[The following article on Bill Bradley, which has no byline, ran in the January 1973 issue of SPORT Magazine. It’s a good read, but it jumps the gun on Bradley’s “first and final year.” His fateful first and final came in 1977 when “Dollar Bill,” the proud Missourian and 10-season NBA veteran, retired from the Knicks in the spring and threw his hat into the ring that summer for a senatorial seat in New Jersey, not Missouri. But as this nameless writer warns, Bradley is unpredictable and prone to changing his mind. If you read the article from that perspective, it does pass the test of time. It sheds some light on one of the NBA’s all-time figures, though, as mentioned, with an asterisk for the botched chronology. One last thing. If you like the Knicks, the blog’s next several selections will feature your Knickerbockers back in the day.]
In the early weeks of the 1972-73 National Basketball Association season, Bill Bradley played commuter. With the full knowledge of Red Holzman and George McGovern, Bradley shuffled back and forth between Missouri and Madison Square Garden, campaigning for the Democratic ticket and the New York Knicks. Even for Bradley, who seems to thrive on frenzy, the pace was a challenge, and he responded the way he usually responds to challenges: He averaged close to 20 points a game, which immensely pleased Red Holzman, and he survived the election without scars, which put him ahead of much of the Democratic Party.
This is, in a very real sense, the first and final year for Bill Bradley. Unless he changes his mind, he is enjoying his final year as a professional basketball player, his first as a professional politician. The two professions blended smoothly in the fall of 1972, but soon Bradley must choose one over the other. He is, after all, only human.
“Everyone seems to neglect that point,” says Dave DeBusschere, Bradley’s roommate on the Knicks. “Bill ishuman. No more, and no less.”
The toughest thing to accept about Bill Bradley is that he is human. At 6-foot-5, he is one of the smaller forwards in pro basketball, yet no one else is so often painted larger than life. When he burst into prominence at Princeton in the early 1960s, the only question seemed to be whose records he was going to shatter: Oscar Robertson’s for basketball excellence—or John F. Kennedy’s for youthful political success.
Before Bradley even had his college degree, he had a skilled and sensitive biography written about him. The book was called A Sense of Where You Are, written by John McPhee, originally for the New Yorker, and McPhee did allow himself one rash judgment. He linked Bradley and Robertson as the two greatest basketball players of their time, and he lamented that no one would ever really know which one was better because Bradley would not turn pro, would take “only the names of his college with him into the chronicles of the sport.”
Now, eight years later, everyone knows which man was the better basketball player. It was, in the long run, no contest. “I told McPhee that the comparison to Oscar was absurd,” Bradley recalls. “Oscar is the greatest basketball player ever to play the game.”
Still, it is difficult to fault McPhee for his inaccuracy. There is something about Bill Bradley that inspires outrageous excesses. As a man with a Princeton degree and a Rhodes scholarship, he is, of course, intelligent; sportswriters labeled him an intellectual. As a man with a strong interest in government and history, he is, of course, attracted by politics; his teammates called him “Mr. President.” If Bradley wears last year’s suit, it becomes a tattered sack. If he drinks two glasses of ouzo at a Greek nightclub, it becomes a drunken spree. If Bill Bradley ever sneezed on the basketball court, somebody would say a flu epidemic is sweeping New York.
It isn’t easy to strip away the superlatives, to assess Bill Bradley calmly, to look at both the veteran pro and the rookie pol.
Despite his fantastic Princeton career, a career studded with local and national scoring records, Bill Bradley really had no right to succeed as a pro. In the first place, immediately upon graduating from Princeton, Bradley went to Oxford and spent two years there, employing his basketball abilities only sporadically in European competition. When he returned to the U.S. for $100,000 a year, he got the money more for his gate appeal than for his skills.
His skills were rusty and, at first glance, inadequate. In his rookie season, he shot, rebounded, and scored poorly—with occasional flashes of mediocrity. He averaged eight points a game, roughly one-fourth his college pace. He started as a guard for the Knicks, but it quickly became evident that Bradley was not fast enough to play guard in the NBA. He was shifted to forward, where his only glaring deficiencies were that he wasn’t tall enough and, besides, couldn’t jump. (Bradley has lived with a lack of jumping ability all his basketball life; as a youngster, he once spent a year working with ankle weights, and at the end of the year, Bradley says, “I still averaged my inch or two off the floor.”)
Yet, somehow, against all logic, Bradley made it as a forward. In his second Knick season, he played in all 82 games, averaging 30 minutes of action per game and more than 12 points. He was not a star by any means, but he was a solid pro, and ever since, he has built upon that base with hard work and uncommon basketball intelligence.
Right now, the Knicks probably have the strongest 12-man roster in basketball. It includes six men who have been NBA all-stars at one time or another—Walt Frazier, Willis Reed, Jerry Lucas, Earl Monroe, Dave DeBusschere, and Dick Barnett. Only four of these six all-stars start; Bill Bradley, who has never been an all-star and probably never will be, is the fifth man in the starting lineup.
Very few teams in any professional sport have ever been so cohesive as the Knicks, so dependent upon team play rather than individual play, and Bradley contributes mightily to that cohesiveness. On a team that stresses defense, Bradley is an aggressive, tireless defender, always assigned to slow down the opponents’ quick forward. On a team that has turned the pass into an art form every bit as spectacular as the shot—even respected optometrists suspect that Frazier and Monroe have eyes in the back of their heads—Bradley is a stunning passer, a dazzling blend of instinct and peripheral vision. And on the team whose offense depends on constant motion, Bradley never stops moving.
The picture of Bill Bradley on the court is the picture of the man in motion, a man moving without the ball; a man weaving back and forth across the court, hoping to wear down his opponent, hoping to force an opening, the slightest slip in the defense that will enable him to knife toward the basket, take a pass, and drive furiously for a layup, or enable him to get free, behind a screen, for his jump shot, a remarkably deadly weapon.
DeBusschere calls Bradley one of the five best open shooters in the NBA. Bradley scores on better than 45 percent of his field goal the attempts, on better than 80 percent of his free throws. These are impressive statistics, but they do not make him the team leader in either department. In fact, his aggressiveness makes him team leader in only one category—fouls committed.
Obviously, even if you ignore Bradley’s rebounding, which is easy, because he averages only four rebounds a game, the man from Princeton is not a superstar—except in the mental side of basketball.
“Bill sees everything that’s going on, and he thinks ahead,” says DeBusschere. “He’s the smartest player I’ve ever played with.” Sometimes, when Bradley and Coach Holzman start talking defensive and offensive theory, DeBusschere walks away. He is a student of the game, too, but he admits that those conversations often sail over his head.
“Basketball is a game of steady, patient movement,” Bradley was telling a Knick rookie one day early this season. “It’s not how fast you get to a spot on the court. It’s when you get there. Some of the younger guys move three frames too fast. Back up. Slow down. The game is timing, all timing.”
Intelligence. And energy. And competence. These are the marks of Bill Bradley’s six seasons in the NBA. And, oh yes, there is one other characteristic Bradley will carry with him from the basketball court to the political hall. On the court, sometimes wild-eyed and preoccupied, Bill Bradley talks to himself.
Early in 1972, when the Knicks were still learning to live without Willis Reed, the news leaked out of St. Louis: William Warren Bradley was considering running for state treasurer of Missouri in the Democratic primary. Not long before the basketball season ended, Bradley revealed that he was flying to Missouri to make an announcement concerning his political future. As a matter of fact, he flew out after a playoff game and flew back before another. No one would do that much flying to announce that he was not going to run. No one except Bill Bradley.
“I was merely making an exploratory move,” Bradley explains, as calmly as though he issued non-running statements every day. “I’ve made exploratory moves in the past. It is an ongoing process. I was looking to discover what my alternatives were, my possibilities. The second step is testing for support. The third is making the final commitment.”
As of Election Day, 1972, Bradley still had not made an absolute final commitment. But he had dropped enough hints along the way so that no one in New York is counting on him for the 1973-74 season. He has also made it perfectly clear to New York Democrats, who wanted him to run in Long Island in 1972, that they can’t count on him either.
“I will go back to Missouri,” Bradley says. “I am a Missourian. I spent most of the summer learning new things about the state.” One of his campaign excursions in 1972 took him to Portageville, Missouri. “I had to attend a soybean festival,” he says. “I sat in the reviewing stand. It was fun.”
Bradley will bring more than a Princeton degree, an Oxford exposure, and a modest career scoring average to his political career. During his years with the Knicks, he has found time to work for the Office of Economic Opportunity and for the Urban League. Presently, he’s a director of South Forty Corporation, a non-profit group involved in penal reform.
As much as anyone else in the NBA, Bradley has devoted considerable energy to the NBA Players Association, the basketball union. Bradley was particularly active lobbying against the proposed merger of the NBA and ABA. One day, he called upon Senator John Tunney of California, urging Tunney to fight the merger. “He invited us in,” Bradley recalls, “and the first thing I noticed was that he had some lollipops on his desk, and he was breaking them with a tiny hammer. I thought it was so absurd, the sight of this man breaking lollipops with a hammer, I told my friend Jeremy Larner about it.” Larner, a novelist and screenwriter, wrote the scene into the movie, The Candidate.
Bradley has no illusions about the glamour of politics. “You might say I’m an idealist,” he says, “but I think it’s a combination of idealism and realism—a political pragmatism.”
As a pragmatist, Bradley does not seem terribly excited by the prediction—made when he was still at Princeton—that he would be governor of Missouri by the age of 40. He is 29 now, he will be 33 during the gubernatorial election of 1976, 37 in 1980. A political realist could not expect him to be governor before the Orwellian 1984 election—when he will be 41.
One caution: Bill Bradley is unpredictable. He has been singing operatic duos with cab drivers. He has been attending Christmas parties dressed as a priest. He has been seen carrying a print of Andy Warhol’s Marilyn Monroe pop portrait through an airport.
He once revealed he would never play pro basketball. He once revealed he would never play more than four seasons of pro basketball. He once revealed he would never play more than five seasons.
Obviously, the man is going to be a perfect politician