Bradley's basketball past comes to forecourt

Bill Bradley is a huge blast from the past in sports, a star for 10 years in the National Basketball Association, scoring more than 10,000 points in 837 games. He was a key reason the New York Knicks won two NBA titles nearly three decades ago with legendary teammates including Dave DeBusschere, Walt Frazier, and Willis Reed.

Prior to the seventh and deciding game of the 1970 finals, Reed showed up injured. He barely could walk. But somehow, he got onto the court, and with Bradley and the others at his side and the fans delirious all around, the Knicks won over the equally legendary Lakers of Chamberlain, West, and Baylor.

It can be argued that those who remember things like this have too little on their minds. Perhaps. But for many, even the date is seared in memory: May 8, 1970.

Now, Bill Bradley thinks it would be nifty to be president. Why not? We've had war heroes (John Kennedy and Dwight Eisenhower), an actor (Ronald Reagan), a haberdasher (Harry Truman), and a POW who's a candidate (John McCain).

So the fact that athletics surface on a candidate's rsum is an appropriate addition to this mishmash of backgrounds.

Frankly, whether Bradley is presidential tall timber is way beyond the purview of "The Sporting Scene." But here's what's fascinating from the sports perspective: After being an all-American basketball player at Princeton and college player of the year, a starting member of the Sports Illustrated all-century college team, captain of the 1964 Olympic team, and a Knicks luminary, Bradley walked away from hoops and zipped his lips on the subject.

Armed with a Rhodes scholarship, he wanted to contribute serious thinking to serious problems. He became a US senator and served three terms, almost never mentioning basketball. Bradley's deal was tax reform and energy policy, not recounting what it was like to play against the Celtics. Attempts to interview him on sports were rebuffed.

Lately, however, Bradley is rekindling his starry athletic days. At Madison Square Garden a few weeks ago, old hoops pals showed up to say how wonderful he is and to raise money. Kathy Harring, psychology department chairman at Muhlenberg College in Allentown, Pa., says, "By reconnecting with his basketball career, Bradley can make salient in people's minds his 'other,' more popular identity [which more people can relate to] and also distance himself from his Rhodes scholar-politician persona, which some people might distrust."

A critical column by Sandy Grady of the Philadelphia Daily News says Bradley finds his basketball past gives him "identity, cachet, a persona. Hey, being an ex-NBA star had more clout than a dull ex-senator."

That's a trifle harsh, but the underlying point is solid. Every day Bradley sees people who love the basketball portion of his life. And it's occurring to him there's no need to cover up something people enjoy hearing about that involves no felony.

The truth is many Americans simply like and admire athletes more than they do politicians. One reason is that athletes can point to statistics to document their achievements, while politicians try to spin us into thinking they are worthy, because facts are not as obvious or certain.

Too, sports do show leadership. Bradley was a Knicks leader. Leading can be learned and displayed, whether wearing sneakers or wingtips.

Whether Bradley is better than Al Gore or George W. Bush or McCain is not under discussion here. But Bradley's sports background qualifies or disqualifies him at least as much as Teddy Roosevelt's Rough Rider exploits. Although intellectuals scoff, there is much of the mind in basketball. Bradley wrote not long ago, "The essence of the game is selectivity, knowing one's limitations and abiding by them." That's not a bad political philosophy, either.

Bradley now is comfortable discussing sports and told CNN, "Basketball is part of who I am. If I didn't talk about basketball, I would be denying a part of myself probably more fundamental than any other."

And if basketball is one aspect of what is at Bradley's core, that's no more a plus or minus than George Washington's surveying. The intriguing point is that Bradley is bringing up his basketball past after years of giving it the back of his hand. And that has more to do with us than him.

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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