“He was the player playing the game while creating it too. He was himself in every frozen moment, plotting a way through deep space in order to fulfill his life and it’s mission: his life, which was lived up until that point in time; its mission, which was to place a ball through a basket.”
Discipline and Style: What Bradley Taught Me
By George Gao
I had anticipated reading A Sense of Where You Are (1965) for weeks, partly because I was intrigued by the book’s subject matter (Bill Bradley), and partly because it was to be my first experience reading John McPhee, a fellow New Jersey enthusiast.
I felt a child’s anticipation while waiting for the book to arrive. It was buried in the storage room of Brooklyn’s Central Library, and I had summoned a basement worker to dig it up. To me, Bradley is a local hero: a Homer Price, a do-gooder out for small-town adventures; or an Encyclopedia Brown, foiling the glorified schemes of your neighborhood criminal.
The week prior was rough on me, and full of bad weather. I felt shaky for two reasons: I asked a girl out on a date, and I partook in a job interview. Fractions of my heart were in other people’s hands. I was teetering between states of panic and control, hope and despair. I had meant for the book to help me take my mind off of myself.
A Sense of Where You Are is a profile of basketball legend and US politician Bill Bradley during his golden years at Princeton. While enrolled there, Bradley broke NCAA scoring records, won an Olympic medal, and earned the prestigious Rhodes Scholarship.
A Sense of Where You Are is thin (most of it originally appearing in a 1965 issue of The New Yorker). The words form small blocks, taking up two-thirds of every page. The book had that look, that physical quality, of a page-turner.
As a teenager, Bradley spent three and a half hours every day after school on the court, as well as from nine to five on Saturdays, and one-thirty to five on Sundays. He wore plastic glasses and taped cardboard to the bottom of them to restrict his vision while dribbling. When he played alone, he would set up chairs as defenders and weave through them.
In his ten years with the New York Knicks, Bradley averaged a meager 12 points, 3 rebounds, and 3 assists per game. That was during an era when fellow Hall-of-Famer Oscar Robertson averaged 26 points, 8 rebounds, and 10 assists. In other words, Robertson produced over twice as much as Bradley did in every statistical category recorded at the time.
But those are just numbers. Bradley’s game was different: it was graceful. Bradley approached basketball like a thinking man’s chess match, seeing plays played out three or four moves in advance.
Here’s what McPhee saw:
Every motion developed in its simplest form. Every motion repeated itself precisely when he used it again. He was remarkably fast, but he ran easily. His passes were so good they were difficult to follow. Every so often… he stopped and went high into the air with the ball, his arms rising until his hands were at right angles to one another and high above him, and a long jump shot would go into the net (p5).
You can almost mistake the passage for a description of a modernist painter at work:
Bradley was a pure athlete, one who integrated the rules of basketball and the confines of the court into parts of his individual soul, into an art form. He was the player playing the game while creating it too. He was himself in every frozen moment, plotting a way through deep space in order to fulfill his life and its mission: his life, which was lived up until that point in time; it’s mission, which was to place a ball through a basket. Bradley did this possession after possession.
Bradley approached the game with discipline and style. He was Emerson’s man of self-reliance, a man who expresses himself through the work he does. He was also Whitman’s body electric. “To see him pass conveys as much as the best poem.” To Bradley, mere winning was far less important than winning in style.
Which is not to say that he dressed fashionably, because he didn’t. Bradley was a bit of a quark. Muggers would avoid him in Central Park because he always looked like he had already gotten mugged. He used to blast songs from The Sound of Music (1965) in his room, in hi-fi, to pump himself up before games. In his spare time, he dated weird Vassar girls (p44).
In the 1970s, Bradley shared the court with a star-studded Knicks team that featured Willis Reed, Walt Frazier, and Earl Monroe. It was a team that played in Madison Square Garden when, as some say, the Garden was Eden. Bradley and the Knicks won two NBA championships, both times over a legendary Laker’s lineup (Jerry West, Wilt Chamberlain, Elgin Baylor, etc.)
Basketball is just a fraction of Bill Bradley’s life. In 1977, Bradley won the senatorial seat as a democrat for New Jersey. In 2000, he ran for president, as the liberal counterpart to Al Gore. His politics are bold. Bradley is one of the few contemporary Washington politicians to openly and harshly criticize the US military empire abroad. (Others include Jimmy Carter, Ron Paul, and Dennis Kucinich.)
Sure, Bradley isn’t perfect. He’s moved on to his second marriage. He’s in cahoots with some abusive corporations. But that’s another discussion.
It has been delightful to followBradley’s latest antics. Watching his Youtube channel is like reading Homer Price or Encyclopedia Brown. “What adventures and misadventures awaits Bill Bradley? Which villainous plots will Bill Bradley thwart next?
The NYC skyline, viewed from New Jersey and elsewhere, inspires ambition. But there’s an economic crisis. Wall Street is on steroids. The others are panning for gold., and our careers lack modesty.
Bill Bradley offers sensible wisdom for these dark times: it doesn’t mater how high up your penthouse lies, or how hot your girlfriend looks. If you can’t live life with discipline and style, then you’re no better than the rest of us.
Click here to buy A Sense of Where You Are (1965) by John McPhee.
Photo Credit: Reginald Marsh from wikipedia.org
Photo Credit 2: misterkitty.org
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