Some might view a pro basketball career as poor preparation for life in the United States Senate. Bill Bradley (Democrat, N. J.) hasn't found it so. Hemmed into a corner of the Basketball Hall of Fame in Springfield, Mass., by reporters lured to his induction, he drew a parallel between the two pursuits. ''Both politics and sports involve people with different agendas working toward a common goal.''
The comparison, he said, first dawned on him while sitting in the Democratic cloak room four years ago. The diverse group present stirred memories of the New York Knickerbocker teams he had played on - the 1970 and '73 championship squads that formed successful basketball coalitions from a potluck of personalities and backgrounds.
Besides Bradley, the luminaries on those teams were Willis Reed, Dave DeBusschere, and Walt Frazier. DeBusschere, now the club's executive vice-president and director of basketball operations, roomed with Bradley and joined Bill among this year's class of Hall of Fame inductees. (Others enshrined were North Carolina coach Dean Smith and ex-pro great Jack Twyman, plus, post-humously, referee Lloyd Leith, and contributor Lou Wilke.)
New York's two championship teams, the only ones in Knick history, attracted the attention of the Big Apple's influential media and boosted NBA interest nationwide.
The Knicks were a real thinking man's team, perhaps the most cerebral ever assembled. ''It was unique in both basic intelligence and basketball knowledge, '' said Jerry Lucas, the backup center to Reed. ''That group of men knew the game of basketball, knew how it should be played, and put that knowledge into action.''
It was Bradley, though, who may have given the Knicks intellectual credibility and enticed pinstriped executives to Madison Square Garden.
As a collegian, he had won over New Yorkers with a valiant effort against Cazzie Rusell-led Michigan in the Garden. He scored 41 points, held his man, Oliver Darden, to 1, and had the Tigers up by 13 when he fouled out. The crowd saluted his effort with a two-minute standing ovation. The Wolverines, however, went on to win.
After graduating from Princeton in 1965, Bill continued his studies as a Rhodes Scholar in England. When the high-paid, first-round draft choice returned to the states, the Knicks switched him from forward to guard.
Although he had played some guard and center in college, the 6 ft. 5 in. Bradley claims he was a ''real failure'' as a rookie backcourtman. His chief problem came on defense, where smaller guards were constantly running him into blind-side picks (blocks).
Moved to forward, Bill found his professional niche. Playing opposite the rugged DeBusschere, he concentrated on passing, taking rapid-release jump shots, and playing numeral-to-numeral defense.He also was a master at wearing out opponents with his dizzying and perpetual motion on the court. ''Flight of the Bumblebee'' could have been his theme.
A team-player to the core, he was perfectly happy with a limited scoring role. His 12.4-point scoring average was a reflection of this unselfishness.
On his enshrinement day, Bradley expressed satisfaction in entering the hall with DeBusschere, his close friend and roommate. ''In a way I think we helped each other get here by setting as our goal maximum effort and dedication to our team,'' he said.
He originally signed a four-year contract, expecting to enter law school at the end of that period. But he wound up playing 10 years, and may have stayed longer if the Knicks had been winning.
''In my first four years I discovered I really liked the game, more than I ever thought I did,'' he explained. ''I found my experience on the Knicks, with the people we had, to be as close to perfect as I could imagine in professional basketball.''
Throughout his NBA days, the native of Crystal City, Mo., sought out new horizons in the off-season. Working in Harlem's street schools and for the Office of Economic Opportunity in Washington helped him develop a feel for a future direction.
His decision to run for the Senate wasn't ''a burning bush event.'' The way he describes it, setting his sites on Capitol Hill was ''a slow evolution. I had been in politics from 1972 on and ran in '78. In the course of six years it became like a balance, where on one side was sport, and on the other public service, and in particular politics. Public service began to occupy more of my daily thought.''
He took this as a signal to move on, which he did by becoming the youngest Senator, at 35, in 1978. The main advantage of his basketball background in politics was ready recognition on the campaign trail. ''It meant 350 people would turn out to hear me speak at the Elks Hall at Perth Amboy (N. J.) rather than 50. Sports had put me in their living rooms twice a week for 10 years. But that's not necessarily an advantage. It only gave me an opportunity to fail or succeed in front of more people.''
Today, as a self-described ''roaring moderate,'' he is pushing for tax reform as a member of the Senate Finance Committee, and also serves on the Energy and Natural Resources Committee. Some think he has Presidential aspirations, but the Senator confesses to none at this point.