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.
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.”
Former Celt John Havlicek, who as an offensive force once gave Bradley fits, lauds the ex-Knick as a team leader and sees parallels between his on-court persona and congressional savvy. “He was always smart and unselfish and played the game well-he did all the right things,” he says. “You’re in a room getting ready for a game or on the Senate floor for an issue and it’s much the same with regards to the thinking aspect. It’s a feeling they had of let’s get this done as a team.”
Havlicek echoes others with what after a while becomes an almost generic portrait of their man. “He’s from our field,” says Hondo. “We know him, know that he’s bright and intelligent and portrays things that are good. Sometimes a change is refreshing and needed. And boy, he’s just a fresh person in the picture.”
All right, but what about the issues? Other than what comes off as platitudinous notions of telling right from wrong, how familiar are NBA legends with what Bradley actually stands for?
“I think Bill has his ideas and wants to do certain things for the less fortunate,” says Barry, voicing a newfound NBA social consciousness. “I don’t think like some Democrats he wants to hand out things to lazy S.O.B.s, which I’m certainly not for. But if things have gotten really bad for you, hey, yeah, let’s try and help those people out.”
The great Oscar Robertson says that very few people know all the issues,” adding that he himself stays informed on such basics as abor tion, the financial picture, affirmative action, and social security. I would hope that the people I played ball with understand all the issues, but I’m sure they don’t. Anyway, what most politicians do is try and get a survey to see what the general populace wants. But Bill talks with the convictions of his own heart.”
The Big O, too, holds up Bradley as the ultimate team player,” one who came to the Knicks and sacrificed his high-scoring college habits for championship goals. As to claims in some quarters that Bradley might have left Dem teammates behind when he chose, after three terms, not to re-run for the Senate in ’96, Robertson says, Well, maybe he shouldn’t have been on that team. Maybe the team wasn’t
going in the right direction.”
Earl Monroe agrees. He saw a better way,” says the Pearl, whose Knicks jersey hangs near Bradley’s high above the Garden floor. And we’re all better off for it. We’ve all grown tired of politics as usual.” Asked about any possible link between pro hoops and Washington, Monroe chirps that Bradley
– never had to guard Monica.”
But he did have to guard Bob Love, often a losing proposition. Now firmly in Bradley’s cor ner, the former Bulls star forward remembers one instance when a compliment from his Knick rival meant worlds to a player with a serious speech defect. Because of my stutter ing,” says Love, I never had good rapport with the writers. One night after we beat them, and I’d had a great game, he [Bradley] told the press that I was the smartest player in the league. He recognized my disability, and I’ll never forget that. There’s no doubt in my mind that he’d make a great president.”
During his early Knick days, Bradley was tagged – Mr. President” by his teammates. Crusty ex-trainer Danny Whelan (endearingly profiled in Bradley’s Life on the Run) says the honorific owed more to the fact that he knew all the answers to anything you could ask” than to actual aspirations. On Bradley’s character and presidential timbre, Whelan is unflinch ing: He’s as honest as the day is long. You can’t say more about the truth than Bill Bradley. He’s like God.”
About Bradley’s other nickname, Whelan says that, contrary to some reports, it had nothing to do with his supposed rep as a tight wad. He was very conservative,” recalls Whelan, and he wore an old raincoat that shoulda been thrown out a hundred years ago. But Dick Barnett started calling him Dollar Bill’ ’cause he made all the money back then.”
A longtime friend of Bill’s, Barnett offers a somewhat loquacious take on hoops vs. politics: – Those intangible qualities of competitiveness and desire to win, that’s always a part of an athlete’s persona and projection, so I don’t see anything different in the presidential race. It’s still a competitive situation, and your positions will hopefully rule the game with the public or the electoral college.”
Barnett, who earned a Ph.D. in education after his playing career, clearly has a more grounded view of campaign dynamics than oth er NBA F.O.B.s. I don’t know all the dispositions,” he says, when asked about the issues issue. But Bill is a pragmatic politician. The first obligation of a politician is to win, other wise you can’t really do anything. As far as his beliefs, I think his staff and his advisers have a political awareness of what will best catapult him to the presidency. That’s the reality. I sup port him.”
Trying to dig up Bush or Gore-ites among Bradley’s former confreres is like trying to find an atheist among today’s NBA players. If they exist, they’re laying low. One former teammate, pleading anonymity, asserts that Bradley support isn’t unanimous among NBA vets–at least not yet. There are still some assholes out there,” he says, some people who just need to be convinced.”
A few prominent names will surely remain permanently absent from Bradley’s growing list of supporters. Charles Barkley is an unlikely crossover, not with his purported plans for the G.O.P. governorship of Alabama, nor with men tors such as Rush Limbaugh and Dan Quayle. And, as one of our country’s more prominent absentee fathers, Julius Erving hardly qualifies as a choice endorser. The biggest catch of all would be Michael Jordan, who, despite having teased the Bradley camp, remains undeclared. Phil Jackson, Honorary Coach” of Sunday’s festivities, may be of some help here, but it’s doubtful. Airless once made it clear where he stands politically when he refused to oppose Jesse Helms, saying something to the effect that Republicans buy Nike shoes too.
But stay tuned. This bandwagon should be rolling for a while. The love test is just getting started.
This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on November 9, 1999