NBA F.O.B.s

Bill Bradley Fields a Dream Team of Endorsers

One of the more memorable moments of 60 Minutes' recent look at presidential candidate Bill Bradley was when they had Dollar Bill throw up a few shots as Ed Bradley stood by grinning. Not jumpers-white man's disease hardly goes into remission with age. No, these were little jump-sets, the ball casually slung up to receding hairline level, then spin-released on a reliable arc so familiar to Knicks fans from a quarter-century ago. Swish. Swish. Nothing but net.

Despite more cumulative time spent on the Beltway than the pro hardcourts, Bradley could do worse than revisit the past-unguarded from 10, 15 feet. If Al Gore and George W. are the children of politics, Bradley, even after a long Senate career, remains the NBA's favorite son. As such, he represents the ultimate in second runs--a former hoopster who would be president. Glory past and future.

This is heady stuff for those who played with and against him. Athletes are keen on accomplishments, and Bradley owns a couple of championship rings, has his jersey hanging from the rafters at Madison Square Garden, and put together an all-time college career. Now, he's going after a major parlay, and the old pals-many of whose own career laurels outshine his-want to hop along for the ride.

illustration: Chuck Gonzales

On November 14, NBA legends will gather at a Garden fundraiser to celebrate and plug one of their own. For a thousand-dollar cough-up-less than the cost of Spike Lee's courtside seats-fans will buy the right to cavort and shoot foul shots with the likes of Kareem, Elvin Hayes, and Willis Reed. That former colleagues should give so generously of their time and image to rally behind one of their own on a national stage shouldn't surprise. But in a series of interviews with a number of Bradley's erstwhile chums-and foes-it becomes obvious that this big push goes far beyond ordinary pledge and support. Collectively, these guys voice confidence and near-religious belief in the ideals of a man they broke sweat with light- years ago. For Bill Bradley and the NBA, the campaign trail offers no less than a virtual love-in.

"I keep telling everybody," laughs ex-Golden State Warrior Rick Barry, "that hopefully someday I can say I once punched the president of the United States." Barry refers back to an on-court incident that may have stemmed from Bradley's defensive limitations. "He had to do certain things because he wasn't the quickest guy in the world."

Barry met Bradley in college and insists that his longtime opponent already had sights on the White House at that time. "I know so. I talked to him and basketball was secondary. He genuinely cared about wanting to be president, to do good things for the country. And because this was a goal of his since he was young, I honestly believe that he stands for what he thinks are the best interests of the country and not for a big power play."

However filtered through the years, much is made of Bradley's vision and purpose way back when. Billy Cunningham remembers first meeting Bradley in Budapest in 1965, at the World Games. "Most of us were more concerned about where to get a beer," he says, "but Bill would be off reading. Not that he was antisocial, he was just preparing himself." That Bradley was, at the time, passing up pro hoops for a Rhodes Scholarship at Oxford was mindboggling to Cunningham, a kid from Brooklyn. "Most young men's dreams were to continue to play ball. He had other dreams."

Like Barry, former 76er Cunningham recalls Bradley's professional defensive game as literally tenacious. "He grabbed and held and did whatever was necessary, because he was often athletically outmatched. But he would also compensate by trying to take away your strengths." In Cunningham's case this included being pushed to the outside to keep him from driving. "There was a lot of research and evaluation done before he stepped on the court. He always wanted to know how to help the team. He was a key part of the Knicks' chemistry."

Cunningham, who's recently been stumping for Bradley, says that while he doesn't consider himself a Democrat, it doesn't really matter. "Watching politicians, there are things I disagree with, but I know this-he [Bradley] tries to do the right thing for the right reason, whereas I question others for their motives. I think he'll try to make the world a better place."

Onetime Houston Rocket opponent Rudy Tomjanovich recalls Bradley beating more athletic players with "brain power and work ethic." Professing to "know nothing about politics," Rudy T. says that Bradley excelled in "reading situations," which could conceivably apply anywhere. "You wait until the situation happens rather than having your mind set." And, according to Tomjanovich, pulling off this sort of read-and-react play required a rare level of preparation that was typical of Bradley. "On the surface, this guy might have an edge, but you're going to use everything you have in your experience and philosophy on how it's done to win. He [Bradley] got everything out of what he had and never let anybody take him out of his game."

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