Driven Scholar-Athlete Paid a Price to Meet Demands
Monday, December 13, 1999
Second of six articles
PRINCETON, N.J. -- The Ivy League backdrop for Bill Bradley's renown, and his chapel deacon's deportment off the court, were beguiling images that obscured the intensity of his drive. There was nothing humble or polite about Bradley's will to win.
By his own account and scores of others, he allowed himself scant satisfaction in victory, brooded painfully in defeat and did not scruple much--within, or mostly within, the rules--about finding advantage. Meeting his own expectations, and grappling with still higher ones spawned by success, channeled Bradley into an impossibly demanding role as godly scholar-athlete. Playing it brought accomplishments and acclaim, but it took a toll that Bradley would not understand for years.
Bradley was so far superior to his teammates in freshman basketball that his coach, Eddie Donovan, chose lineups by saying, "You, you, you, you and Bradley." On the four occasions when the team lost a game, roommate and teammate Bill Kingston said, "he would be despondent for a long time." Donovan recalled how Bradley approached him in the front seat after their first loss, as the bus trekked home, complaining that his teammates were " 'all back there laughing and enjoying themselves. We lost the game!' I told him, 'They're trying to forget it.' He just couldn't understand."
Nothing, including friendship, slowed Bradley's charge. Tom Haley, his childhood pal and sidekick, once had a point of pride in his superior tennis game. Bradley went off and drilled until he perfected a booming serve. "All of a sudden I couldn't return him anymore," Haley said, "and I thought, 'Why is he doing this? Why does he have to win at everything?' " When coach Arvel Popp back home in Crystal City, Mo., ordered Bradley into the boxing ring with his good friend, David McFarland, Bradley punched McFarland unconscious. In a pickup game of basketball, he elbowed another friend, John Schwent, so hard that Schwent carried a pea-size knot in his lip for most of the next 20 years. "He was rough, and he liked the roughness," Schwent said.
Bradley looked down on players who lacked "killer instinct," the only weakness he ascribed to his childhood hero, Wilt Chamberlain. He dismissed any accomplishment short of triumph, weeping bitterly when his tiny high school placed second to the state's largest basketball factory in the 1961 Missouri championship. When in his junior year Princeton was one of the final 16 teams in the NCAA tournament, a distinction beyond sensible ambition in the Ivy League, teammate Rick Wright said, "I was just happy to be there. It was pretty amazing. He just wanted to do better."
Always, he channeled anger into strength. In the next year's Eastern finals, he watched in quiet outrage as top-ranked Providence defeated rival St. Joseph's in the next-to-last round--and proceeded to cut down the nets in the traditional championship celebration. "It was declaring victory in the Eastern regional before we even played the game!" said Bradley's teammate, Gary Walters. Then Providence player Dexter Westbrook was quoted as saying, "Bradley is overrated." The next day, March 13, 1965, Princeton trampled Providence, 109-69. Bradley's 41 points exceeded the margin of victory by one.
Princeton made it to the NCAA semifinals that year. Bradley set an all-time record for points in a tournament game--surpassing Oscar Robertson's 56 by a bucket--and was named most valuable player. But Princeton lost to Michigan, finishing third. When the team returned to campus on March 22, Bradley was crestfallen. He climbed atop the team bus to reproach a cheering crowd. "Last Sunday we all stood up on this same bus and did some pretty big talking," Bradley said, according to the next day's Daily Princetonian. "We didn't produce."
In pursuit of the winning edge, Bradley enjoyed infuriating opponents for tactical effect. Schwent, a high school teammate, recalled Bradley's habit of yanking the hair on opposing players' legs. "They'd get so mad, and he'd laugh," he said. The laugh, in turn, would provoke a foul.
Bradley also devised a humiliating trick play with his friend Haley, whose job as guard included tossing the in-bound pass. "The ref would give me the ball, so the [rules say the] ball's in play," Haley said. "Then he'd say, 'Wait, Tom, let me bring in the ball,' and he'd start walking toward me. They'd back off him, and he'd get two free points. One team we pulled that on twice."
In summer pickup games with rookies from the National Basketball Association's St. Louis Hawks, Bradley learned pro moves forbidden under collegiate rules--and taught himself how to pull them when referees weren't looking. An admiring teammate, Al Kaemmerlen, said Bradley used his empty hand for leverage to spin around a defender while driving the ball, "which they absolutely didn't allow in college." University of Pennsylvania coach Jack McCloskey complained to the Philadelphia Inquirer in 1965 that Bradley regularly got away with stepping under a defender after faking him into a jump, drawing a two-shot foul. "Looking at the films, it's almost ridiculous," McCloskey said. "It should be an offensive foul."
In the pros, New York magazine described how the swifter Houston Rocket (and Baltimore Bullet) Jack Marin spent every game against the Knicks "trying to escape Bradley's vise-like hold on his shorts." In an interview 26 years later, Marin had yet to forgive Bradley entirely: "He was one of the dirtiest players I ever played against. He held and pushed and tugged. It was irritating."