Ernie McCray blogs

Ernie McCray: Why I like the Big Redhead

Ernie McCray

Ernie McCray

EDITOR’S NOTE: Former Tucson High School and University of Arizona basketball standout Ernie McCray is a legendary figure to Tucsonans and Wildcat fans. McCray, who holds the Wildcats’ scoring record with 46 points on Feb. 6, 1960, against Cal State-Los Angeles, is the first African-American basketball player to graduate from Arizona. McCray, who now resides in San Diego, earned degrees in physical education and elementary education at Arizona. He is a longtime educator, actor and activist in community affairs in the San Diego-area. He wrote a blog for before the site ceased current-events operations recently. He agreed to continue offering his opinion and insight with about Arizona Wildcats athletics. McCray also writes blogs for

I remember one time, long ago, back in the day, hearing a guy say, about Bill Walton, “Aw, man, that dude can’t play no ball.” Hey, I don’t know what his definition of “playing ball” was but I had just, a few moments before, seen basketball played at a level or two above what you’d ordinarily see a teenage redhead high school kid do on a basketball court.

Drawing of Bill Walton by Pat Ruby (Flickr creative commons)

Drawing of Bill Walton by Pat Ruby (Flickr creative commons)

First of all, he gangster slapped the notion of “white guys can’t jump.” I mean he blocked shots like he was in a badminton game, tapping a couple to himself and then he whipped outlet passes for the fast-break like the ball was on a laser beam; he drove the defense absolutely insane, pulling up for jump-shots, dropping floating hook-shots, setting screens and playing off screens, setting his teammates up for easy shots, and driving his big redhead self down the lane. I had never seen such dominance in a basketball game – and I could play the game.

I had my mother fly to San Diego to see this kid play because I had no words to explain the magnificence of his game; it was one of those “You had to have been there” kind of situations; no way I could have described what I’d seen. When she left San Diego, her last words were “I see what you mean.”

So I’ve loved and appreciated the man ever since his high school days, but I’m still amazed at his detractors. Of course, he’s more than disproved the notion “Aw, man, that dude can’t play no ball” but now it seems that his critics are those who are opposed to his basketball “color” announcing role on TV. They say “He talks too much” or “He’s so damn opinionated.”

Well, in my opinion, they all talk too much. That’s why I usually mute the sound and get down to some Maceo Parker or Prince or Tower of Power so while the Wildcats or whoever are playing I’m moving to a groovy beat up on my size 14AA feet. At age 75, I’ve got to be in good shape to stay alive.

But when I do listen, I like what the big Graying-Redhead has to say because I know from whence he came. When he left San Diego for UCLA in Westwood, I was assigned my first school as a principal. Horton Elementary. When I moved about the campus high-fiving little hands and asking kids what was going in their lives, large numbers of them kept talking excitedly about the “Library Lady” at the nearby Valencia Park Library. The “Library Lady” happened to be Gloria Walton, Bill’s mom.

This beautiful loving woman made reading exciting for students at my school and I played off their energy as I helped devise dynamic learning experiences for them. I can assume that Bill’s patter about this and that, his quest for knowledge, his embodiment of the arts and music and literature and education, his enthusiasm for life, his hopes for a better tomorrow, his rants about subjects that are relevant to college basketball enthusiast’s lives – so much of that had to come from being around such an intellectual giant like his remarkable mother.

Bill Walton, one of the best college basketball players in the history of the sport, is the father of former Arizona star Luke Walton

Bill Walton, one of the best college basketball players in the history of the sport, is the father of former Arizona star Luke Walton

Bill’s a learner, a doer, one who cares. That shows on the air. As an educator I like that he ties basketball to the real world, introducing notions that younger viewers, especially, should hear as they grow up in an apathetic society: thoughts from his personal experiences about teamwork and sacrificing and commitment and how that can be fun; thoughts of how music, generally, can be life changing, “critical in our lives and culture” and a “window to our souls”… “a reflection as to who we are, what we stand for and where we’re going,” of how, specifically, he’s a Deadhead because of the Grateful Dead’s “message of hope, peace, love, teamwork, creativity, imagination, celebration, the dance, the vision, the purpose, the passion…” Who could argue with such thinking?

I’ve heard the man speak about what I’ve learned in life, stating that “Basketball (a game I played for over forty years, along with volleyball, tennis, softball, over-the-line, a season of badminton and water polo, darts, track, cross country…) is one of those rare opportunities where you can make a difference, not only for yourself, but for other people as well.” Oh, do tell.

It chilled me to the bone when I heard a few years ago that he considered leaving us when he was, because of his spine collapsing, dealing with the most excruciating, debilitating and unrelenting pain imaginable.

He overcame such emotional and physical pain and can still say: “Life is easy when you’re hot. But what happens when the ball bounces the other way? You just keep getting back up and climbing up.”

What’s not to like about a man who carries within his heart such a positive message as that?

Hey, I don’t always listen to sports announcers but when I do it’s Bill Walton, the Big Redhead, that I listen to.


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