Like everything about him, Bill King's satanic countenance, with its beard, bristling mustache and almond-shaped eyes buried behind protruding cheekbones, is distinctive. But it is not the sort of kisser that inspires instant affection, particularly from television nabobs and superstitious old women.
A crone once chanced upon an unwitting King on the streets of Milwaukee. She identified him instantly as the Dread Adversary and began menacing him with her cane.
"I beg your pardon, madame," said King who, despite his diabolical mien, is unfailingly cordial to his elders. "I don't believe we've met."
"Oh, I know you," snarled the woman. "You, you...you are the devil himself." And she set about giving him his due.
May 11, 1975
"Aha!" cried King, dodging the blows. "So you recognize me, do you?"
"Yes, I do, you devil you."
"Well, then," cooed King, twirling his mustache seductively, "we shall surely meet again. At my place down there."
The old woman emitted a strangled yelp, withdrew her cane and fled with remarkable haste.
King, of course, is not the Prince of Darkness. He is the play-by-play radio announcer for the National Football League's Oakland Raiders and the National Basketball Association's Golden State Warriors. But, as Ron Fell, longtime producer of King's football broadcasts, has observed, "Bill is not what you call your average run-of-the-mill sportscaster."
He certainly is not an ordinary announcer, or an ordinary anything else. King is a balletomane and opera buff, a serious student of Russian history, language and literature, a sailor of the high seas, a wine connoisseur and accomplished chef, a motorist who considers paying more than $200 for an automobile gross extravagance, and a trencherman who devours raw onions for breakfast.
The breadth of his interests, passions and eccentricities continually bewilders King's legion of friends, many of whom lead such entirely different lives that they have only King in common. To most of them, King appears to be several persons in one, and they are not far off the mark.
Announcing a sporting event, he can be so stimulated by the tumult that he flies into paroxysms of rage, anguish or joy. On most of these occasions King's strongest expletive is the mildly blasphemous "Holy Toledo," a phrase he has made a standard part of the Bay Area sporting vocabulary. But once he became so excited over a decision by an NBA official that he switched off his microphone, bounced the instrument off the press table and bellowed a locker-room obscenity at the offending referee as he passed within range.
Unfortunately for King, a crowd mike picked up the oath and broadcast it to a startled radio audience. Afterward he was rebuked by the usual assortment of church groups, outraged mothers, decency organizations and a precocious 10-year-old who wrote suggesting that if King could not exercise greater discretion on the air, he should seek "another avenue of employment." At the same time, he was heartily commended by a college fraternity for his forthrightness and sincerity.
It would be reasonable to expect that a live wire of this voltage would be bonkers at the conclusion of a broadcast. Indeed, King does require a moment or two to wind down after a game, or on hot days to dress up, since it is his practice to broadcast in his underwear when temperatures are excessive. But in no time at all he is blissfully journeying homeward in his latest jalopy, his nerves soothed by the thunderous harmonies of Wagner or Rimsky-Korsakov emanating from the car radio. The game is well behind him, lost perhaps in G√∂tterd√§mmerung, and there is still time for a spot of Turgenev or Tolstoi before retiring.
King resides in Sausalito, the bohemian boating community across the Golden Gate Bridge from San Francisco. Twice divorced, he shares his passion for music and the sea, if not always for basketball and football, with his companion for the past 14 years, Nancy Stephens. They have never "bothered" to marry, although King's football broadcasting mate, Scotty Stirling, has said of their relationship, "It is as sound as any I've ever seen between a man and a woman."
It pleases King that his neighbors in Sausalito "don't know if a basketball is round or square." He assiduously avoids such San Francisco watering holes as Perry's or the Templebar, where chances of encountering someone versed in the nuances of the fast break or post pattern are far too promising. Sausalitans talk mainly about boats and sex, in roughly that order, and King would have it no other way. Since he abhors the limelight, he is not at all ruffled by the knowledge that citizens of his adopted community think of him as just another long-haired boat freak.
King apparently looks too hip for network television people, who are reluctant to put a man with long hair, a beard and a mustache on a national sports broadcast. What they fail to appreciate is that he is much more the product of his Midwestern upbringing than of his acquired West Coast bohemianism.
King was born 46 years ago on a farm outside Bloomington, Ill. At age seven, he and his recently widowed mother moved into town. Much of his childhood was spent huddled before the living-room console listening to Cubs' Broadcaster Bob Elson. King and Elson's disembodied voice spent so much time together that the boy began to sound like the man. Years later, when King was auditioning for an announcing job with the San Francisco Giants, the late Russ Hodges, then the Giants' lead broadcaster, quickly identified him as a Cub fan. "With people my age, you can tell where they're from by the baseball announcer they sound like," says King.
Though short and slight, King played catcher on his high school baseball team—television star McLean Stevenson was one of his pitchers—and for one giddy moment contemplated a professional career. Instead, he was drafted into the Army after graduation in 1945 and dispatched to Guam. There he fell in love with the blue Pacific, vowing someday to return to her aboard a great sailing vessel. He also was an Armed Forces Radio disc jockey, an occupation the garrulous King found particularly appealing because it afforded him unlimited opportunity to talk without interruption. The air and the sea. Prophetically, they would become his vocation and avocation.
After the service, King eschewed college and worked as a broadcaster in the Illinois towns of Pekin, Quincy and Peoria. In Peoria he was one of three announcers doing the Bradley University basketball games. Chick Hearn, now the voice of the Lakers and with King one of the two or three best pro basketball announcers, was one of the others. King moved on to Lincoln, Neb. before he packed up his sailing manuals on Memorial Day 1958 and set off for San Francisco, where he had no prospect of a job but could be near his beloved Pacific.
He was a man of leisure for only a short time, thanks to his friendship with Hodges, another Giant broadcaster, Lon Simmons and Bud Foster, a veteran Bay Area sportscaster. In 1958 King worked with Foster on University of California football and basketball, then in 1959 he joined Hodges and Simmons as the third man on the Giants' broadcasting team. Three years later, he signed on with the Warriors, newly transplanted from Philadelphia. In a moment of whimsy, he also grew a beard. Warrior Owner Franklin Mieuli, who is as hirsute as a bear today, was then a clean-shaven broadcasting executive. Despite his legendary eccentricity, he shared at least some of the conservative views of his industry. Remember, this was 1962, a time when even college students were beardless youths and only jazz musicians and atomic physicists sprouted whiskers. Image was a big word then. But Mieuli took a courageous stand with King. "I am not going to tell a man what he must do with his face," he boldly announced. The beard stayed, although before it had become an issue King had intended to shave it off.
In 1966 he joined the Raiders. Because he was only the radio announcer, King's photograph did not appear in the team's press book, an omission that troubled him not at all. Unlike so many broadcasting popinjays, he is not a vain man. His face does not so much delight as amuse him.
King discovered culture in 1965. "Nancy took me to a ballet, and though I couldn't explain why, I was hooked," he says. "I just plunged right into it. The opera came next. I'd listen to the music while working on the boat, but I couldn't imagine going to a performance. Now we haven't missed an opera in San Francisco in six years."
King approaches each of his myriad pastimes with a scholar's meticulousness. His brain is omnivorous, ravenously chomping on each passing intellectual morsel. Before he became an opera regular, King studied the lives of the composers. He has taught himself to read Russian and has a vocabulary of about 1,000 words. Although he is only a student in the adult school of the College of Marin, he recently was invited to fill in for an absent professor in a course on the Russian literature of protest.
On a typical stopover with the Warriors in New York this winter, King turned his back on the swinging East Side taverns favored by many of his traveling companions and trotted off to Lincoln Center to hear an André Watts piano recital and the Metropolitan Opera's production of Boris Godunov. He dined exclusively in ethnic restaurants and endlessly prowled the museums.
King has been unwittingly called a gourmet. It is a word he detests, one he ranks alongside "intellectual" as among the most abused in the language. He prefers to think of himself as a gastronome whose tastes observe no bounds. King may dine on Veal Orlov in the plushest San Francisco or New York restaurants, or he may gobble nauseous combinations of foods—peanut butter and popcorn is one favorite—to the discomfort of his confreres in the broadcasting booth. "You can't believe some of the things he eats," says Stirling, turning green at the thought. "God Almighty, peanut butter tortillas!"
King may be at his happiest preparing massive Russian meals in his own kitchen. "I put the Don Cossack chorus on the hi-fi for mood music," he says, "and we all sit about drinking Stolichnaya vodka and eating zakuski, piroshki, borscht and shashlik. The whole thing takes about five hours. By about three in the morning we're all sitting there crying in our Stolichnaya, happy as can be."
King is the soul of affability away from the microphone, but Warrior road trips have become almost void of stimulating conversation for him. When Tom Meschery, who shared King's interests in poetry and Russian literature, played for the team some years ago, seminars into the early morning were the rule. Now King finds that he loses his audience when the talk turns away from such subjects as Rick Barry's floor play or the rebounding of Clifford Ray. A recent disquisition by King in a Los Angeles coffee shop on Pasternak's reliance on coincidence in his oeuvre did not set other tongues wagging. King merely shrugs his shoulders on these lamentable occasions and presses on to something of broader interest, like the literary integrity of Solzhenitsyn.
It is understandable, then, that King abruptly departs the sports world as soon as the basketball season ends and sets sail aboard his 44-foot ketch Varuna for ports far removed from cries of "DEE-fense." He is not seen again until football begins.
His trips have taken him as far asea as the Georgia Strait and Hawaii. But King's sharpest memory is of a journey that he, Nancy, their seagoing black cat Hank and several friends made a few summers ago to explore the islands and inlets of British Columbia. There King achieved a kind of Nirvana.
"We had sailed into the Princess Louisa Inlet," he says. "I awoke on the boat early one morning and could hear nothing but the rush of water. I climbed up on deck and for as far as I could see there were waterfalls. I counted 39 of them. I just sat there listening. I don't think I've ever felt such a sense of peace. When we left, I kept asking myself, 'Why? Why are we leaving?' "
Varuna is a handsome vessel of Honduras mahogany, teak and white oak. King has nothing but contempt for fiberglass boats, craft he denigrates as "plastic throwaways." With its good wood, Varuna is more precious to him than even his Russian grammar or breakfast onions, and he lavishes constant attention on her. The boat's shimmering beauty is in marked contrast to the dilapidated appearance of King's automobile of the moment. He does not accept the popular notion that a car should be washed and serviced from time to time. His life is a mess of contradictions, but never more so than when he and Nancy, both dressed to the nines, pull up in front of the stately San Francisco opera house in a vehicle that could have transported the Joad family West.
King simply drives his cars until they ignite, explode or quietly succumb to the infirmities of advanced years. He was obliged to flee a 1956 Buick several years ago when it burst into flames with 128,000 miles on the odometer. He had been driving a 1954 Ford for more than a year when a missing tooth in the flywheel led to a dreadful commotion under the hood. The transmission fell out of his 1961 Oldsmobile after 120,000 miles. Stirling feels he may-have shamed King into abandoning a 1960 Pontiac last fall when he advised him that without floorboards on the passenger side, riding with him was something of a hazard. King, who apparently had been oblivious to this defect, glanced down in alarm and reluctantly conceded that Stirling might have a point. When he turned the car over to the junkyard it had gone a courageous 135,000 miles.
King could probably double his annual income of roughly $50,000 if he made himself available in the summer for commercials and promotional work, but the prospect of performing such lucrative tasks appalls him. His ultimate goal is to abandon broadcasting altogether and cruise the seas, an objective he was approaching a year ago when a series of misguided investments forced postponement of the odyssey. In an industry bursting with giant egos, King, with his lack of pretension and wanderlust, is an anomaly.
"You run into a lot of schlocks in this business, guys who are in it for the glory of rubbing elbows with the stars and of being called stars themselves," says Producer Fell. "Bill is just not that kind. I've never met anyone in any walk of life with more depth in more areas. And he is a totally principled individual."
"Bill's honesty may be at the root of many of his frustrations as a broadcaster," says Hank Greenwald, a former King partner on Warrior broadcasts. "When you're doing a basketball game and you say a guy has dribbled out of bounds and the official doesn't see it, you are left there with nothing to substantiate what you've just said. Bill just Hat out says the official goofed."
King achieved a kind of apoplectic grandeur assessing the officials' performance in a Warrior loss to the Knicks in New York this season. "Under the pressure of a Garden crowd, the officials choked here tonight," he advised his listeners. "I tried to keep my mouth under control, but the officials were so abominable I couldn't help myself."
"King may be the greatest basketball announcer in the world," says one of his confirmed fans, "but I just wish he'd give up trying to officiate every game." King's riposte to such thrusts is to say that the officials greatly influence basketball games, that the announcer is closer to the action than in most other sports and can see what is happening, and that a man must say what is on his mind.
King's penchant for saying what is on his mind has caused Mieuli financial embarrassment. Several seasons ago the Warriors owner was fined $500 by NBA Commissioner Walter Kennedy for critical comments King and Greenwald had made on the air about the officiating. Mieuli paid grudgingly, offering obeisance to a creature he had championed, a strong commissioner. But he grumbled afterward that the next time his announcers were challenged, the strong commissioner could "stuff it."
Although King's basketball broadcasting salary is paid by the Warriors, he is as much a houseman as John Dean. (The Raiders have final approval on their announcers, but King is technically an employee of KNBI during the football season.) In the course of one week this season, King accused the Warriors of being "static" and "lethargic," questioned Coach Al Attles' strategy of benching rookie Keith Wilkes when he appeared to be enjoying a hot night, described Barry's play as being without snap, twitted the Warriors for failing to make use of a mismatch under the basket, described a bad Warrior quarter as "the worst this season," and decided that one contest was so shabbily played "it had only a few moments approaching artistry." In a game with Phoenix, King even defended an official's decision that went against the Warriors. "The fans are pretty irate over that charging call, but I thought it was a pretty good one myself," he said.
Along with candor, there is stagecraft in a King broadcast. When he seems most frenetic, he is still in command, capable even of correcting his usually flawless grammar: "It could have been him. No, it could have been he. What's wrong with me, anyway?" King builds tension with his voice, carefully avoiding the error of peaking too soon. In the final minutes of the Raiders' melodramatic 28-26 playoff victory over Miami last December, he artfully created an image of the Miami end zone as "The Promised Land." When the Raiders finally reached Canaan with 26 seconds left on the scoreboard clock, it was as if Moses himself had negotiated the yardage.
"The Promised Land is eight yards away...Stabler is looking, looking, looking...he's rolling out, he's hit, he floats the ball up there...it's a touchdown. A touchdown. A touchdown. I can't even see the receiver. Clarence Davis. It looks like Clarence Davis. He's being mobbed...Stabler was hit as he threw...he was falling down...."
That King recognized Davis as the survivor in that Sargasso Sea of players, officials and spectators was "incredible" in Stirling's opinion.
How has this paragon of the airwaves remained so obscure? Principally by preference. King is a radio, not a television, man, and radio men today are as aviators to astronauts. He is a prisoner of his time, the Great Depression, when radio was all there was.
"I feel a strong obligation to radio and the radio listener," he said one recent afternoon, hunched over a cup of tea in his charming hillside house. He was barefoot, which he usually is when not at the opera house or the ball park. His feet are like slabs, his soles the consistency of concrete from clomping on boat decks. "I envision a shadowy image out there sitting next to the radio. I'm his eyes. If I can choose the right words to move and excite him, to tie his stomach in a knot, I've done my job and there is a beautiful satisfaction.
"Television doesn't provide this challenge. In TV you're the tool of some director who can interrupt your verbal flow to point out some girl the camera has stumbled across in the stands, and whom you must therefore talk about. You're a puppet. I've been a gadfly for so many years that I don't think the network people could tolerate me. And I doubt if I could tolerate them. Our schedules just don't match.
"Besides, look at this puss. I look mean on television, so I have to smile all the time. It's ridiculous. I know one TV guy who got fired because some station manager decided his lips were too moist. What would they do with a bearded guy who looks like the devil?
"I've often thought maybe my life has been a waste, that I might have been a Russian scholar by now at some university. But if I were, I might be thinking my life was a waste because I had never been out into the real world. I suppose I will always be asking myself what I'm going to do when I grow up. But I'm living on my own terms. I like what I do, and I've got time to do all these other things that have nothing to do with what I do. And when I leave my home and drive over the Golden Gate Bridge and see the changing panorama of light hitting beautiful hilly San Francisco, I say to myself, 'What other sports announcer in the world can drive to work and have all this?' "
His pal Stirling says it even better: "Bill King has beaten the system."