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 right-hand 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.