[In the 1993 NBA draft, Orlando went first and snagged Chris Webber, University of Michigan’s All-Everything inside force. No surprise. The Philadelphia 76ers went second. On the board was an impressive array of talent: Penny Hardaway, Jamal Mashburn, Calbert Cheaney, Rodney Rogers, Allan Houston, and others.
The 76ers bypassed them all and staked their future on 7-foot-6 Shawn Bradley. Plenty of mumbled, oh-wows followed. True, you can’t teach height. But the rail-thin Bradley had played exactly one season at BYU then went on an LDS mission for two years. That’s a lot of rust to work off while earning millions and facing some of the toughest fans in the business.
Over the next several months, the Philadelphia faithful watched, sneered, muttered, and became Bradley’s own worst critics. “Bradley was that great gift from the lottery gods who could turn it around for the Sixers,” rued Philadelphia columnist Bill Conlin in a 1994 poison-pen piece headlined, “Were We Suckered by the Bradley Hype?”
“It would not be overnight, of course, and we seemed willing to accept the project nature of drafting a 7-foot-6 kid so skinny and devoid of muscular definition it was like seeing “Happy Days” hero Richie Cunningham in a fun-house mirror.”
Bradley, the city’s $44 million urban renewal project in sneakers, then hurt his knee and spent much of his rookie season on crutches. When he got halfway healthy, Bradley faced tighter scrutiny, lost his confidence, and weathered the nightly shower of boos and shouted, obscenity-laced sideline advice to get tougher. Tougher and learning on the job would have to come against the likes of Shaquille O’Neal and Patrick Ewing.
Philly grew increasingly fed up and dismissive of Bradley, and he was out of there in just two and a half seasons. The good news is Bradley regained his confidence and carved out a 12-season NBA career, mostly in Dallas. His career numbers weren’t anything close to Hall of Fame worthy—8.1 points per game, 2.5 blocks per outing, and 6.3 rebounds a night. But he played hard, and he found a way stick in the league and have an impact. By all accounts, he was a total class act in the NBA. (And, of course, all the very, very best to him now after his accident!)
What follows is an interesting blast from the draft hype past. Philadelphia journalist Bob Ford takes an unbiased look at the 76ers’ intriguing selection of Bradley in the December 1993 issue of Courtside Magazine . Now, nearly 30 years later, some of the claims in this story still make sense. But most don’t. It’s apropos given the deluge of superlatives this week for Chet Holmgren, Ousmane Dieng, and the latest round of NBA first rounders. Thirty years hence, how many of this week’s breathless claims will make any sense? We’ll see. That what makes it fun.]
When 76ers’ owner Harold Katz made Shawn Bradley, a project center with much more height than experience, the second pick in the 1993 NBA draft and rewarded Bradley with a $44 million contract, Katz called it the biggest gamble he’s ever taken.
That’s saying a lot, coming from a man who previously assured Sixers’ fans that Charles Shackleford was the answer at center. The Sixers have been wrong before, consistently wrong, as they’ve tried to fill the middle, and they’ve raised the stakes considerably that Bradley will finally be the answer they’ve sought.
“Sometimes I think, ‘Man, I’m really jumping in deep,’” said Bradley, who is an awesome 7-foot-6, but who hasn’t played organized basketball for two years. “But then I think I wouldn’t have it any other way. This is what I want to do with my life.”
Bradley played just one season of college basketball at Brigham Young University before serving the Mormon church with a two-year mission to Australia. He comes to the NBA as perhaps the most athletically gifted man ever to enter the league at such a lofty height. But he also comes in as a question mark physically.
If there is one overriding concern about Bradley, one reason why Katz views his rookie as such a gamble, it is Bradley’s physical conditioning. Whether Bradley will be able to take the pounding, night in and night out, in the NBA will largely determine whether this expensive experiment is a success or failure.
Since signing with the Sixers over the summer, Bradley took part in a rigorous program to get him ready for pro ball. He worked out on the court nearly every day, taking shots from the likes of the assistant coach Jeff Ruland, former Sixer Rick Mahorn, and teammate Eric Leckner.
Bradley came out of those sessions with a total of five stitches over one eye and three black eyes. According to Ruland, Bradley never backed down from the confrontations.
Off the court, Bradley was given over to conditioning guru Pat Croce, who was the overseer for a combination program of workouts and a body-building diet. Bradley was force-fed thousands of calories a day as the Sixers tried to bulk him up from the 230-pound beanpole he was when he arrived to, say, a 260-pound center able to hold his own in the battleground under the basket.
Bradley’s weight never got past 245 pounds, however, and the fear is the grind of the regular season, when there won’t be time or inclination for six meals a day, will see some of that added mass slip off the scale.
“I’ll just have to make do with what I have,” said Bradley. “I’m going to be as effective as I can be at whatever weight I happen to be at. I’ll find a way. I certainly think the weight is an issue that needs to be addressed. Mentally, I’ve got to prepare myself and be ready to get the job done. But you’ve got to understand that I’m my own worst critic.”
That’s not necessarily the case in Philadelphia, however, where Spectrum fans regularly roasted their heroes in the last several seasons. When the Sixers slipped again last season, Doug Moe was given the “Moe Must Go” treatment ,and the team fared no better on the court or in the stands under new coach Fred Carter.
The once-proud franchise finished at 26-56, with a major problem being defense and scoring from the center position. In fact, since the Sixers discarded Moses Malone in 1986, there has been a revolving door in the middle. It’s ironic that Bradley, who might finally be the solution, comes to the Sixers in the same season that Malone is taken back for a last-hurrah role off the bench.
Since Malone, the following players have taken the center position for the Sixers: Jeff Ruland, Tim McCormick, Mark McNamara, Christian Welp, Mike Gminski, Ben Coleman, Bob Thornton, Kurt Nimphius, Rick Mahorn, Dave Hoppen, Manute Bol, Charles Shackleford, Jeff Ruland II, Andrew Lang, and Eddie Lee Wilkens. There are gunshot wounds nicer looking than that list. It tells the story of how the Sixers could go from high grass to swamp gas in a very few seasons.
So, Bradley gets his turn to turn it around, and there are many people who think he’ll do that quickly. Others believe he is a “project” who could take years to adjust his talents to the demands of the game.
“I would disagree, I guess, with the term ‘project,’” said Sixers general manager Jim Lynam. “A guy can step in and help somebody and, at the same time, take a period of time—one or two years or whatever—to get to the level where he’s among the best at his position. Sure, that’s possible. But I’m certain that with him we have an opportunity to improve right away.”
For every expectation of Bradley, however, there is a corresponding warning. He’s expected, with his size and ability to move, be able to block a whole lot of shots from the beginning. But it’s also expected that he’ll find himself in foul trouble while learning how to block shots. He’s expected, because of his athleticism, to be able to score consistently on short hooks and close-in jumpers. But he should also anticipate trouble establishing and keeping his position under the basket. The burly denizens of the paint area will take great pleasure in moving Bradley out of their territory.
“He has to learn to establish himself, and that’s not going to happen overnight,” said Carter. “This young man is going to be a very good player, but there is going to have to be some patience attached. We’re making sure he knows that.”
Bradley is aware of the task ahead, and aware that his progress really can’t be measured against those who have come before him. “I don’t recall any time, even though I haven’t followed the NBA really, really closely, that a 7-foot-6 player left college after his freshman year, went away, didn’t play for two years, then was drafted No. 2 in the first round,” Bradley said. “If I was a betting man, which I’m not, I’d bet it’d never happen again.”
The list of 7-foot-6 players who have been in the league before Bradley is very short: one. Manute Bol, the Sudanese stick figure, is 7-foot-7 and has made a good living being able to do just one thing—block shots. Other players of extreme height, Chuck Nevitt, Rik Smits, Ralph Sampson, Mark Eaton, have had varying degrees of success, but none of them became the kind of all-around player that some experts think Bradley will be.
Bradley’s athleticism can extend to many areas. He can water ski. He can play tennis. He can play golf, although it could be misleading to have him pace off yardage for you. He played baseball in high school, averaging .407 as a junior. And he led the NCAA in blocked shots during his one season of college basketball. The Cougars finished with a 21-13 record that season, by the way.
“I don’t see how he can miss,” said Miami managing general partner Lewis Schaffel. “He can’t be like anybody else. The guy’s a basketball player. There’s never been a 7-foot-6 basketball player.”
Bradley deals well with those who don’t believe in him. He understands their skepticism. Someone who knocked on countless doors as a missionary knows what it’s like to fight another’s beliefs. It took 10 months before he made his first convert in Australia, it could be that long before he begins to draw believers in the NBA.
“I think the questions are fair,” Bradley said. “But I’m confident things will work out. All my life, I’ve been successful because I won’t settle for anything less. I realized how much I had to work to get my body in shape. My mind was already telling me, ‘You can do this.’ But my body was saying, ‘Hold up. Two years is too long.’ Hopefully, I can improve on a nightly basis. Last year with the Sixers, that’s what Clarence Weatherspoon did as a rookie. He just got better and better. He learned, and he continued to improve. That’s what I want to do. I’ll be ready every night.”
Aside from being the most unique player ever to play for BYU coach Roger Reid, Bradley, according to Reid, was also among the most physically gifted. Like others, Reid thinks Bradley will need some time to adjust fully, but will be a factor from the start.
“If people are patient, he has a chance to be a dominating player,” said Reid. “He could have a hook shot like Jabbar. It’s shocking how well he runs. He fills the lane like a guard. He’s also a very good passer, and he’s got quick feet. He can go a long way to block a shot. I think he might do better than people think this year because he loves to play the game. He’s not a tall guy who was pushed into basketball. He’s a 7-foot-6 guy in a 6-foot-4 body. And 7-foot-6 is something you can’t coach.”
Bradley never saw many NBA games before entering the league. He’s no student of its history or even the faces he’ll be confronting every night. As a high school student, he would watch the NBA on television for perhaps five minutes, then dash out to his family’s backyard rim in Castle Dale, Utah, to try the moves he had just seen. He doesn’t know for sure how he’ll handle the pounding, or if he’ll be able to match physiques with guys like Patrick Ewing and Shaquille O’Neal. But he has a farm boy’s toughness and resolve.
“I’ve herded a lot of cattle and when you’ve got a 2,00-pound animal on your foot, you find a way to move it,” said Bradley.
Among the NBA observers who think Bradley is destined for greatness, at least partly because of that tough streak, is former coach Jack Ramsay, who had the original Bill Walton during his greatest years in Portland. “Bill loved the game and loved to play it,” Ramsay said. “He loved to win, and he was a total team player. That’s my sense of Bradley, too. Like Bill, he apparently has the skill to do everything on the floor. Bill was a great passer, he could score himself, an excellent defender, shot blocker, rebounder, outlet passer. He had a lot of natural talent and worked at his game.
“I think Bradley has some of all that. He’s a guy who works hard, wants to be good, and I sense he’ll be a tough-minded guy on the court. I think he’ll shock people this year.”
The Sixers have a hunger to return to respectability. The front office kept just four players from last season’s team as the rebuilding process went ahead full tilt. It was an unspoken truth that Bradley has to succeed or the Sixers are in for many long winters of losing. He will take up a lot of room under the salary cap for eight seasons.
Centers aren’t as important these days as they were when Bill Russell and the Celtics dominated the league 30 years ago, but Bradley might have the opportunity to rekindle that trend. He might be able to succeed in getting his team to a championship level, something that Patrick Ewing, David Robinson, Hakeem Olajuwon, and the other premier centers in the NBA have not been able to do.
“He might be a force,” said former Celtic great Tommy Heinsohn. “That’s his potential. But he’s never seen anything like this. He could be one of the 10 best centers in the league this year, but with expansion and the talent watered down, it doesn’t take much to be a top 10 center anymore.
“It will be important for him to adjust to the pace of the game. He can probably shoot and run up-and-down the floor. But his physique is such that you wonder what the other players will do to him. There are a whole bunch of questions marks attached to this kid. The people with lesser potential than him, or closer to his size, have been able to participate in the league. If this kid has the athletic ability, he might be special.”
That’s what the Sixers are betting, in what Katz called his biggest gamble ever. Bradley might be something very special, or he might be just another Rik Smits, an amazingly tall player whose deficiencies offset his strengths. The Philadelphia fans wait cautiously to see what Bradley will become. They’ve been burned before.
“I don’t know a whole lot about Philadelphia fans, but I do know wherever you play, unless you produce, you’re a goat. I understand that,” Bradley said.
Once again, Shawn Bradley is a man with a mission. This time around, he hopes it won’t take 10 months to make others believe in him.