Following Rules, Finding Advantage
Tuesday, November 2, 1999
In a gentleman's single room at Oxford, amid the fountained gardens where Lewis Carroll set his fictional Wonderland, Bill Bradley sat down at a battered manual typewriter and composed his thoughts on war.
It was Oct. 18, 1966, the start of Bradley's second and final year as a Rhodes scholar. Writing to a mentor, the Princeton historian Arthur Link, the 23-year-old tapped out a letter full of strikeovers and scratches about the large decisions ahead.
"As with most people my age the draft is a constant possibility," Bradley wrote to Link. "My board has told me that another deferment after Oxford would be difficult. I have talked with several people in the military and have found that there is the chance that I could spend my two years teaching history at West Point. The questions I have are: Do you think that this assignment would be valuable enough to warrant two years? Do you think that I am capable of it? If deferment is possible, do you think that I should go on to law school instead of teaching and taking care of the obligation with finality?"
Bradley contemplated elective politics one day, a fact well-known to Link, his undergraduate thesis supervisor, and left unspoken in their written exchange. But at that moment Bradley had more immediate choices, all of which had to take account of Vietnam's growing appetite for conscripts. In the next several months, he would navigate the moral and practical dilemma of his generation.
Every major candidate for president this year came of age in the Vietnam War. Some, including Vice President Gore and Republican contender Sen. John McCain, have called attention to their encounters with the conflict. Others, including Bradley, have not. A close look at Bradley's choices then displays characteristics that recurred often in his public life: foresight, circumspection and skill at finding advantage while adhering strictly to the rules.
By April 1967 Bradley had signed a New York Knickerbocker contract that stood briefly as the richest in professional basketball. And though he did not turn against the war until much later, he enlisted for an Air Force Reserve job that kept him away from the fight.
Bradley learned from knowledgeable insiders how to secure a reserve commission without prior military service. It was a lawful option, available to roughly 1 in 1,000 potential conscripts, according to data drawn from Gerald T. Cantwell's 1994 history of the Air Force Reserve.
There is no sign that Bradley sought or accepted the special influence that enabled other professional athletes of his day to bypass waiting lists for scarce reserve positions. His chief benefactor was the director of Princeton's Air Force ROTC program, Maj. Stanley Adelson, a mid-grade officer with no great status but intimate knowledge of military rules. The edge he gave to Bradley was information.
Bradley found military duty that could be performed--after five months of initial full-time service--in eight-hour weekend shifts, within commuting distance of home games at Madison Square Garden. After joining the Knicks at midseason in December 1967, he never missed a game because of the Air Force. More than once he played a Friday night game in Chicago or St. Louis and flew and drove all night to make his Saturday morning obligation at McGuire Air Force Base in New Jersey. At least 15 times he rescheduled his reserve duty to accommodate out-of-town games. He made up for every absence and won good to excellent performance reports from superiors.
"I ultimately decided that, yes, I did have an obligation to serve, and the question wasn't whether, the question was how," Bradley said Sunday in the second of two interviews on his military record. " . . . I was trying to organize my life so that I fulfilled my responsibility and was able to make a commitment to play professional basketball."
Bradley provided The Washington Post his unexpurgated Air Force personnel file after portions of it were obtained under the Freedom of Information Act and other details emerged from correspondence of the period. The picture that emerges from the record, and from interviews with teammates and fellow reservists, is of a highly regarded yet unambitious officer, valued for his brains and discipline but advancing just one grade, to first lieutenant, in an 11-year Air Force career.
'Citizen of the World'