“Have you always been a basketball fan?” This is me, asking Mike Watt, one of my heroes, a pretty basic question. It is, if we’re being honest, a feeble softball, lobbed with all the force of an Andy Borowitz gag. This happened around noon, an hour earlier than we were supposed to begin our two-man Skype conclave. The bass player of the fucking Minutemen seems a bit irritated, suddenly.
“What do you mean?” he asks, combing accusation with what seems like earnest perplexity, “Since I was born?”
Mike Watt just womp-womp’d me.
If I can be fair to myself for a moment, it’s hard to get a word in with Mike Watt; when you do, it’s easy to get shut the fuck down. He’s an avalanche of anecdotes and asides, exuberant volleys of familiar Minutemen jargon—spiel, mersh, econo, and so on—peppering what are otherwise the genial meandering digressions of a Southern California Leopold Bloom. Everything reminds him of something else, there’s no subject about which he has no opinion, and he’s not at all miserly with his words. When Watt speaks, the move is to politely shut up and let it all wash over you.
Which was fine with me. We were talking because I wanted some answers about a certain bass guitar that Watt owns, and which is autographed, more or less inexplicably, by a Hall of Fame NBA power forward. The question had been on my mind since I saw an image embedded within the landing pages of Watt’s delightfully Geocities-esque personal website.
It’s a photograph, grainy in a year-appropriate way, of Watt holding up a bright green bass—or thudstaff, in Watt parlance—that is bedazzled by the signature of Los Angeles Lakers legend and sports-eyewear icon, James Worthy. Big Game James. The other other superstar of Showtime, and more to the point a man who somehow came to autograph a bass owned by one of the most important people in punk history. I wanted to know how. I wanted to know why. Eventually, if he remembered, Mike Watt was probably going to tell me.
“It was butt ugly,” Mike Watt says, not wistfully, of the bass, which he described as an “econo” version of an Alembic bass that the company hustled in the 1980s. He’s sure he didn’t pay much money for it. “It didn’t play very good at all. And I didn’t like the look, the look was kind of like a fucking coffee table, with the racing stripe. So, I painted it Krylon green. Krylon is enamel spray paint, I think for like appliances and shit. So I just kept on spraying and spraying it.”
To some, the origin story of the Minutemen is just as important as the origin story of the United States of America. To others still, it’s clearly of far more importance. In the early 1980s, Watt and his best friend and fellow legend, D. Boon, just a couple of young working-class dweebs from San Pedro, California, joined forces and fearlessly subverted the nascent hardcore sound with postmodern howls, funk- and jazz-influenced grooves, strafing unrelenting tempos, and lyrics of such pithy polemic force that they produced sounds that were less “song” and more manifesto. Or something like that. These are the sort of words Minutemen devotees deploy in futile attempts to describe something they love very much but which is mostly indescribable. Anyway, Watt was getting to the basketball part.
“I always thought the guy playing bass in a band was kind of like a basketball player,” Watt tells me. One such player was James Worthy, of whom Watt says. “He was kind of a glue.”
Youngsters may not know how good Worthy was or how much he meant to one of the great teams in the sport’s history. Yes, James Worthy obviously made goggles sexy and duh he turned in an exquisitely tall and brusque performance as Koral, a Klingon mercenary in an episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation, but the next most important thing about him was that he was also very, very good at basketball. The number one pick in the 1982 draft, Worthy was brilliant and steady and won three championships. He was so dedicated to the game that not even his arrest for soliciting game day nookie stopped him from showing up ready to play in the second quarter. It’s fun to win, and James Worthy’s career is mostly just a long, gaudy list of wins, with none so Homeric as his smoothly bullish triple-double against the Very, Very Bad Boy Pistons in Game 7 of the 1988 NBA Finals. That was Worthy’s greatest moment, Star Trek notwithstanding, and the one that cemented the legend of Big Game James.
“I just loved watching the man play,” Mike Watt, who wrote “Political Song for Michael Jackson to Sing” says of the begoggled big. “He was very inspiring.”
The Showtime Lakers—the Greatest Show on Earth, an emblem of Reagan-era excellence so of its time as to exist at the exact midpoint between Michael Douglas’ shirt collars in Wall Street and flames bursting forth from Gene Simmons’ codpiece—seem a far cry from the econo ethos of Watt and Boon. But the Minutemen, for all their barrier-smashing importance, were never joyless curmudgeons advocating for a life without spectacle or beauty, and anyway punk rock and basketball are both team sports. As Watt says, “So to me like punk rock when it’s going good is like basketball, ya know when they’re passing it bing-bing-bing. It’s righteous.”
That spiritual connection doesn’t stop simply at that analogy. fireHOSE, Watt’s band after the Minutemen, dubbed one of its national tours The James Worthy Tour. Indeed, Watt’s first solo record carries the suggestive title of Ball-Hog or Tugboat? which as far as you or I or anyone else can prove was a concept album about Monta Ellis and a feisty young tugboat becoming best friends. It’s also common lore that Watt’s love of hoops was shared by other LA hardcore legends. Black Flag founder, guitarist, and dictator-in-chief Greg Ginn was a basketball fiend, as was his brother Raymond Pettibon, the internationally esteemed artist who designed that iconic Black Flag logo. Pettibon is occasionally asked about sports, and once said, “The endgame of basketball is putting the ball in the hoop. That considered, there are a plethora of ways to accomplish it. That’s the art.” In this particular mystery, the circumstantial evidence is copious.
But, in a more practical sense, it’s also unnecessary. Watt and Worthy’s paths crossed in June of 1988. The Lakers had just sent the Detroit Pistons back to Michigan for the summer, and James Worthy had been dispatched to a car dealership in the city of Carson for a promotional victory lap at which he would sign some swag for the public. Though car dealerships are typically centers of banal avarice and an oily fulcrum of all that’s indecent in this beshitted world, Worthy’s triumphant appearance gave Watt an excuse to shake the massive hand of a legend that he unabashedly admired.
“This dealership was handing out little fucking basketballs for people to sign. I think it was the day after the championship and he’s signing these things and I’m the only fucking one in line with a bass,” Watt remembered. “His hands were as big as Bootsy Collins,’” Watt said of Worthy’s meat-hooks, with no small amount of awe.
Worthy, as Watt remembered it, seemed pleased to sign something that wasn’t a shitty little toy basketball. Then he threw his own spiritual connection haymaker, informing Watt happily that he too was a bass player. They were peers! This of course excited the naturally excitable Watt, who immediately asked/gently demanded to know what sort of bass he played.
Worthy’s answer would trouble Watt for years.
“And he says, a Fender Percussion,” Watt pauses so I can let that sink in. He continues, “So I’m thinking, wow, maybe it’s been a little while, you know. Leo (Fender) called the first bass he invented the Precision.”
Because this is Mike Watt, this does not register as aggressive pedantry so much as reverence for the details and specifics of one’s life’s work, and also perhaps a seasoned punk’s finely-attuned bullshit detector. It seemed very important to Watt that I understand why Worthy’s comments troubled him. “A bass is a giant version of a fucking violin,” he began. “In the high school world they’ve got this instrument right? But they got all different sizes from that one basic design.” Semitones, halftones, fourths and fifths. Frets. The rockabilly style of using your thumb as the kick drum, your index finger as the snare drum. Then there was some slap-bass onomatopoeia.
He continues like this for a bit. I’m talking to Mike fucking Watt so I do not mind it at all and I definitely do not interrupt.
Eventually we are back on the question at hand. Watt couldn’t decide if Worthy misspoke (probably) or was weirdly trying to pull one over on him, but it’s not a small error in his eyes. “That’s not to call the man retarded or anything,” Watt offered. “I didn’t laugh at him. You know, maybe he made a mistake.” He briefly considered shoving the bass into Worthy’s hands and making him play it in front of the assembled fans and wretched car dealership people to prove he had some chops, but he decided against it.
Eventually, Watt reveals how he found out his answer to the James Worthy bass enigma. This is amidst all sorts of other amicable twitchy diversions. You don’t exactly have to push Watt to unearth an opinion. But his core themes about the game of basketball emerges quickly: You can’t go at it alone. You need help. That means friends, community, all that extremely true It Takes A Village stuff. Applied to basketball, it simply means you need teammates to help you become who you are. Not literal bodies, but parallel talents who can unlock you, whether they be Scottie Pippen, George Hurley, Dennis Roman, Ed Crawford, Kira Roessler, or John Paxson. No man is an island. Even if they were, an island can’t win a championship by itself. Islands tend to have horrible PER and TS%.
I had my answer, but I tried to force the issue by dangling the question that every baby boomer seems to have an answer for: who’s better, Michael Jordan or LeBron? “LeBron’s amazing, Mike Jordan was amazing. But Mike Jordan did really well with a good team,” Watt said. “Not saying those guys in Cleveland were lame…” We laugh, because that’s exactly what he means. “The Warriors were just too much,” he concludes, without rancor, merely dropping facts. “You can’t do one man teams in b-ball. That’s the nature of the game.” You need grout, he says. You need tile.
And of course, Watt has much love for what most would consider less celebrated grout. He mentions his appreciation of Michael Cooper’s game. He laughs about Magic freezing Byron Scott out of the offense. He gives Isiah Thomas his due but has more affection for Joe Dumars. I ask what he thought about Kurt Rambis. He laughs. “Yeah, he’s funny. I guess he had a role.”
More charitably, he describes Rambis as sort of a Dennis Rodman, someone to get into opposing faces, though perhaps without the requisite amount of meanness. Not exactly a Bill Laimbeer type. Bill Laimbeer, Watt recalls happily, is actually from Palos Verdes, only 15 minutes away from Pedro. And then Watt struggles to remember the name of a similar enforcer, “Who was that guy, he was a Golden Gopher…he ended up with the Celtics...”
Kevin McHale, I say. Watt laughs, “God, his elbows were in everybody’s face!”
Laughing about how Bill Laimbeer and (NBA Hall of Famer) Kevin McHale were total shitheads with Mike Watt on Skype is, I should mention here, very fucking weird. At no point did I manage to say anything like “Double Nickels on the Dime is one of the most important records of all time” or “Yo, Mike, The Punch Line totally fucking slaps, to this very day!” He didn’t want to know anything about me, and that was totally awesome. The conversation, before and after I got my answer on James Worthy, played out like two strangers in a dark bar yapping about our favorite episodes of a long-cancelled television show. Just talking about some shit that fills us with good feelings. No cap space or Bird rules or mid-level exception bullshit—just hoops, the good part of it, with none of that morbid behind the curtain killjoy stuff.
But obviously, there was still the matter of whether James Worthy really was a bass player. This was too important to leave unresolved. So I persisted.
A few years after Watt got his econo bass signed, he plays a show at the Cat’s Cradle in North Carolina. Watt is not exactly being an Inspector Javert or Captain Ahab about it, but Worthy’s use of the word percussion instead of precision hasn’t completely disentangled itself from him. At the club, as fate would obviously have it, Watt finds himself shooting the shit with a bartender who fortuitously claims to be one of Worthy’s old roommates from UNC. The first thing, the very first thing, that Watt wanted to know was if James Worthy really played bass. He explained the story of the signed bass and the mystery of the incorrect word starting with p to the bartender.
There was a lot riding on this moment.
To Watt’s relief, Worthy was on the level. Watt even managed to glean the future three-time NBA champion’s morning routine back at UNC. Paraphrasing the bartending roommate, whose name is sadly lost to us, not unlike the scrolls of ancient Atlantis, Watt explains: “He’d wake up before prac, take a bong hit, play bass, take another bong hit, go to prac.”
He reflects on choices made, paths not taken. “I’m so glad I didn’t laugh at him,” he says.
So years later, and with the corroboration of a witness, the matter was closed. Worthy simply misspoke. This Watt can understand. “I fucked up words. Me and D. Boon fucked up so many words as younger men.”
This is the only time he mentions D. Boon during our conversation, but the shadow of Boon’s death over 30 years ago lies heavy across nearly all subsequent mentions of Mike Watt historiography, including this one. D. Boon’s death changed everything, stopped one of the greatest bands in American history in its tracks, robbed Watt of his best friend and most essential teammate. Death is stupid and usually pointless, but it’s inexorable. Mostly unexpected and morbidly abrupt, sometimes telegraphed but always looming until it doesn’t even bother with looming anymore, death truly sucks. It seems fitting then, that Mike Watt’s ugly green bass that played terrible, the one signed by Big Game Bass Playing James, was eagerly sacrificed to help another friend in a fist-fight against the Great Who Knows.
Watt’s “bass brother” and dear friend, Chris Stein of Saccharine Trust, has cancer. Watt absolutely considered the bass an expendable piece of hardware when he realized that it could fetch some money that would in some small way be able to help Stein. That was over a year ago. He has no idea where the bass ended up, and he’s not especially curious either.
“So, I donated this bass as a fundraiser for him, get some money up to fight this shit that’s killing us all, killed my grandparents, my pop, all my friends, this cancer shit. Fuck this shit,” Watt said. “I donated that bass, even though I wasn’t playing it, it was special to me because [of] James Worthy signing it. He didn’t ask for James Worthy’s bass. It was my idea. It was a way I thought I could help.” So he sold it. “And that’s the story of the Watt bass signed by James Worthy,” Mike Watt concludes.
And now it is gone. Someone else possesses the ugly green thudstaff with James Worthy’s magic marker scrawl on it. Which is of course okay. It was just a thing, a Krylon green offering. It was a means to an end, in the end, and noble on both sides of that equation. Watt did want to add that selling it to help his friend doesn’t mean his affection for Big Game James has in any way waned. “Respect to the man,” he said. “Because I love the way he played basketball and shit.”