They came for Bill Bradley: 19 NBA Hall-of-Famers, all but one on the league's 50 Greatest Players list. Not a scrub to be found anywhere, no bums in the bunch.
Bradley assembled this group of legends--he phoned most of them personally--in the most storied arena in the nation and called it a fund-raiser. But there were no nice cuts of veal or string quartets awaiting donors at Madison Square Garden. Instead, there were stories and testimonials and video clips reliving the past. It was the ultimate fusion of sports and politics by a former New York Knicks star who hopes to be the next president.
It was ironic that a man who stopped watching basketball, who wouldn't do sports interviews, who wouldn't even play a pickup game after his career ended in 1977, would be the instigator of such an occasion.
"It brings tears to my eyes," said Dick Barnett, who played on the Knicks championship teams with Bradley.
"These were my childhood heroes that I grew up with," said Israel Jacobowitz, a heart surgeon who managed to get some of the legends to sign a basketball he brought. "It was great, just great."
Dubbed "Bill Bradley Back in the Garden," the event drew a crowd of 7,500 and raised more than $1.5 million, campaign officials said. Donors paid from $50 (college students) to $1,000 to take a fantasy trip into basketball's past.
And it drew athletes, who by and large are not a willing group when it comes to politics. They are constantly counseled by agents against taking stands that could compromise their marketability.
The leading scorer in NBA history, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, was at the Garden this afternoon. "I have been intentionally apolitical my entire life," he said, "so this is scary for me."
Professional sports leagues, notably Major League Baseball and the NBA, are famous for milking nostalgia. They sponsor "old-timers" games and "legends" classics that tug at Americans' desire to recapture important moments. But no one running for president has ever put together anything quite like this.
The idea for the event began taking shape last winter. Aides say Bradley asked: What can we do that would be grand and different, that would capture the excitement of this important part of my life?
The atmospherics of the game itself was part of the show--the pulsating music, the gymnastic cheerleaders who fire up fans during timeouts and hurl T-shirts into the crowd (in this case, Bill Bradley for President T-shirts).
"None of these stuffy black-tie affairs here," host Robin Roberts of ESPN told the crowd.
At one point, donors were brought out of their seats onto the floor to dribble through an obstacle course and shoot layups.
The scoreboard beamed a flickering electronic image of an American flag with Bill Bradley's name on it, and the score read: Bill 24, Bradley 24. A play on his number as a player.
But aside from all the gimmicks, the event was largely a Sunday conversation. Men sat on stools at center court like grandpas dispensing wisdom from the front porch. "What Bill's campaign is all about," said ex-NBA great Julius Erving, "is bringing back the good ol' days."
"Telling the truth to the American people is always the right thing," said former Boston Celtics star Bill Russell. "In these days of spin control, Bill Bradley is one of the most honest people I've ever met."
One after another, opponents, teammates, observers of his career praised some aspect of Bradley's character and personality.
They called him a fierce competitor. They said he wasn't a trash-talker. They said he was always a team player. They talked about his TV watching habits and his reading habits. And some even wandered into politics.
Not that the afternoon went off without a hitch. A protester in a chicken costume and a heckler dressed in black had to be escorted from the arena as Bradley made his remarks.
But otherwise it was a day of Bradley tributes.
Oscar Robertson, the great playmaker, said that "we are witnessing a changing of the guard" in politics and now that Bradley has begun to surge in the polls he will be tested. He likened it to a tight basketball game in which the clock is winding down. "We've got to answer the test."
Nancy Lieberman-Cline, one of the pioneers of women's basketball, thanked him for fighting for Title IX--a federal law enhancing funding for women's sports in schools--while he was in the Senate.
But no one ventured farther into dicey political terrain than former NBA center Bill Walton. He spoke of the "sad joke that's been played on us--the fact that Clarence Thomas has been placed on the Supreme Court." An NBC analyst who actively protested the Vietnam War as a college player at UCLA, he talked almost as long as Bradley himself.
Bradley took it all in from a seat on the bench at courtside, his long legs crossed, a slight, soft smile creasing his face. His wife, Ernestine, was in the seat next to his.
"The game has meant a great deal in my life," Bradley said. "So on this particular day, I'm glad to have my teammates with me in this biggest game."
Guys with nicknames like "Clyde" and "Pearl" and "Tiny" and the "Houdini of the Hardwood" don't usually do politics. They have never been surrogate campaign speakers. And yet this morning, they were all over the TV airwaves--"Meet the Press," "Face the Nation"--on behalf of Bradley.
Historically, for every Muhammad Ali, who took a stand against the Vietnam War, for every Jackie Robinson, who campaigned for Richard M. Nixon in 1960, there is a Ron Harper, who said of Robert J. Dole's visit to the Chicago Bulls locker room during the 1996 campaign: "I wouldn't know Bob Dole if he hit me upside the head."
Some athletes feel they have never had a reason before.
But would it work ultimately--would the endorsements help get him elected?
"The significance, I would assume, is to try to get Bradley a victory in New York, which is central to his campaign," said Ed Barnes, who was among those who had been given tickets through National Action Network, a civil rights organization run by Al Sharpton. "It's different. It's definitely different."
Vice President Gore's campaign manager, Donna Brazile, said in a telephone interview that while today was a moment of glory for Bradley, Gore is "running a marathon."
"Al Gore doesn't need a one-time show at Madison Square Garden where you get to dribble with old-time greats," she said.
Perhaps the highlight of this afternoon's event--especially for New Yorkers--was the re-creation of the most poignant moment in Knicks history.
It was Game 7 of the 1970 NBA Finals, and the Knicks were uncertain if their gritty center and team captain, Willis Reed, would be able to play. He had collapsed with a torn muscle in the fifth game against the Los Angeles Lakers, missed Game 6 and couldn't even lift his leg.
When the teams took the floor at the Garden, Reed remained in the locker room. He was being injected with painkillers. And as the teams warmed up, Reed made a dramatic, hobbling entrance that fired up the crowd and heartened his teammates. Some maintain to this day that it also psyched out the Lakers.
This afternoon, Reed, now an executive with the New Jersey Nets, put on his old Knicks uniform and hobbled out one more time to the cheers of the Garden fans.
CAPTION: Bill Bradley, right, is joined at Madison Square Garden by former Knicks teammates Dave DeBusschere, top left, and Walt Frazier, bottom left. The event raised $1.5 million for Bradley's campaign.