[Cazzie Russell signed the NBA’s first “big” rookie contract with New York in 1966. But Bill Bradley eclipsed Russell’s payday by a lot the following season amid steady newspaper chatter that the Rhodes Scholar’s services and silky jump shot were needed to rescue the Knicks and the public perception of the NBA. These great expectations, greatly overhyped, created a ton of pressure on Bradley, who would hold postgame a press conference in each NBA city during his first jaunt around the league to offer his thoughts on the pro game.
In this article, the prolific Murray Janoff captures the enormous pressure that Bradley faced, starting in the summer of 1967. Janoff’s eyewitness account ran in the magazine Pro Basketball Illustrated, 1967-68.]
The jury sat quietly, ringing the basketball court in Madison Square Garden on a warm June evening. Bill Bradley trotted out as a professional player for the very first time and began to work with the New York Knicks, who are his new teammates. It was only the beginning.
The 18,000 empty seats appeared to be pure mockery even for a practice session with Bill Bradley. The jury, consisting of many sportswriters and sportscasters, appeared ready to jump on any flaw Bradley might reveal. A critic’s privilege?
It has been this way; and, undoubtedly, it will continue in this pattern as Bradley makes his debut in the pros this season, trying to live up to the most-fabulous reputation any young man has achieved in basketball in many years. Quite likely, Bill Bradley will have to prove it every night.
For the most part, it has been his ability oncourt that built the house in which he must live, and he must now keep it from falling down around his handsome head. But in truth, his respected, yet unparalleled background for professional basketball, has added to his magnetism.
Few have made their mark on the roundball-and-dribbled world as this fluid-moving, 6-foot-5, 200-pound Princeton grad and Rhodes scholar. He absolutely shocked the moneymen to the very roots of their bank accounts by ignoring them in order to study at Oxford for two years. Whoever heard of such a thing, in this day and age of youthful athletic ambitions, when a good pro athlete can make more dough than a brain surgeon?
Bradley has been described in print as poised, polished, glib, suave, witty, studious, ambitious, a paradox, exciting, brilliant, even devilish. Oncourt, many who have seen him play have contributed to a prophecy that he will emerge as the greatest basketball player forever and anon. Can he live up to all this?
In New York, where professional basketball is only beginning to start a climb back from oblivion, he has been made as warmly welcome as an electric blanket at the North Pole. The Knicks are said to have paid him between $400,000 and $500,000 for the next four basketball seasons, but he will give you the impression that finding out whether he can play in the National Basketball Association means more to him than all the dollars it took to get his name on the contract.
“It’s a test now, a culmination of 12 years of basketball training,” he said the same afternoon while the “jury” was gathering at the Garden.
Indeed, the story of Bill Bradley is slightly different than the general run of stories concerning college basketball stars who move on to the pros. Perhaps it is partly because he came out of the Ivy League, which never had one like him. But, to repeat perhaps, when he graduated from Princeton in 1965, on the strength of his personal ambitions, he rebuffed the money-mad professionals so that he could continue his studies at Oxford.
For two years, he was kept in sight by those who knew that someday he might come home to play pro ball. His every move in England, and when he flew to play basketball in Italy, made print all over the world. Then there was the day in April of this year that finally he stood with all the Madison Square Garden brass in Leone’s restaurant in midtown Manhattan and tried to influence the mob around him that the idea of money wasn’t the primary consideration in his decision to sign a pro contract that day.
He stood dressed neatly in a New York Knick blue jacket and was watched over carefully by Lawrence Fleisher, his attorney who also represents the National Basketball Association’s Players Association. Also keeping an eye on Bradley was Marty Glickman, the radio-TV caster who heads a promotional and marketing agency which will handle all of Bradley’s ancillary earnings.
Actually, Bradley’s contract has a unique feature. It gives Madison Square Garden a share of any ancillary rights which may develop. This is somewhat in reverse to the usual pattern, where an athlete seeks a share from the club. It is indicative of how important a reputation Bradley has constructed as he traveled a bright basketball road to this moment.
The son of a Crystal City, Mo., banker, he was offered more than 100 college scholarships after his high school exploits. He came close to attending Duke, but his ambitions for postgraduate study at Oxford, known and planned even before entering college (and a visit to England the summer after his high school graduation), prompted him to switch to Princeton.
For the statistic-minded, Bradley’s greatness as a 6-foot-5 backcourtman blossomed at Princeton. In his three years of varsity, he averaged 30.2 points, hit 51.3 percent of his shots, and 87.6 percent from the foul line. But more important than statistics, those who saw him perform came away deeply impressed by his sense of leadership and playmaking, and above all, his quick, smart basketball savvy.
“The only flaw in Bill Bradley as a basketball player is that he’s so eager to do well, he may tense up when we play our first game of the Olympic tournament,” Hank Iba said in 1964 when Bradley was the only junior on the Olympic team he was to lead to victory in Tokyo. Maybe this is something to keep in mind now as he makes the transition to the pros.
“Aside from that,” Iba stated as he molded the team around Bradley, “he is one of the finest players and gentleman I’ve ever known.”
It was prior to this tournament that Bradley said he got one of his biggest thrills. The Olympians had a tune up against the Cincinnati Royals, and Bradley went against Oscar Robertson and said, “I got the impression Oscar could score on me whenever you wished. He’s the greatest that ever lived. I played him and Jerry Lucas and Mr. Twyman.”
It was indicative of Bradley’s nature to call the veteran 30-year-old Jack Twyman “Mister.” Bradley was 20 at the time.
He has been compared also to Lucas among others. He is not as big, but much faster. He can shoot with the best; dribble, feint, decoy, rebound, and use his elbows (a necessity to survive in the pros), and set up the play. All this he displayed in his June debut.
“I don’t think getting points is so important,” is one of his philosophies. “I prefer to pass.”
This in itself will endear him to his teammates in the pros. Perhaps it may be one step toward spanning the gap that exists between his salary and that of several veterans . . . a comparatively new problem professional teams are enduring since salaries and bonuses skyrocketed.
But Bradley’s credentials are more glittering than those of others. He climaxed his college career in the 1965 NCAA tournament with a 58-point performance, a tournament record. And in New York, they remember him more for one game above others. That occurred during the 1964 Holiday Festival at Madison Square Garden. He scored 41 points against a Michigan team which had Cazzie Russell, now a Knick teammate. He had Princeton ahead by 13 points when he fouled out with about three minutes left.
He was the Princeton team that day, for in the final three minutes as he watched from the bench, Michigan was able to come on and win with Cazzie taking the last-second shot. When it was over, Bill Bradley had won the tournament MVP from Cazzie by a vote of 22-1.
It was during this tournament that the Knicks may have felt they weren’t going to get Bradley to sign a pro contract the following year. They began to believe he would spurn their $50,000 offer to study abroad. Ned Irish changed from his usual loge box seat to one in a side court section, and he sat next to Mrs. Bradley, Bill’s mother. Any change of the Bradley ambition which Ned may have sought, was stifled. Mrs. Bradley simply upheld her son’s views.
Were all the Knick plans to obtain Bradley’s services going down the drain? It was in 1963 they got their hold on the rights to him, though he wouldn’t be drafted until 1965. The Knicks refused to approve the transfer of the Syracuse franchise to Philadelphia until the new owners guaranteed New York could have territorial rights to Bradley when he graduated. These territorial rights, incidentally, were the last to be recognized by the NBA.
During the hectic final days of his senior year at Princeton, while trying to convince the Knicks he really was going to Oxford, Bradley watched his image blossom bigger and brighter. Tourists to the Princeton campus wanted to see where he lived. They heard about his A-minus average, while majoring in history; his ambitions to study law (which he has only shelved temporarily to determine if he’s good enough to be a pro basketball player); and his acknowledged desire to serve the public, which has caused some to write that he would one day become the Secretary of State.
At least one columnist even mentioned the presidency. The question was actually put to him when he was playing at Princeton. He considered the question for a minute and then said “For somebody 20 years old to answer a question like that either way would be presumptuous.”
Soon after arriving at Oxford, he sat in his 12-by-12-foot room, lounging at a small desk while wearing blue corduroy slacks and a yellow-and-white shirt. He said, “My studies here are more important than basketball. My first concern is to study philosophy, politics, economics. and then go home to study law. Life is made up of many things. One passes, another rises.”
Then, after a spell of intense study and dropping from the eyes of the sportsworld, something else he had said must have borne fruit. “I don’t know what I want to be when I’m 35 or 50,” he had stated in answer to a question. “My values are constantly changing. It’s like asking a kid what he wants to be when he grows up. He might say a ‘fireman,’ but he doesn’t know.”
So, Bradley’s love for basketball—and maybe the thought deep down that someday he’d try it in the pros—prompted him to join the Simmenthal team of Milan, and he flew to Italy to play in the European Cup tournament.
On November 20, 1965, a Milan newspaper, Il Giorno, reported: “A first-rank opera tenor would have envied the personal ovation that saluted him when his extraordinary recital ended.” Bradley had scored 36 points as Simmenthal defeated MTV Giessen of West Germany, 103-73. He received an ovation that lasted “one and one-half minutes.”
For the two years he was at Oxford, Bradley played with Simmenthal and said, “It was a good chance for me to play from time to time without interfering with my studies. Basketball in England was as unimportant as cricket in America. They have a new gym at Oxford, but there is a hollow court, the baskets are too high, and the rims are crooked.”
Still, it was in a mood of wondering if he could be good enough that made Bradley go to the Oxford gym one day this past spring. “I was alone, me and a basketball. I was both teams, the crowd, the officials. My imagination did the rest. I came to New York and contacted the Knicks and told them, ‘I’m in New York, let’s talk.’”
Now the jury ringed the court. Dick McGuire watched the Bradley elbow clear a path and was happy. “He knows the game,” McGuire said.
Bradley’s first move with the ball, however, was to pass to Dick Van Arsdale. His second was a 20-foot shot. His third was a feint to the left, a drive, stop, short jumper at an angle from behind the backboard.
Ned Irish sat and watched, too. Two years before, he had been convinced Bradley wouldn’t play and told Bill’s parents, “Your son can be anything he wants to be.”
After the workout, Bradley didn’t want to talk. There were still those doubts in his mind that he might not be good enough. He has to wait until January to find out. He began six months of Air Force reserve duty, the first three at Officer Candidate School on July 5.
He’ll join the Knicks again in the new Madison Square Garden, and the consensus is he’ll become a superstar. But the night he comes back, the same old jury will be there. It always will be like this for Bill Bradley.