The question no longer concerns what Bill Bradley (see cover) will be doing at 40. Governor of Missouri? Secretary of State? Maybe even president of the World Bank? Always capricious, such notions fade before sterner problems of the present: Will Bill Bradley make the team—the New York Knickerbocker team, that is? Will he make it in the manner that customarily has been his and that will satisfy the critics at their typewriters in the first row and the experts with their point spreads in the 35th row? Why he has not done so as yet is, indisputably, the major topic of discussion around the National Basketball Association and, possibly, the most furiously debated question in New York since the city's heretofore unbeaten poser of who strikes next was answered by the garbagemen.
This is an article from the March 18, 1968 issue
The other distinguishing aspects of the season are neglected: Dave Bing's scoring, Nate Thurmond's knee, Rick Barry's lawsuits are all secondary to the subject of Bradley and his problems. So St. Louis is doing all that winning with mirrors. Earl Monroe is not really a Pearl but an O. San Diego is sinking so far out of the league that it may have to send the club mail to Tijuana. So what? What is wrong with Bill Bradley?
The question has an unfortunate tone, a certain "when did you stop beating your wife?" ring, and in some respects it is unfair. But despite the presuppositions it reflects and some ample evidence that it might become irrelevant, the question remains. Ten weeks after his extravagant introduction to the harsh reality of pro basketball, Bill Bradley has come to this.
It is Tuesday night, doubleheader night, in New York, and the kids from Hempstead and Huntington, from Brooklyn and the Bronx and from Jersey and Connecticut, too, have come to join the trucker, the tailor and the show-business ticket-taker in the new Madison Square Garden. The silken foxes with eyelashes out to here are down in front, and the cashmere-all-over fat guys with Roi-Tan longs hanging off their lips are there also, and all of them have swelled the gate to 19,500, the largest NBA crowd in history.
For the Knick game Walt Frazier is down with a virus, so Howard Komives is introduced at guard opposite Dick Barnett, and he is booed (Howard Komives is always booed in New York) as Bill Bradley sits on the bench. Without Frazier or Bradley or the other Young Turk, Cazzie Russell, the Knicks play a shoddy first quarter—uninspired and lacking a guide—and they cannot break away from a San Francisco team decimated by injury.
But, with the score tied, Bradley enters the game in the second quarter, and the loudest roar of the night goes up. He gets the ball and is open immediately but, as the crowd urges him to shoot, he gives and goes. The next time Bradley dribbles behind two screens but misses the rim with his shot and, visibly shaken, comes downcourt seconds later and throws the ball away.
A minute afterward the Warriors' Jimmy King goes right by him, following a fake, and sets up an easy score. Now the crowd groans as Bradley drives to the right side and, instead of continuing, passes off. Again the groan as his backward layup off a rebound is blocked. All alone the next time on offense, he shoots and misses once more, and now the crowd is silent.
Shortly, Bradley snaps out of his doldrums with a beautiful blind-side pass to Russell for a basket. Bradley makes two jump shots from 20 feet and feeds Russell again for a fast break (a "keen pass," the scorer calls it). Now he is hot and, becoming more aggressive and imaginative, Bradley makes eight straight New York points just before the half as the Knicks surge to the front.
It is just one quarter, but the scene is a model of the larger drama in which Bill Bradley has become involved since early December. He has mingled periods of indifferent, sometimes incompetent, play with flashes of brilliance. So far the pattern has eluded prediction, but perhaps the anticipation of a pattern was the very injustice the man did not deserve. Perhaps it was inconsistency that should have been accepted as the fate of any rookie in pro basketball. And yet, because it was all too obvious that Bill Bradley was not just another rookie, immediate, uninterrupted success was the firm expectation, and inconsistency was to be considered a form of failure. Bradley has been forced to learn and grow into the game in an atmosphere of fantasy, deprived even of the ghost of a chance of attaining the goals desired for him this season.
After being away from strenuous conditioning and difficult competition for more than two years while he studied at Oxford, Bradley joined the Knickerbockers three hours out of his Air Force uniform on December 9. He played in 10 games through the Christmas holidays. The most notable was his second, in which he scored 23 points against St. Louis but blew the game when he took an inexcusable shot with 15 seconds left and the Knicks ahead by two points. Then he was struck by a car driven by the now-famous Girl in the MG on a rainy New York street corner on December 28. He suffered cuts and bruises on his left wrist, left ankle and right hip and would have been hurt more seriously if he had not been able to leap over the fender of the sports car just before impact. By the time Bradley returned to action he had missed six games, and the Knicks had replaced Head Coach Dick McGuire with their chief scout, Red Holzman.
After the accident Bradley played sparingly at first, but had a couple of good scoring games. Then he went into decline, a string of eight games in which he played very poorly and lost much of whatever confidence he had been gaining. The period included two low points: his professional debut in his home-town area of St. Louis, where he scored just two points, and five nights later in Cincinnati, a game in which he did not play at all.
Since that time he has enjoyed increasingly more playing time and has had varying degrees of success in a New York drive that has landed the Knicks in third place, with a playoff spot virtually assured them for the first time in nine years. Several factors, however, have combined to make Bradley's performance to date unsatisfactory to a public and press intolerant of mortal deficiencies.
There is no question that Bradley was rushed along too quickly by McGuire, who was under the immense strain of a losing streak and severe pressure to play his new arrival for a good part of every game. Under McGuire, Bradley averaged 29 minutes of playing time; Holzman has used him an average of 16 minutes.
Despite his long absence from the game and unfamiliarity with the caliber of opponent he has had to face so quickly, Bradley, from the beginning, has done two things very well: shoot and pass. Left alone with an open shot, he is the best shooter from any angle on the New York team, though several of the Knicks are better in heavy traffic. Only Frazier approaches him in passing skill and ability to hit the open man. There are also two very weak aspects of Bradley's game. One is moving without the ball, which is understandable because he has not had to do that since college (and, even then, not to the extent that he must learn to do it now). The second includes all the phases of defense. Bradley all too often gets "lighted up" by small, quick guards who take advantage of his inexperience. His mastery of the other elements of the game falls somewhere in between his shooting and passing highs and his defensive lows. Rebounding, ball-handling control speed, strength and jumping are all relative to the quality of the competition. However, in that area of performance that does not lend itself to tallying by point or percentage yet is crucial to team success—intelligent leadership and direction—Bradley is superb. He may never be able to control a game offensively as does Oscar Robertson, or defensively in the manner of Bill Russell, but in time he will control his team in a way that will make New York a vital force for years to come.
One of the toughest obstacles that Bradley has had to contend with is, of course, his size. At 6'5" he is an in-between player—too big for the back-court and too small for the corner. This would be cause enough for an alibi so far as scoring heroics go. The men who have made the biggest splashes as NBA rookies—Wilt Chamberlain, Bill Russell, Rick Barry, Dave Bing and, this year, Earl Monroe—were all playing their natural positions on teams whose members were willing to subjugate their own talents to the skills of the new star. Only two in-betweeners in the history of the NBA have scored heavily in their rookie years, Oscar Robertson and Elgin Baylor. Undoubtedly they are, by any standards, the best at their positions that the game has ever known. Robertson is a guard and Baylor a forward, and both men had the good fortune to come into the league with weak teams that had finished last the previous year and lacked the big scorer at their particular position.
Bradley, on the other hand, has come onto a New York team so loaded with scoring talent everywhere that hesitant, uncertain deployment of the overkill probably cost McGuire his job. The Knicks truly may be the only team in the league that will be helped, rather than hurt, by expansion. Bradley also has played exclusively in the backcourt, where he has had to break into a lineup, and share playing time, with three good veterans and another high-priced rookie, Frazier. This has led some observers to lean on circumstance as a primary factor in his slow development.
"Bradley is with the wrong team to become a superstar," says Detroit's Dave DeBusschere. "There's too much pressure in New York and too much personnel. When they get the heat off him—like they finally got the heat off Cazzie—he'll settle down and be consistent. But the Knicks press too much for a guy like Bradley to be a real force in the backcourt."
Red Auerbach says Bradley may be playing the wrong position. "The Knicks couldn't afford to experiment with him too much because they had to win and make the playoffs, but if I had him I'd want to look at him for a while as a forward," says Auerbach. "I'm sure they've thought about it even though they can't bear the luxury of trying him there."
Fred Schaus, general manager of the Los Angeles Lakers, is another who feels this way. "It is so much more difficult for a guard to break into the NBA than for a forward," says Schaus. "A corner man has the baseline to go to, or the big man can help him out. But more is asked of a guard defensively, there's more area to maneuver in and he can get undressed pretty easily. Plus he's got to run the ball club offensively. It may be that Bradley eventually will be playing the corner a great deal."
In recent years rookies of Bradley's size and ability have been made into what the NBA calls "bastard" forwards. Boston's John Havlicek was the first, though he was no offensive star. He made it big right away on his defense, because the Celtics had the shooters to carry him. Havlicek was followed by, among others, Joe Caldwell, Billy Cunningham, the Van Arsdale twins and Cazzie Russell, all of whom can swing between guard and forward but have proved to be more effective in the forecourt, where they can use their quickness and speed to get around bigger but slower defenders. Russell, in fact, was considered something of a bust when he played guard as a rookie last year. This season he has been outstanding as a forward.
But none of these men had big scoring years as rookies. Since Robertson and Baylor, only one 6'5" in-between type, Lou Hudson of St. Louis, has averaged more than 15 points a game as a rookie. Also, like every other first-year man, Hudson had the benefit of preseason work and the exhibition game schedule, which Bradley never had.
"The exhibition season is more important than people think," says Jerry Lucas, who sat out a year after college before joining the Cincinnati Royals. "During my year off I kept in good shape, and it didn't hurt me that much. But if I had stretched it out to 2½ years, like Bradley, it would have made a big difference. In my first preseason Bob Pettit made a fool out of me every time I made a move. The exhibition games are invaluable in correcting your mistakes."
Oscar Robertson says the biggest problem in his rookie year was learning when to take the shot. "In college you could pass up one good shot and get another good one," he says. "In the pros if you get it, you take it."
Of the criticism that has fallen upon Bradley this season, the point that he doesn't shoot enough is the most bedeviling to him. When he talks about it, however, the occasional nervousness and more frequent indecisiveness he displays on the court take on a clearer meaning. "I don't consciously think about shooting," he says. "I think the whole subject is overdone. Like everything else in the pros, it is a matter of confidence and integrating myself into the team. I think I'm becoming more familiar with when to shoot now, but you never come up the floor thinking, 'Now I'm going to shoot,' or 'Now I'm going to pass.' What I don't do yet is wait. I don't wait long enough to see the play developing and to decide the best way to make it work. Too often I go off my feet too quickly for a shot or a pass. But I have to learn this. It's not a conscious reluctance to shoot. I am not really aware that I ever pass up good shots."
According to Bill van Breda Kolff, who coached Bradley at Princeton and now coaches the Lakers, it is precisely these "thought processes" that are holding Bradley back. "Bill had a preconceived idea when he came to the Knicks. He was going to be their leader, the quarterback, the catalyst, all that garbage. He had the subconscious idea he had to play that way," says Van Breda Kolff. "He's still not shooting like he can. He hasn't been shooting with authority. He thinks because it's the pros he has to get it off quicker. He should stop thinking and just go. Just go and play. I don't know if he's equipped physically to become a superstar. I imagine 17 to 18 points a game and a playmaker would be about right."
That is the consensus of most of the coaches in the league; but Alex Hannum of the Philadelphia 76ers goes further. "Bradley may not be as dramatic as Chamberlain or Robertson, but he is going to be a greater pro than he was a college player," says Hannum. "He's too unselfish to score 30 a game, because he is so dedicated to his team winning. But he will be the stabilizer of a great New York team."
Whether this happens may ultimately depend on how well Bradley can blend his particular qualities with those of Frazier, a player whose development may hold the key to the future for both of them. Frazier is extremely talented in precisely the ways Bradley was expected to excel. Both are big, fast guards, similar in build and in their approach to the game, and their most valuable asset is an ability to lead a team and give it guidance. It seems somehow unfortunate that both have come upon the Knickerbockers at the same time, an irony that possibly could prevent either from reaching the degree of stardom that would certainly be his on most other teams.
Frazier, who has had more time to learn, plays better defense than Bradley and penetrates deeper on offense, and Bill Russell says he would take him over Bradley right now. But, Russell to the contrary, Bradley is the one people come to see. However encumbered by his mid-season mediocre notices, Bradley's presence spurred NBA attendance wherever the Knicks appeared. On his first tour around the NBA, Bradley brought in what club accountants estimated to be an average of 3,000 to 5,000 extra customers. "People expected him to be God, and he's still a man," says Chamberlain. "But he's a great draw and that helps all of us."
"He's a draw and he's exciting," says Chicago Coach Johnny Kerr. "It's a real treat for those New York fans to watch guys like him and Cazzie. First Bill comes down and makes one, then Cazzie hits a layup on a pass from Bradley. The people tear the Garden apart. What the hell. It's Tom Swift and his partner, Koku."
When things are not going so Tom Swift-swell for Bradley, the slow progress of his learning does tend to get him down. He seems to enjoy his new life in New York, where he maintains an apartment by himself a few blocks from Carnegie Hall, and he reads voraciously and goes to movies often.
"I didn't know how I'd react to the travel at first, but it hasn't bothered me at all," he says. "It's not much of a strain, and I see friends and spend some time with them in most of the cities we go to. I get disappointed the game isn't coming easier at times and disappointed I haven't played better, but it isn't any more difficult than I thought it would be. Sometimes a bad game will get to me to the point where I don't sleep at night, or it interferes with some other things I might be trying to do, like reading or a movie. But that's as it should be. In regard to priorities, basketball is certainly first. I should be thinking about it constantly."
Several opportunities involving travel to distant lands are open to him for the coming summer, but Bradley intends to make basketball training an important part of his off-season activity wherever he is. Despite this and his unquestionably close rapport with his teammates, some cynical observers distrust Bradley's intentions about the immediate future. They still feel certain that pro basketball is just another brief way station along his path to higher accomplishments and that Bradley will depart in a few years—after he has made his fortune and achieved his fame—leaving the game behind crying for him once again. If so, so be it. It is surely enough that Bill Bradley has come back to give professional basketball his personal blend of zest, sparkle, grace and class, if only for a little while.