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Politics? Business? TV? Pro Basketball Star Bill Bradley Goes One on One with His Future

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It is a miserable night for Bill Bradley and the New York Knicks. He is having trouble shaking loose. When he manages to elude the player guarding him, his teammates rarely pass the ball to him. When they do, he misses even his favorite shots, from the top of the key and from deep in the corner.

Bradley will not let up, however; he keeps working on defense. Now, in the fourth quarter, he begins to hit. With barely a minute left, he races down on a fast break and lofts in a jump shot that puts the Knicks ahead. As the New York crowd shrieks, Bradley runs grimly upcourt, swiping at his hair with his left hand, displacing energy that really wants to raise a fist in triumph.

The essence of Bradley’s basketball is patience, perseverance, caution. He considers analogies between his basketball career and the rest of his life spurious, but keep that style in mind, anyway.

Whenever Warren Bradley’s only child, Bill, returns home to Crystal City, Mo., the father scolds, “When are you going to amount to something?”

“I think he’s kidding,” the son says, “although there are times when I’m not quite sure.”

Bill Bradley at 33 has been a model son, a college basketball player whom many experts consider the best ever, a Rhodes scholar, an Olympic star, a distinguished pro earning $325,000 a year, an author, a philanthropist, a Broadway producer and a husband never accused of beating his wife.

Bradley is now at a turning point; this is his last season. Aching knees and decreasing point totals have convinced him it is time to go on to something else. But what?

“With the right situation in the right place,” he says, “I would prefer politics, but I’m thinking about business too, and also television journalism,”

Few people could utter that sentence with so little pretension. But then, not many people have been told they were going to be President someday by admirers from high school on. Bradley all but groans at the mention of his presidential “campaign,” which has been building momentum now for 15 or so years. (“The only time I think about it is when someone asks me,” he says. “I have no desire to be President.”) He is in fact reluctant to talk about himself at all, suffering as he does from a chronic case of celebrity fatigue.

It began in Crystal City, where he started playing basketball seriously at 13. By the time he was a high school senior, he was good enough to scrimmage with the St. Louis pros. He went on to Princeton and became an all-America campus hero. He was an excellent student (some classmates called him “The Martyr” for his dedication to the books). He taught Sunday school and worked with the Fellowship of Christian Athletes. He played a record of Climb Every Mountain to inspire himself before big games. He won a gold medal as a member of the 1964 Olympic team.

The real Bill Bradley constantly found himself running into a mythical Bill Bradley, a young man built out of press clippings. To escape the public eye, he applied for a Rhodes scholarship and spent two years at Oxford studying philosophy, politics and economics.

He went nine months without touching a basketball at one point. When he did go back on a court, as he wrote in his book Life on the Run, “I knew that never to play against the best, the pros, would be to deny an aspect of my personality perhaps more fundamental than any other.” Bradley consulted with former pro athletes Rep. Morris Udall (basketball) and Supreme Court Justice Byron White (football) and decided to play.

He went into the sport in 1967 with a keen appreciation of his own worth and a shrewd lawyer named Larry Fleisher, who still represents him in addition to running the players’ union. Fleisher negotiated a contract with the Knicks for a reported $750,000 in salary over four years. “It was that contract,” the attorney boasts, “not Namath’s, that set the precedent for athletes getting what they earn today.”

The Knicks’ early great hopes for Bradley proved vain. Unlike college opposition, the pros were almost always bigger, faster, stronger, better jumpers and more deft than Bradley. He was used at guard, an unfamiliar position, since at 6’5″ he was considered too short to be a forward.

He averaged only eight points a game as a part-time player his rookie season. “I was a failure—there is no lighter way to say it. I knew I had to work on a lot of things and I did.” The next season the Knicks obtained Dave DeBusschere in a trade. The presence of DeBusschere, a physical player, created a need at the other forward spot for a more cerebral player, even a relatively short one.

Bradley proved to be the perfect complement. He has never averaged more than 16.1 points per game—a B-minus kind of figure. But he helped make the Knicks a winning team by running methodically back and forth and back again until the man guarding him got lost, blocked by another Knick or bored into inattention. Then, in that brief moment of freedom, the pass would go to Bradley and he would usually score a quick goal. “He made himself a valuable player,” one veteran sportswriter says, “by combining his intelligence, his understanding of his own limitations and a willingness to stretch the rules when necessary.”

It is true that Bradley is not above a surreptitious push-off here—shoving his defender one way while he goes the other—and a sub-rosa hold there. A particularly intense rivalry has developed between him and Jack Marin, currently with Chicago. Marin and Bradley are cordial enough out of uniform to discuss politics—”Jack reads Ayn Rand,” Bradley says, “I don’t”—but their relationship is so frenzied on court that in one close game Bradley began shrieking incoherently in Marin’s ear as they ran along side by side. Marin says, “Bradley gets away with more pushing and shoving than anybody in the league. He has great timing—especially in lifting his hands off you just when the ref turns to look.” Bradley tends to pout at officials but insists, “I never bait them. Sometimes I do point out their mistakes.”

Bradley’s own teammates find him difficult to fathom. For one thing, despite his salary, Bradley has always worn casual, not to say occasionally scruffy, clothes. His first car was a used Volkswagen. Teammate Walt Frazier, a clotheshorse and car buff, wrote about Bradley in his book Rockin’ Steady: “Here are two rookies, him and me. One emptying out the clothing stores as fast as he can get to them, and the other guy, he could afford it but he’s dressed like Harpo Marx.”

The Knicks began calling him “Dollar Bill”; they joked that he still had the first one he ever earned. But any genuine resentment that might have existed toward him has long since disappeared. He and DeBusschere, who never made any pretense of being an intellectual, became close, and when DeBusschere was about to retire he asked Bradley, “Will we still be friends after basketball?” Now, two years later, they see each other often.

Bradley has even convinced people that he does have a sense of humor, however bizarre. He has been known, for instance, to engage in peanut-throwing fights with teammates on airplanes. Once he showed up at a Christmas party at the DeBusscheres’ wearing a turned-around collar that made him look like a clergyman. (Bradley is a Presbyterian.) DeBusschere pointed out that it wasn’t a costume party, but Bradley nevertheless proceeded to go around asking other guests if they wanted their confessions heard.

His dealings with the press have been uneasy. He has always guarded his personal life with a passion that verges on paranoia. (Not even DeBusschere knew that Bradley was getting married until Bill returned from the All-Star game break in January 1974 as the husband of Ernestine Misselbeck, who teaches German literature at Montclair State College.)

Bradley acknowledges—with some satisfaction—that he is “bad copy” and that he has purposely given dull answers to reporters’ questions in an effort to drive them away. “I like and respect Bill,” says Ira Berkow, a writer who has followed Bradley’s career closely. “But I’ve seen him patronize some writers and try to intimidate others.

“He likes to play games with people,” Berkow continues, “to test them. One time he and I were discussing art, and he said he didn’t think playwrights were artists. I was shocked and said, ‘Does that include Shakespeare?’ He just smiled.”

Bradley’s off-court charitable activities are noteworthy, but he discourages coverage of them. They include working with Harlem youngsters, ex-convicts and prison reform groups. He has also refused to take advantage of frequent and lucrative endorsement offers. “I’m not saying ‘A pox on the whole house of endorsements,’ ” Bradley says. “A couple of times I’ve been tempted.”

He has had no such compunctions about endorsing political candidates. He made appearances for George McGovern in 1972 and for Udall this year, in addition to working for local candidates in New Jersey. He lives in Denville, 34 miles west of New York. “I feel competent to talk about politics,” he explains. “I’ve been involved in campaigns on all levels, I’ve studied the issues, I know the people.”

His father is a lifelong Republican who was an elector for Thomas Dewey in 1948. Bill has shown more affinity for Democrats, at least since Princeton, where his thesis was about Harry Truman’s 1940 senatorial campaign. “Bill’s become a lot more liberal since he came to New York,” Fleisher says. “After all, Crystal City, Mo. is fairly limiting. But he has developed a lot of sensitivity. He really wants to help those who don’t have advantages he had.”

Bradley concedes he has learned “to regard authority with a little more suspicion” after working in the players’ union and listening to his black teammates talk about their problems with the white establishment. He sees no contradiction between his compassion for the less prosperous and his own lofty salary. When someone asks him if he is at all embarrassed to be making so much money—about $1,000 a point at the rate he’s scoring this season—the answer is immediate: “No.”

His work with the players’ union—he has served as ex officio spokesman in congressional hearings as well as the Knicks’ player representative—have not hurt his image as a budding politician. There were rumors—unfounded, he says—that he considered running for state office in Missouri soon after he returned from England in 1967. He did, however, give serious thought to declaring for Congress from New Jersey in 1974 before deciding that the timing was wrong.

He has dabbled in a lot of fields. Life on the Run was critically acclaimed and has sold 50,000 copies since it was published in April. He co-produced a play, The Poison Tree, a prison drama that lasted briefly on Broadway. He has exhibited photographs from his world travels. But it seems most likely that of all his interests Bradley will try politics—perhaps running for the House in two years.

“There is a lot of introvert in Bradley,” Udall says, “but he is very perceptive and he relates to people.”

Bradley himself says, “I don’t need the roar of the crowd, so I wouldn’t go into politics just for that. And I don’t feel compelled to make decisions now that will last 30 years. Part of my life is over; another part is beginning.”