In his pro basketball debut, Bill Bradley was cautious at first. Then he demonstrated the way he can take command
December 18, 1967

For his professional debut with the New York Knickerbockers last Saturday, Bill Bradley stole into town on a bus from McGuire Air Force Base in New Jersey, where he had been doing his weekend reserve duty. It was 6:30 in the evening when he arrived at the Port Authority Terminal in Manhattan, and he was planning to see a man about subleasing an apartment on the East Side at 7. The cab driver warned Bradley that he had just come crosstown through the heavy traffic and it had taken half an hour. Bradley accepted the counsel, decided to skip his appointment about the sublease and took the cab straight up Eighth Avenue to the old Garden.

There, in the Knicks' locker room—which is unadorned except for various large wires strung about, unconnected, and SMOKING PROHIBITED signs that are generally disregarded—Bradley was the first to arrive. Since visitors were barred, he was alone when he started to dress. As he hung up his second lieutenant's uniform, his teammates began to come in. Walter Bellamy, the huge center, kidded him briefly about packing the Garden. Bellamy had joked the same easy way with Cazzie Russell on the night he broke in last year. Little else was said, but outside, in the gloomy Garden corridors and in the smoky old arena itself, a full house of fans and press was beginning to metamorphose into a curious, chaotic mob. Many were on hand only because it was Bradley's opening night.

There have been few scenes like it—none for a Princeton man, certainly, since Hobey Baker played his first post-collegiate hockey game for the St. Nick's club against the Irish-American Athletic Association back in 1915. And none for a new civilian since Elvis Presley returned from a tank in Germany one snowy morning in 1960 and the jam of journalists demanded to know all about his sideburns and could he get it back?

Could he get it back? That was all they wanted to know this time, too, asking it over and over until, the day before, Bradley had even found a certain contentment in that most annoying of Manhattan exercises—trooping the streets to find a place to live. "Pressure?" he said and smiled. "That's what they all want to know." He was polite (or understanding) enough not to follow with the obvious, that in situations like these it is often the questioners themselves who generate the pressure they keep inquiring about.

Indeed, it almost seemed that those who had tracked him since his release from the Air Force last week were less appreciative of Bradley's situation than were the 18,499 who filled every seat in the Garden. Many had seen Bradley play before; they were familiar with his ability and understood the difficult circumstances. He had, after all, been away from top competition for almost three years—first as a Rhodes scholar, then as an officer cadet. He was, naturally, in less than the best shape. He had practiced with the Knicks only once, two days before, and the long session had left him winded and with his legs tight, the muscles in his thighs complaining from the unfamiliar squatting required for defensive position. He also had little knowledge of the opposition he faced, the Detroit Pistons. Finally, he was a rookie breaking in under a stunning hail of ballyhoo.

The crowd was festive and probably more understanding than those that will greet Bradley in many other cities. Whatever the motivation, his appearance will fill every arena he plays and make a lot of money for people besides himself. Without Bradley, Detroit probably would have drawn a Garden crowd of about 10,000. Bradley thus attracted about 8,500 fans, who spent something over $40,000 at the gate and the concession stands. In just one night the Knicks recovered almost 10% of Bradley's four-year $500,000 contract.

As respectful as it was joyous, the throng rose as one as soon as Bradley, tight-lipped and without expression, entered the court. The fans applauded his every practice layup, and even oohed when he missed, so that several of the players could not keep from laughing. His official introduction brought greater volume and a wave of photographers scurrying for vantage points, like woodland creatures suddenly flushed from the underbrush. They had to be shooed from the court so that the game (a game, too?) could commence. Bradley sat on the bench between Butch Komives and Dick Van Arsdale, still mostly expressionless but occasionally asking them questions about the Piston players. Before two minutes were gone, a "We want Bradley" chant arose, but the Knicks' starting team had taken the lead, and it was not until the second quarter that Coach Dick McGuire called for his new man. No. 24 unzippered his sweat suit and the raucous cheers and stomping began. This was burlesque. When he touched the ball for the first time, the audience made the kind of sound usually forthcoming only when a baby is displayed on TV.

Bradley played for seven minutes. He made one short jumper on a fast break and committed two fouls and a couple of floor mistakes. He was not impressive, but neither could he be singled out for any special blame as the Knicks dissipated a 17-point lead. He failed, however, to assert himself. In fact, he was timid on offense and did not appear even to look for shots. (Afterward, however, he just raised a quizzical eyebrow when it was suggested that he may have been made too self-conscious by the whole cloying scene.) In any event, he was a different player when he re-entered the game late in the third quarter. Then, with the Knicks down 88-87, he dribbled the ball downcourt, slowed, then suddenly began a burst past Eddie Miles. It was his first forthright offensive move, and he had hardly taken the first attacking step when the crowd began a rolling, gasping cheer that was altogether different from its previous roars. This cheer was for Bradley the pro, and for things now and to come. The others had been in appreciation of Bradley, the honored legend and things done. Miles fouled him so he missed the shot, but he sank the two fouls and put his team ahead.

Thereafter Bradley was in command, calling plays, directing his teammates, controlling the ball, playing a scrappy and competent defense. "He moved the ball as well as I've ever seen anybody on the Knicks," said Dave Bing, the league's leading scorer. Bing knows Bradley well. They played against each other in college and for long hours with each other one summer in Washington a few years ago. "I'm glad to see him back," Bing added. "He still looks great to me."

It was Bing who led the Pistons to victory, 124-121. Bradley finished with eight points, five rebounds and two assists. Several of his best passes were dropped, and he threw others away. He also missed four of six free throws—something that almost never happened at Princeton—and was called twice for palming the ball. The potential was obvious, though, and some of the errors could be traced directly to his unfamiliarity with his teammates—and, for that matter, with basketball.

The performance was about what might be expected under the circumstances, and such a mixture of good and bad probably will continue for a while. Piston Terry Dischinger, just back after two years in the Army, cited his own battle with inconsistency as a major problem of returning to form.

But then, by comparison with what he must endure off the court for being the first $500,000 rookie and a legend as well, the whirling crush of the NBA may seem a peaceful respite to Bradley before too long.

PHOTOAs scoreboard shows Knicks behind, Bradley is fouled on drive. He hit two, put team ahead. PHOTOEngulfed after game, Bradley wearily deals with the press before TV and radio interviews.