball. I love Albuquerque!” Walton said as the telecast went to black on a disappointing Lobos loss. And after the game, he posed for photos and signed autographs.

“Very cool,” said Robert Portnoy, Lobo radio play-by-play announcer, in his postgame wrap.

A generation that knows Walton as the 6-foot-10 or so ESPN motormouth and father of the Lakers coach might not know he is a Hall of Fame basketball player – maybe the best I’ve ever seen in college when he was at UCLA (1971-74).

And it just might find incredulous the notion that the oft-impersonated, yet inimitable 66-year-old famously had a speech impediment as a young guy.

“English was my fifth language after stammering, stumbling, stuttering and spitting,” he recently told the Pocono (Pa.) record.

He could have used a pressure valve, but alas. As his worldly interests and curiosities have far transcended the game that made him famous, he brings a stream of consciousness delivery alternatingly insightful and infuriating, brilliant and bizarre.

And it can be about anything. Think Dennis Miller on Monday Night Football once upon a time, only if Miller happened to be one of the best who ever played the game going on before him.

It’s the Bud Lite vs. the microbrewery debate of tastes, and certainly Walton’s style isn’t for everybody. His presence on Tuesday night’s telecast might have driven as many ticketless Lobo fans to Portnoy and former UNM standout Hunter Greene’s radio call as it attracted to TV.

Greene’s color commentary, businesslike and to the point of the game, effectively is Walton’s polar opposite. But in fact, “I would love to be able and comfortable enough to do it like he does it,” Greene said Tuesday, hours before tipoff.

“I like his shtick. I like that he does his homework.”

Greene and Walton crossed paths two seasons ago in Tucson, both in prep to work the UNM-Arizona game. Greene asked Walton if he knew that UNM had just one lefty, Elijah Brown? Walton did not.

They had in common Trevor Wilson, Greene’s younger brother and, like Walton, a former UCLA Bruin, and Jim Nielsen, Greene’s high school coach in California who lettered one year at UCLA and banged around Walton in practice as an assignment from coach John Wooden.

They were off and running.

Greene predicted before Tuesday’s tipoff that Walton would “have five or six bullet points about the Pit, about New Mexico. … He will give us more mileage from a Chamber of Commerce standpoint than we probably could get paying for advertising in any publication.”

Was he spot on. Over the next two hours, Walton was shown taking a hot air balloon ride, mentioned the Pit ramp (“like a climb in the Sandias”) and the Frontier Restaurant.

When Colorado had gained momentum, he said Weir was looking down the bench “for a Michael Cooper, a Luc Longley – a Hunter Greene.”

He mentioned conversing with Lobo superfan (and fellow Grateful Dead enthusiast) Rudy Chavez at Monday’s practice, asking him what he liked about Weir.

“Rudy looked me in the eye and said, ‘standards.'”

He briefly summarized Larry Chavez’s foray into buying naming rights to the arena. “‘Put Dreamstyle on the building but keep calling it the Pit.’ Thank you, Larry Chavez – no relation to Rudy.”

He mentioned how the Lobo is “a Mexican grey wolf — a beautiful animal. They’re endangered now.” And occasionally he did a cringe-worthy howl.

It was mostly good. But all the good feelings couldn’t bring home a Lobo victory.

His broadcast partner, Roxy Bernstein, asked late in the call what he thought of the Lobos. Walton said he liked them, but he wanted to see some “sustainability.”

Which led to another tangent.

“Sustainability is big here. They only get 8 inches of annual rainfall here in New Mexico. We only get 12 inches in San Diego, and that’s nothing. And …”

It went to a commercial with Walton still talking, saying who knows what.

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