The NCAA Championship Game between Kansas and North Carolina was already one of the greatest title games in recent memory.
It’s made even better when you get to watch it with some of the greatest to ever play the game.
I was privileged to be invited into a unique watch party on Let’s Hang Live to watch the game with Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Bill Walton. Other NBA and college stars popped in throughout the night, such as Mike Bibby, Jared Butler, Kyle Guy, Raymond Felton, and St. Peter's stars Matthew Lee and Clarence Rupert.
What followed in the next three hours wasn’t so much a breakdown of the NCAA Championship Game, as much as it was an insight into the worlds and lives of these giants of the sport.
After finishing one of the most unique video calls I’ve ever been on, here are five things I learned.
What I learned from National Championship Game experience
1) Bill Walton is ALWAYS in broadcaster mode
The second he came on the call, without any kind of greeting or pleasantries, Bill Walton jumped right into a one-minute introduction. Not of himself, but of the upcoming UNC-Kansas game, as if he were on ESPN ready to start the broadcast.
Read this in your best Bill Walton voice, and keep in mind this is just part of a rant that came as soon as he entered the call.
“Super everything here in New Orleans this week! We’ve got super people, super parties, super basketball! And right now we’re in the SuperDome, ready to tip off the game we’ve all been waiting for.”
Throughout his time on the call, Walton was jovial and jolly, willing to engage and banter with anyone — even a 12-year-old fan — and tell any story from his past with a wide smile.
But whenever he turned his attention back to the game at hand, he couldn’t help but enter into broadcaster territory. At one point, Walton was right in the middle of telling a story when he demonstrated just how seamless the transition can be.
“We had this remarkable event yesterday where Jim Nantz received an honor and … oh, look at this! North Carolina’s coming back here … Caleb Love! Chocolate peanut butter! No! Goes to the line! Sorry, so we had this remarkable event yesterday …”
2) Every championship team HAS to have this culture
I had the honor of asking the first question to Bill Walton. I wanted to take advantage of Walton’s experience on winning teams, having won both an NCAA title and an NBA title.
So I asked what kind of team culture it takes to win a championship at any level.
“It starts with leadership. There’s never been greatness without leadership,” Walton explained.
He then described each layer of team culture beneath that, like a giant championship culture pyramid.
Focus and execution.
Friendship, loyalty, and cooperation.
Hope, opportunity, and purpose.
Sacrifice, discipline, and honor.
“When you have all of those things in a group dynamic,” Walton asserted, “anything is possible.”
3) There are TWO things Kareem Abdul-Jabbar looks for in future NBA stars
Considering how few college basketball players are able to make it into the NBA, I wanted to ask the legends on the call — who were elite at both levels — what they’d look for in scouting college players.
Without hesitation, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar detailed his top two characteristics. The first was a willingness to be coached: to take feedback or criticism and respond.
And the second?
“You have to have an understanding of the game — how games are won. If you can do that, you have a great chance of having a long career, and learning the game in a way that’ll give you opportunities.”
4) Kareem Abdul-Jabbar developed his hook shot in a SCHOOL GYM
As a follow-up to what he looks for in young players, Abdul-Jabbar relayed to us his journey of developing his signature hook shot.
“I just went to [my grade school] gym all the time … and worked on it. Sometimes I’d be there at nighttime, move the chairs around since it was also our auditorium, and worked on [my hook shot].”
When he was 10, Abdul-Jabbar explained that he couldn’t dribble at all and would turn the ball over often.
To counter that, his coach had him do the “Mikan Drill” (named for basketball legend George Mikan) over and over again — which he eventually developed into his hook shot.
From then on, without needing to put the ball on the floor, a young Abdul-Jabbar had turned his weakness into an unstoppable strength.
5) Mike Bibby once had DEAD DUCKS hanging in his locker
As the Kansas-UNC game drew to an end, I wanted some insight into the behind-the-scenes of the basketball world that most fans don’t see. I asked an open question on what their funniest basketball stories were, and Mike Bibby’s took the cake.
When Bibby was with the Kings, teammate Brad Miller wanted to mess with him. So, Miller, who loves hunting, went out that morning and came into the locker room with two freshly killed ducks. Knowing that Bibby was a germ freak, Miller hung the ducks up on both sides of Bibby’s locker.
When Bibby finally found them, he recalled that he just “went nuts” on Miller.
The questions kept coming, the stories kept flowing, and at the end of the night, Kansas pulled off the greatest comeback in NCAA Championship Game history.
Surely a game to be remembered.
But for those of us fortunate enough to hang out with Bill Walton, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, and other legends of the sport, the title game itself played second fiddle to an experience none of us will soon forget, and lessons we'll always remember.
So the next time you go to work on your game in an empty gym, remember that’s where Kareem Abdul-Jabbar started out too.
And the next time you turn on a college basketball game, remember that, somewhere, Bill Walton is watching and probably broadcasting it out loud — to whomever might be listening.