THE AIR BALL from 10 feet flat-lined past the rim, prompting a
courtside patron at San Antonio's Alamodome on March 8 to share
with the crowd this pithy insight: "You're an embarrassment,
Bradley." But over the next 10 minutes New Jersey Nets center
Shawn Bradley proceeded to pirouette for four baseline jumpers
and bury one thunderdunk on the run from the free throw line.
The 7'6" Bradley finished with 22 points--and the Admiral's
admiration. "He showed a lot of improvement, a lot more
confidence," Spurs center David Robinson said. "The first thing
Coach put up on the board before the game is that Shawn is
playing real well."
Of course, Robinson could afford to be kind; he had just doubled
up Bradley with 44 points in a 115-110 San Antonio victory. But
even that couldn't diminish the fact that since the Nov. 30
six-player deal that also sent malingering forward Derrick
Coleman to the Philadelphia 76ers, Bradley had catapulted from
an embarrassment to a primary target of opponents' game plans.
From Feb. 2 through last weekend he had averaged 16.9 points,
9.4 rebounds and 5.05 blocks a game. In a 127-117 loss to the
Dallas Mavericks on March 5, Bradley scored a career-high 32
points and added 15 rebounds. Last Thursday, in a 100-92 loss to
the Washington Bullets, he turned in the first triple double of
his career. During this six-week stretch Bradley held his own
against such high-quality post men as Patrick Ewing, Alonzo
Mourning and Rik Smits.
A thicket of five stitches sprouts from his chin, thanks to a
run-in with Mourning's elbow on Feb. 27, and a smile creases his
freckled face. Wearing a Nets uniform has rarely had such a
salubrious effect on a player's demeanor. "It's amazing," the
24-year-old Bradley says of his on-court growth spurt. "I know
I've got a long way to go, but I've always known deep down
inside that if I kept working and I could get through the tough
times, eventually I would make an impact in the league.
Although, I can say now that when I was in Philadelphia, I
wondered just how long it was going to take."
Before he headed 75 miles up I-95 to East Rutherford, Bradley
had been averaging an anemic 8.8 points per game for the Sixers.
Having been selected out of BYU as the No. 2 pick in the 1993
draft, after Chris Webber and before Anfernee Hardaway, he
seemed destined to follow in the trivia trail of 7'1" center Sam
Bowie, an unsatisfying slice of potential who was sandwiched
between two immortals, Hakeem Olajuwon and Michael Jordan, as
the second choice in the '84 draft. Even though an injury to
Bradley's left knee had shortened his rookie year and he had
shown flashes of brilliance late last season, the myriad
nicknames Bradley had acquired in Philly attested to his whining
(the Mormon Tabernacle Crier), his dim prospects (Missionary
Impossible) and his really dim prospects (the Great White Nope).
Some of his 76ers teammates considered him soft. "We get bullied
in there," said forward Clarence Weatherspoon in November of the
Bradley-patrolled paint. "Make a trade, do what you have to do,"
said rookie guard Jerry Stackhouse. "We have to be able to
compete with other teams' big men." After the deal Philadelphia
Daily News columnist Bill Conlin called Bradley "the most
scorned and vilified athlete to play here in modern times."
From the moment Bradley signed his eight-year, $44 million
contract, despite having played just one season of college ball,
he became less a center and more a sideshow in Philadelphia.
Step right up--and up and up--to see the 90-inch project fresh
from his Mormon mission in the Australian outback! Watch him get
pointers on the hook shot from Kareem Abdul- Jabbar! See him try
to transform his maypole build with the help of Mr. Universe,
Lee Haney! Watch him slug down 7,000 calories a day for months
and still not budge the scale past 250! Buy a program and look
him up, number 76, the 7'6" 76er!
"It was all blown out of proportion," says guard Greg Graham,
who was traded to the Nets with Bradley. "Shawn hadn't picked up
a basketball in two years, and they expected him to score 20
points and grab 10 rebounds a game. When he didn't, they had no
patience. They didn't help him. They gave up on him."
At first blush the Bradley-for-Coleman move seemed little more
than a mutual unloading of overpriced players, with New Jersey
losing attitude and gaining altitude. But Nets general manager
Willis Reed had marveled at Bradley's lofty skill level ever
since he had scouted Bradley when he was a senior at Emery
County High in Castle Dale, Utah. Reed talked to the New York
Giants' conditioning staff and learned that while Bradley might
never get much heavier, he could get much stronger. Moreover,
Reed figured that there would always be a market for a known
shot blocker with decent hands and a soft touch. Indeed, within
48 hours of the swap, five teams called with trade inquiries.
(Coleman, meanwhile, played in 11 games for Philly before
calling it a season earlier this month with a sprained right
Foremost, Reed believed that Bradley might blossom if he felt he
was under less pressure. "His first words to me were, 'Whether
you become a great player in two weeks or two years or five
years, just work hard and try to get better,'" Bradley recalls.
"Not only did the Nets say that, but they've shown that they
To wit: Instead of cramming him full of high-carb milk shakes,
New Jersey has focused on a slow, steady diet of weight work.
"We're trying to give him goals that are realistic and
obtainable," says the team's strength and conditioning coach,
Richard Snedaker. "Literally, we don't want to shove too much
down his throat." What's more, while the Sixers brought in cameo
coaches like Abdul-Jabbar to tutor Bradley, the Nets have
provided him two full-time mentors. For game-time comportment
there is backup center Rick Mahorn, for whom the term brute
honesty seems insufficiently forceful. "You've got to leave your
religion in the locker room because on the court it's war,"
Mahorn advised. "Do what you have to do out there, and say some
Hail Marys or whatever later."
For tutoring there is assistant coach Clifford Ray, a warrior
who gave Abdul-Jabbar all he could handle during his 10-year NBA
career. Just after the trade, sensing that Bradley was a bit
touchy, Ray held back and offered him nothing but encouragement,
in hopes of rekindling his confidence and passion for the game.
Ray has since gently counseled Bradley on slowing down his
moves, on taking what the defense gives and on playing to his
strengths: his height, his speed and his unblockable righthand
hook. Ray has also gotten him to carp less at the officials, who
in turn are giving Bradley more latitude. Last season he fouled
out a 76ers-record 18 times; in 19 games as a Net he has only
been disqualified twice. "I can't understand why a team would
spend $5 million a year on a big guy and not spend $140,000 a
year on a coach to develop him," Ray says.
Bradley's new teammates have helped ease his burden as well.
"I'd heard all the stories: He didn't work, he wasn't strong,
he'd never make it," guard Vern Fleming says. "But Shawn has
been out there trying to improve, and we're concentrating on
what he can do, rather than what he can't." Now when Bradley
coughs up a turnover or heaves a clunker, the Nets continue to
feed him and the payoff eventually comes. "What we try to do is
tell him he's 7'6", O.K.?" New Jersey coach Butch Beard says.
"Let's take advantage of that."
Bradley's high, I-beam frame, however, may limit him as a
consistent low-post threat. "He's getting a lot better," says
Spurs backup center Will Perdue, "but I don't know if he can
ever be a first-option-type center, where you kick it in to him
and let him shoot or pass out of the double team."
The truest test of Bradley's commitment to improve will come in
the off-season: Can he pump enough iron to cease being the
center most likely to have sand kicked in his face? "No Mormon
missions to help the needy," Nets forward Jayson Williams says.
"We're the needy. He's got to do some serious training. No way
he's going off to Australia with those kangaroos."
Bradley's production and confidence aren't the only changes from
his days in Philadelphia. When he came to the Meadowlands, he
ditched number 76 for number 45, which he had worn in high
school and college. "That number was a novelty, and I'm not a
novelty anymore," Bradley says. "I thought it was time to get
back to what I've done in the past." And on to what he thought
he could one day do in the NBA.