A few went one-on-one with him. Some gawked from the bleachers, but most just watched their screens in wonder. Now, the generation of players and fans that grew up idolizing Bill Bradley can finally join his team.
They're writing checks to his presidential campaign.
Bradley, eager to develop a reputation as a statesman when he first went to the Senate, minimized talk of his hardwood triumphs and at one point even banned hoops references from his commercials.
Now, elbowing Vice President Gore for the Democratic nomination, Bradley is aggressively milking his sports luster. He has assembled a team of 50 former sports champions--football and tennis stars along with basketball greats--who have headlined dozens of fund-raising receptions from California to the Hamptons to New Hampshire.
Dave "Big D" DeBusschere, Bradley's roommate for New York Knicks road games and now a commercial real estate broker in Manhattan, plays host to a Bradley fund-raiser every week, from breakfast on Wall Street to receptions at Mickey Mantle's sports bar.
Phil Jackson, a former Knicks teammate who now coaches the Los Angeles Lakers, is a regular draw on the Bradley money trail and even entertained an offer to chair Bradley's Iowa campaign. Washington Wizards owner Abe Pollin raised $500,000 at a brunch at his Virginia estate and continues to help him work the capital.
"It's a different kind of fund-raising," said Bradley finance director Rick Wright, a Princeton teammate. "Everyone wants to see the athletes, or tell you a story about themselves with Bill. We don't spend a lot of time talking about his positions on things."
The jock money machine will peak on Sunday afternoon as Bradley returns to Madison Square Garden for a "Champions and Legends" extravaganza expected to draw 5,000 people. The event could raise more than $2 million--potentially the biggest presidential fund-raiser ever.
Sunday's program reads like a Hall of Fame induction ceremony: Kareem, Walt, Julius, Isiah, Moses. Befitting the roster, donations were accepted through Ticketmaster. The invitation says sneakers are recommended, and required for courtside seats and the VIP reception.
The hoop stars are even blanketing the normally staid talk-show circuit on Bradley's behalf this Sunday. Julius Erving, Oscar Robertson and DeBusschere on "Face the Nation." Bill Russell and Jerry Lucas on "Meet the Press." Willis Reed, Earl Monroe and Phil Jackson chatting up Sam Donaldson and Cokie Roberts on "This Week."
Bradley's soon-to-be aired television commercials feature a sporty tag line--"It can happen"--reminiscent of Nike's "Just Do It." And as Bradley seeks to become the first former professional athlete in the Oval Office, a new button has showed up on the campaign trail: "Another Celtic Fan for Bradley."
Bradley has raised more than $19 million for his presidential campaign, depending in large measure on Wall Street and Silicon Valley. But Bradley's sports ties have served him well--bringing in cash from sports figures and, more important, attracting some donors who do not normally participate in the sport of politics.
An analysis by the Center for Responsive Politics shows that Bradley has raised at least $70,000 from sports figures, including Michael Jordan and his wife, Juanita, who each contributed $1,000. Even a few sports journalists have given to the campaign, including Peter Vecsey, NBA columnist for the New York Post, who is listed in Federal Election Commission records as a $1,000 donor.
Ready cash is just one way that basketball has become central to Bradley's campaign. With his impeccable "guy" credentials, Bradley is polling better among men than women, despite the fact that he is running to the left of Gore. Pollsters are calling the phenomenon of Bradley's apparently greater appeal to men--atypical for a Democrat--a reverse gender gap.
"They all want to be like Bill," said Doug Schwartz, director of the Quinnipiac College Poll, who has begun including a "Knicks awareness" question on his New Hampshire polls.
Indeed, some of those turning up for Bradley are not even in his party. At DeBusschere's events, he said, "sometimes 80 percent of them are Republicans."
Bradley, now 56, still makes grown men dreamy. The roots of his spell can be found in the microfilm of three decades gone by. John McPhee's famous 30-page profile of Bradley in the New Yorker was only the most enduring of the hagiography lavished on the self-effacing scholar athlete who, it was often noted, called his elders "Sir" or "Mister."
Life magazine declared that Bradley lent "an aura of knightliness" to the court. In Sports Illustrated, where the bouquets to Bradley appeared nearly as regularly as the swimsuit issue does now, he was "Satin Shorts," and had "no more use for beer or wine than for some other four-letter words."
Now, the men who read those magazines during study hall are showing up at Bradley fund-raisers to glimpse the magic. Andrew M. Lubetkin, 47, a management consultant in Winnetka, Ill., chipped in with the maximum legal contribution--$1,000--the most he's ever given to a politician.
Like most Bradley donors, he has a story about himself and the candidate, even if they have never met. Lubetkin never got past freshman basketball, and instead had to settle for writing the "Athletes' Feat" column for his high school paper. But he watched Bradley play for the New York Knicks on television, and remembers seeing him as "a role model for millions--someone who was there to win, but not at all cost."
Bradley first ran for Senate from New Jersey in 1978, the year after he left the Knicks, and he has written that he was surprised he received more donations from NBA friends than Princeton alumni.
After initially trying to divorce himself from basketball, Bradley became more comfortable with his sports image after he became known for his expertise on taxes and other issues. By 1990--his last campaign--he ran a commercial that showed him swishing a 15-foot set shot for a group of schoolchildren.
Now, nearly every campaign stop includes an encounter with a fan like Stephen S. Leopold, 47, who remembered admiring Bradley when he won his Rhodes scholarship, and took his twin 11-year-olds, Alex and Arthur, to see Bradley tour a hardware store in Laconia, N.H. On the way, they stopped at Wal-Mart and bought a basketball, which Bradley cheerfully autographed.
And his former NBA colleagues are out in force on Bradley's behalf. Earlier this week, Dave Bing, who played against Bradley as a guard for the Detroit Pistons, had 225 donors over to his place in Franklin, Mich., for open bar, chicken fingers and a chance to give Dollar Bill a few more.
Bing, 56, said athletes--even former opponents--are eager to help Bradley in part because he did so much for the image of the sports world. "He speaks volumes that all athletes aren't stupid," he said.
Bob "The Cooz" Cousy, the Boston Celtic great who still refers to Bradley's team as "the hated Knicks," said he was endorsing a politician for the first time in 30 years. "A basketball player is just what this nation needs to straighten us out--a basketball player who was a Rhodes scholar," Cousy, 71, said with a laugh.
Fund-raisers for Bradley wind up being so entertaining that they provide fodder for his speeches on the campaign trail. Last summer, the campaign staged "Hoopla," a Chicago extravaganza that allowed donors who had given at least $250 to shoot against National Basketball Association stars.
Bradley recently told a reception in Manchester, N.H., that John "Hondo" Havlicek, the former Celtics forward and guard, now 59, was shooting around with a contributor 25 years his junior.
"Havlicek says, 'Sir,' " Bradley recalled, dragging out the "Sir" for comic effect. " 'On this shot, you go up on one foot, you turn your head to the side, you shoot it with one hand, and it must swish.' And he shoots and it goes 'swish.' And the guy says, 'Here's the $250.' "
Bradley's audience, which had paid a mere $25 to hear the story, whooped and applauded. Last week, Havlicek was named one of Bradley's Massachusetts committee leaders.
Staff writer Howard Kurtz contributed to this report.
The brochure for presidential candidate Bill Bradley's fund-raising event at Madison Square Garden lists many NBA greats who will be there in support of the campaign.
NBA greats scheduled for the event