A Private Journey Comes Full Circle
Tuesday, December 14, 1999
Third of six articles
Five days after his graduation from Princeton, on June 19, 1965, Crystal City, Mo., declared Bill Bradley Day. Thirty-eight vehicles, among them a white flowered float, a marching band, Gov. Warren E. Hearnes in his limousine, and most of the fire trucks from Festus to Herculaneum, paraded down Eighth Avenue behind a red-and-white banner commanding, "SALUTE BILL BRADLEY."
Old home movies of the event, preserved by Bradley's scoutmaster, Red Bryant, show Bradley waving awkwardly to the crowds from an open coupe. That night, over roast beef and apple pie at a banquet held on the old high school gymnasium floor, the Chamber of Commerce presented him a set of matched luggage for his trip to the University of Oxford, where he would be a Rhodes scholar.
The journey turned out differently than his sponsors supposed. The British cared no more about Bradley's fame than most Americans did a cricket star's. Delighted, Bradley found an anonymity he had not experienced since grade school. He used it to experiment, raising fundamental questions about his life. Bradley lived out a postponed teenage rebellion and reconsidered every aspect of his headlong race toward accomplishment. When the two-year idyll ended, most of Bradley's goals were intact--but not all of them.
A few days after Bradley's arrival in Oxford, Bill Kingston wrote his old roommate with exactly the right question. "I shall be most interested in hearing all about . . . your response to the more normal environment," Kingston asked in the Oct. 25, 1965, letter. "I hope that you have been able to find the latter."
Had he ever. Bradley shed his celebrity before he even reached England's shore. Aboard the Queen Mary for the Atlantic passage, he shared a cabin with Jack Horton, a swashbuckling older Rhodes who had flown intelligence missions for the Air Force. Informed that the British press awaited the American sporting star at Southampton, Bradley winced. Horton offered to shake them.
"Jack put on a Sherlock Holmes hat and a pipe, picked up a violin case" and tucked a Bible and a volume of Shakespeare under his arm, according to Bart Holaday, who watched with stifled hilarity along with the rest of the arriving Americans. Horton then strode ashore and declared himself to be Bill Bradley in the flesh. "He had a lacrosse stick," Holaday said, "and he explained to the press that it was his basketball stick. He said you came down the court and rolled the ball down the stick and then up into the basket."
In the England of the mid-1960s, most reporters--like most Oxford students--could not have picked a basketball out of a lineup. "Nobody knew a thing about the American sport," said Richard Smethurst, then Bradley's tutor at Worcester College and now its provost. "We knew he was famous, but we had no idea what it all meant."
Bradley got away clean. Next time a reporter paid a call, knocking on his dormitory door, he stepped out his ground-floor window into a fountained garden and disappeared.
Oxford was another world. Ducks and geese roamed the college lawns, and Bradley had no schedule to be slave to. On some mornings, Eduardo Garcia--Bradley's manservant in college, a role Oxford calls a "scout"--would even find the habitual early riser asleep when he came to nudge him with the announcement, "Good morning, sir, it's 8 o'clock!"
Bradley found himself departing in other ways from the timetable he had drawn up for his career. In the high school yearbooks of friends he admired, the highest praise he bestowed was to forecast, as he did to classmate Janet Biehle, that "you'll succeed because you have that one intangible quality which many people lack--desire." Bradley still had plenty of desire, but he found himself uncertain of its object.