Extraordinarily Ordinary


Pete Croatto


As a kid, I knew Bill Bradley as a U.S. Senator and perhaps the least charismatic public figure I’ve ever seen; seriously, he made Al Gore look like James Brown. I had heard of Bradley’s historic basketball exploits at Princeton University (where he led an Ivy League squad to the Final Four) and on two championship Knicks teams (where he was the consummate team player on one of pro basketball’s most unselfish teams). The Bill Bradley I saw was balding, slightly pudgy, and always serious. He resembled a high school principal. That this guy had such a hallowed athletic past was incomprehensible.

Years later, three books have finally led me to appreciate the man. Forget the public service and presidential aspirations. Just from an athletic perspective, Bradley had an utterly fascinating existence. Name the next time the best basketball player in the country will eschew millions of dollars from a NBA franchise, even if it’s for a Rhodes scholarship? Would the team that drafted him wait two years—especially if he’s not honing his ball handling skills in Europe—before greeting him as the anointed one? Will there ever be a big man on campus whose success in academia and athletics borders on parody? The answer to the first two questions is never; the answer to the third may infuriate you.

Consider Bradley’s most recent parallel: Myron Rolle, a former football standout at Florida State University and fellow Rhodes scholar. In 2008, Rolle’s senior season, the young man faced a big decision: He could study at the University of Oxford or become—as some experts predicted—a first-round draft pick and a millionaire. Rolle opted for England, and got drafted in 2010 by the NFL's Tennessee Titans. In the sixth round. He has yet to play a pro game. After spending two years in Oxford, Bradley played ten seasons with the Knicks, won the aforementioned championships, and had his number retired. And he did all this as a 6'5" forward­—a position where today’s players are usually between 6'8" and 6'11"—with an average body and a game that, from what I’ve seen, belonged to middle-aged YMCA players.

That isn’t why I care about Bradley. A few months ago, after writing a column on the mediocrity of athlete-penned memoirs, I decided to read Life on the Run, the future senator’s book of observations, musings, and character sketches framed around the last games of the 1974 season. Man, was that a revelation. It wasn’t page after page of platitudes or colorless observations dictated to a sportswriter. About working in New York City, Bradley writes:

Slowly I realized that that New York provides anonymity as well as the spotlight, humor as well as danger, inspiration as well as sordidness. I have come to appreciate the crowds—people watching is my number one pastime; I like the layers of humanity with diverse backgrounds all living, functioning, and prospering in such a small area. I like the New York police and the New York cab drivers—both offering their opinions with their skills. I like the rough impersonality of New York, where human relations are oiled by jokes, complaints, and confessions—all made with the assumption of never seeing the other person again. I like New York because there are enough competing units to make it still seem a very mobile society. I like New York because it engenders high expectations simply by its pace.   

Three observations: First, that’s professional level writing. Second, that’s not the only example, or even the best one. Third, there’s no mention of sports in that paragraph. The man clearly wanted to live a life that wasn’t defined by basketball. Maybe that’s why he was a good pro: He could see the bigger picture. In an advance copy of a book about the classic Knicks teams of the early 1970s, Philadelphia hoops legend Sonny Hill glows over Bradley’s duel with Earl “the Pearl” Monroe in a long-ago summer league game. Hill then contends that “Dollar Bill” suppressed his talents to fit into coach Red Holzman’s democratic offense.

With that revelation, I figured it was best to start at the beginning, John McPhee’s famous account of Bradley’s senior year at Princeton, A Sense of Where You Are. Initially, a profile for the New Yorker, time and McPhee’s aura may have elevated the effort into an undeserved upper echelon. Life on the Run is more insightful. McPhee relies on dry game recaps and lapses into hero worship (“It had become fully apparent, however, that Bradley would be remembered as one of college basketball's preeminent stars.”) far too often.

Read Life on the Run and you realize that McPhee benefited from Bradley’s candor, which allows the author to detail the construction of a basketball talent. And I do mean “construction.” Bradley’s on-court success was the result of supreme mental (he broke his hook shot down into five precise parts, like he was building an automobile) and physical discipline. For four full years in high school, writes McPhee, Bradley would practice:

In the school year, three and a half hours every day after school, nine to five on Saturday, one-thirty to five on Sunday, and, in the summer, about three hours a day. He put ten pounds of lead slivers in his sneakers, set up chairs as opponents, and dribbled slalom fashion around them, and wore eyeglass frames that had a piece of cardboard taped to them so that he could not see the floor, for a good dribbler never looks at the ball.

Bradley, who admits to McPhee that he is not a great athlete, made himself into a basketball player by getting the keys to the high school gym and exhibiting sheer will. There was no glamour or cool involved. Ditto Life on the Run, which doesn’t have a whiff of PR artifice or heroic exploits; Bradley spends more time looking at women (three inspire him during his Madison Square Garden warm-up routine) than bedding them. He became a senator unconcerned about charisma, which is all some elected officials can offer.

In every phase of a very public life, Bill Bradley succeeded by being himself.

Books mentioned in this column:
Life on the Run by Bill Bradley (Quadrangle, 1976)  
A Sense of Where You Are: A Profile of Bill Bradley at Princeton by John McPhee (The Noonday Press, 1989)

Pete Croatto’s essays, criticism, and humor writing have appeared in MAD, Publishers Weekly, BookPage, AMC, and the (Newark) Star-Ledger. He also reviews movies for ICON and The Weekender, and maintains a movie blog. A longtime Mets fan, Pete currently lives in Bucks County, PA, which is Phillies territory. Pray for him. Contact Pete.



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