Bill Bradley used to hate talking about his
basketball days. As an earnest young senator who wanted to be taken
seriously, Bradley avoided the subject the way some NBA players have kept mum on the illegitimate children they have scattered throughout the land.
For Bradley's presidential run, however, his basketball past has
served as a cornerstone of his bio -- an effective
fund-raising device and a way to add some flash to an otherwise humorless and even gloomy mien.
Sunday afternoon at Madison Square Garden, Bradley and his campaign pulled out all the stops for his "Hoopla! Bill Bradley back
in the Garden" event. Roughly 7,500 people
paid anywhere from $50 to $1,000 a seat to attend, raking in somewhere near $1.5 million for the campaign. The event featured former basketball
greats -- including six of Bradley's fellow 1973 world champion New York Knicks -- as well as celebrities from the worlds of women's athletics and modern cinema.
Among the celebrities who turned out for Hoopla! were former Knicks Willis Reed, Jerry "Mr. Memory" Lucas, Dave DeBusschere, Earl "the Pearl" Monroe, Dick Barnett and Walt "Clyde" Frazier; other NBA superstars like Julius "Dr. J." Erving, Moses Malone, Bob Cousy, Oscar "the Big O" Robertson, Dolph Schayes and John Havlicek; the WNBA's Rebecca
Lobo and Ann Meyers-Drysdale; and celebrities like Spike Lee, Harvey Keitel, John McEnroe and Ethan Hawke.
"Why are you endorsing Bill Bradley?" I asked Spike Lee.
"Some people might assume that it's because he played for the only two world championship Knicks teams, but that's not the case," said Lee, whose courtside antics on behalf of the Knicks are as overwrought and clichid as many of his films.
"I've always liked Bill Bradley, and we're not talking on the court. As a senator from New Jersey, things he's tried to do, and what he's voted for, and what he hasn't voted for, as this country heads into the next century, [these make him] the best candidate."
"What are the things he's saying that appeal to you?" I asked.
"I think he understands that diversity is one of the things that this country has to deal with," Lee said. "The complexion of this country is changing every day. And, you know, some people want to cling and hold on to how it was back in the day, but you know, we're not going back that way. I think he understands that."
"What issues does he talk about that you like?" I asked.
"Education," Lee said. "Health care -- just tremendous. You know, I'm going to vote for him."
Next, I caught up with Ethan Hawke, who, it turns out, isn't even necessarily going to vote for Bradley.
"I'm mostly interested in finding out more about him," said the actor. "I'm from New Jersey, so I probably have a greater awareness than some. He was our senator for a long time. I was always a big fan, and as a Knicks fan, I'm happy to be at the Garden."
"Right," I said. "But are you supporting him or are you just interested in finding out more about him?"
"You know," Hawke said, "I'm interested in getting educated about the whole thing."
The hoops stars were being lined up around us like redwoods: Bill Walton, Malone, Lucas, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar.
"I don't think I've ever felt shorter in my whole life," I said.
"And you're taller than me, so how do you think I feel?" joked actor Keitel.
Next, I grabbed Lucas, who became famous after quitting basketball for promoting a better-memory-through-mnemonics plan. On TV that morning, Lucas had said that he and Bradley had "secret signals" that they transmitted to one another.
"Bill's a man of leadership, a man I've known my entire life," Lucas told me, "and one of the things I said this morning is that Bill's always been a 'HIT.' That H-I-T has been important in my life and his life, because to me that stands for Honesty, Integrity and Trust."
"I heard you talk about some of the cues you would give him, the shorthand," I said. "Can you give us an example of that?"
"Well, we did some unique things with verbal communication, and I taught him some of my learning systems and what they meant," Lucas said, "and actually he and I were the only ones on our team that knew them. He would say a verbal cue and then I knew what he was going to do, which direction he was going to go ... we knew what he was going to do and then I could take advantage."
Just as I was getting to the bottom of all this,
another reporter started harassing Lee about the time he called for the execution of National Rifle Association chieftain Charlton Heston; Lee reportedly called security on us and we were all ejected back into the stands.
After the celebs were all introduced and applauded, the individual testimonials began. The most well-received was that of former Boston Celtic Bill Russell, who recalled giving Bradley a little shit the first time they met, after Bradley had just returned from his Rhodes Scholarship at Oxford. "Tell me about the personal life history of Cecil Rhodes," Russell had asked him.
Bradley handled the question well, Russell said. As a longtime opponent of Bradley on the court, Russell said he came to know him well and eventually befriended him -- coming to the conclusion that Bradley was "one of the most honest people I've ever met." Bradley knows that "telling the truth to the American people is the right thing, no matter how difficult the subject," Russell said.
For former Cincinnati Royal Robertson, supporting Bradley was all about empowerment. "It seems like we always have a leader picked for us," he said. "Now we can do the picking, for Bill Bradley."
The plaudits continued in this vein, whether seen through the sports-psychobabble of "teamwork" (discussed in a round table featuring Meyers-Drysdale, McEnroe, Abdul-Jabbar and Erving) or by cagers with names like "the Big E," "the Big O" and "the Big D."
Bradley was tenacious, testified Havlicek, who claimed that Bradley had hand-checked him so often that he still has Bradley's palm-print on his ass. Dick Barnett said he was compelled by the fact that "one of Bradley's main campaign themes ... is the matter of racial priority."
Then someone had the bright idea to hand the microphone over to Walton. Walton's always been something of a controversial figure: A fiery anti-war activist arrested when he was at UCLA and questioned by the FBI during the whole Patty Hearst/Symbionese Liberation Army brouhaha, Walton says that UCLA coach John Wooden and Jerry Garcia are the two greatest influences of his life. He was sued by the Los Angeles Clippers in 1989 for (wink, wink) "engag[ing] in certain activities detrimental to his health."
Walton, an unrepentant lefty, talked up Bradley's policies on education, "the reduction and hopeful elimination of poverty," race relations and abortion. He decried the Reagan and Bush years, and called the presence of Clarence Thomas on the Supreme Court a "sad joke."
"Why do you guys give Walton the mike?" I asked Bradley press secretary Tony Wyche.
"For guys like you," he said.
As a treat for the kiddies, as well as shameless adult fans, a relay race was set up in which competitors from the audience could run the length of the court, weaving in and out of rubber bumpers, and take a lay-up.
It was boring and brutal and enough already. Suck's Anuff, groaning next to me, seemed to agree.
"What do you think?" I asked him.
"Bradley 1, crowd 0," he said.
Better events followed. For Knicks enthusiasts, the players recreated the May 8, 1970, NBA world championship seventh game -- where, as folklore has it, team captain Reed, hobbling from a knee injury from a few nights before, inspired his teammates with a brief surprise appearance in the game. The actual radio play-by-play reverberated throughout the Garden, directing Barnett as he in-bounded the ball to Frazier, who passed to Monroe, who passed to DeBusschere, who passed to Bradley, who dished it to Reed, who made the lay-up. It was cool.
After a biographical video featuring footage of Bradley as a promising high school basketballer, a Princeton Tiger, a Knick and a 1978 Senate candidate, the man himself came to the floor, where he gave his stump speech. After the two hours of praise, re-creation and mythos, even a Reagan/Jack Kennedy perfect-candidate amalgam would have had trouble meeting expectations. But, as we all know, Bradley is no such amalgam. He was sincere, and smart, and totally flat.
"This poet that I like once wrote, 'Tragedy is not to die,'" Bradley said. "'The tragedy is to die with commitments not defined, with convictions unexpressed and with service unfulfilled.' I have spent a lifetime defining my commitments and expressing my convictions.
"And if the American people so will it," he concluded, "I will be able to fulfill my service."
The most exciting part of Bradley's speech came when a man dressed as a chicken was somehow able to make his way onto the floor at the same moment Bradley came out to deliver his speech. The chicken-man was quickly whisked off and arrested, though his point of protest was unclear. Animal rights? A Gore dirty trickster hammering Bradley for not debating once a week? No one knew.
Different groups of celebrities were shuttled in and out of a press room after the event. The raccoon-eyed Barnett said he was a big backer of Clinton. Meyers-Drysdale said that she supported Bradley even though she's a Republican. Video cameras whirred; still photographers click-click-clicked.
"I don't think anybody will vote for anybody because any of us say you ought to vote for Bill Bradley," DeBusschere said. "But if we can help him draw people that normally wouldn't go to a political event just to hear his thoughts where he stands for our issues, [that] is a great help for Bill."
Is Bradley really deserving of all the adulation?
"I guess we'll all find out," said Cousy.