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JUST A GUY AT OXFORD
Jack Mann
February 07, 1966
At Princeton, Basketball Star Bill Bradley learned to live under a microscope for a cheering nation. But Bradley had methods of defending—or concealing—his reed self. Now, in the anonymity of Oxford, where he is a Rhodes scholar, his defenses are breached for the first time and Bradley emerges as a person—a mixture of hero and antihero
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February 07, 1966

Just A Guy At Oxford

At Princeton, Basketball Star Bill Bradley learned to live under a microscope for a cheering nation. But Bradley had methods of defending—or concealing—his reed self. Now, in the anonymity of Oxford, where he is a Rhodes scholar, his defenses are breached for the first time and Bradley emerges as a person—a mixture of hero and antihero

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"I'd say, Sir," says the new Rhodes scholar in Oxford Life by Dacre Balsdon, "that I was below average all around.... That's the impression which, somehow, Oxford gives you about yourself."

"Which shows," replies his tutor, "that you are an unusually perceptive young man."

"Look, I have no qualms about having played basketball," Bradley said, urgently correcting an impression that he blamed the game for an "inadequate" (he later withdrew the word) preparation for Oxford. "The game has done so much for me. Look at the places I've been, for one thing." Tokyo and Tel Aviv and Portland, Ore., but the question remains whether basketball has done more for Bill Bradley or vice versa.

Bradley is the only Rhodes scholar a lot of young Americans have ever heard of. That is remarkable, inasmuch as 32 Yanks bright enough to change trains at Didcot have found their way to Oxford each year since Cecil Rhodes decided that a) he couldn't take it with him and b) the colonies should be welcomed back to the Commonwealth in the spirit of Anglo-Saxon supremacy. More remarkable is the fact that Bradley is the first basketball player a number of older Americans ever heard of. That is the valid measure of the notoriety that engulfed him during the climactic weeks at Princeton—and the reason why he finds it a quiet delight to walk alone on Cornmarket Street, just a guy.

When somebody calls the sports desk to ask for an Ivy League basketball result, he only wants to know who won. He won't ask the score, because he's not a bettor. The Ivies play each other, like the Cabots speaking only to the Lodges, and nobody cares except the people who went there. That's the way it was, and the way it will be again. But for a few implausible weeks in 1965 housewives who wouldn't walk across the street to see the Celtics were asking breathlessly in the night how Princeton made out, and isn't that ridiculous? The whole script is ridiculous.

Kid from Smalltown, U.S.A., see. Boy next door. Turns down 75 athletic scholarships to go to Princeton on his own, because it bothers him people stoning the embassies and all and he wants to do something about it. No smoke, no drink, teaches Sunday school. Real square, but what a basketball player. No goon—6 feet 5 is about right—but he can do it all because he practices two, three hours a day since he's 9. So Princeton wins the Ivy League easy and everybody says so what. But in the NCAA...

"Morty, would you settle for the NIT? No? Well, then let's have them lose in the semis, just for some heartbreak. Then in the consolation game the kid puts on a show, how he could of busted all the records if he wasn't so unselfish. Then the Knicks offer him the Triborough Bridge to turn pro, and he wants to, but he wins a Rhodes scholarship. Morfy, this stuff don't go unless you got Jack Oakie and some broads. Who cares from basketball, anyway?"

But it happened, and people cared from basketball, people who never did before and never will again. See Bradley and forget it. Somebody will come along someday who can make the moves more fluidly and shoot the shots more accurately. But the difference will be marginal, hardly worth watching 1,000 games while waiting. It would be as pointless as waiting for the coming of a second Willie Mays.

Willie and Bill are about as different as two great athletes can be. Willie's style is as precipitous as Bill's is decorous, Willie's personality as uncomplicated as Bill's is complex. Yet they share a rare gift: the capacity to emanate the sheer joy of playing a game. Bradley would say "absurd" to any such psychological analysis of a game that can be played by small boys at recess time, an endeavor unrelated to the serious business of mankind. "What am I, after all?" he says. "lean put a ball in a hoop. What does that mean, really? Did you read Rabbit, Run! You can't live in the past."

Crystal logic. But get him talking about the shots, and listen, and watch. It begins dispassionately enough. "The set," he says, "is the one I practiced most, my best shot. The jump is the one you use most often. But the hook...." And now the eyes narrow, almost close. Bradley presses his palms together, draws back his right elbow, then swings his joined forearms in a long, slow arc to the left. "The hook—that's sculpture. That's poetry. It has everything."

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