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 thunder-dunk 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 ankle.)
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 meant it."
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."