To one spectator in Des Moines's Veterans Memorial Auditorium last Friday night, the scene could have been yanked whole from his senior year in high school nearly 40 years ago: fan-shaped glass backboards, a crowd of people shaped by the generous bottomland of the Mississippi River basin, a state title game in doubt until the buzzer.
Bill Bradley's Crystal City High lost the final of the 1961 Missouri state tournament to St. Louis University High by one point. Last week a Newell-Fonda High Mustang slung a three-pointer through the net with less than two seconds to play to win the Iowa Class I-A boys' title. Afterward Bradley stood outside the losers' locker room trying to console Des Moines Christian senior Jon Moore. "I know exactly how you feel," Bradley, a former Princeton All-America, Rhodes scholar and New York Knick, told Moore, whose 12 points in the fourth quarter hadn't been enough. "I was disappointed when we lost in the Final Four in college, too. It made winning an Olympic gold medal and an NBA title that much sweeter. This is just one stop along the road."
Moore was inconsolable, but it has been awhile since a politician said, "I feel your pain," with such credibility, and at least as long since Bradley unabashedly embraced the game that made him famous. Determined to establish his bona fides as New Jersey's junior senator since he was elected two decades ago, Bradley shunned basketball for years. Now, as a long shot to wrest the 2000 Democratic presidential nomination from Al Gore, he is counting on the game to help his cause. Basketball, he says, is "like a language—not just words but a deep experience many American men and women have had."
Bradley's campaign sometimes seems made for ESPN, not C-SPAN. He told one gathering that he's taking his shot now, after passing off in 1988 and '92, because I'm at the top of my game." Phil Jackson, Bradley's Knicks teammate, is among his fund-raisers and will share with Bradley's Iowa caucus workers his "team circle" philosophy of organization. If anyone doubts that Bradley will get as down and dirty as politics requires, his wife, Ernestine, introduced him to one Iowa crowd as "the man with the elbows."
For now Bradley has only a smattering of staff, fewer reporters and no Secret Service agents in tow—in other words, he has many unguarded moments. Political handlers live in fear of what their candidates might say in such situations, but with the help of the idiom of the game, Bradley is trying to invert conventional wisdom, trying to prove anew what his old opponents know: Give him an unguarded moment and he'll make you pay.