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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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Bradley suffers no no-Blue blues, but there are those energies to channel. He runs 45 minutes every day he can, "because running is the only exercise that counts." Running is exercise, but basketball practice is an experience. He might have practiced in the evening after that London expedition, but there was a previous engagement at a place where a person was going to bake brownies. (It is only a presumption, but one concludes that when Bradley does not describe a person as a guy he is talking about a girl.) Shooting baskets alone in a dim, drafty airplane hangar may not seem a reasonable alternative to solitaire or The Beverly Hillbillies, but Bill Bradley is never alone when he has a basketball.

They have always looked so sad, the kids shooting baskets alone on the concrete courts beside the Long Island Rail Road at dusk, missing and chasing the ball and trying again. They will not look so sad again. Bradley must have looked that way in his backyard in Crystal City, and so he looks in a dreary airplane hangar in England. Maybe it began as the protective artifice of an only child, but he always has friends with him, and foes.

"All-court press," he tells himself as he brings the ball up the court. "Reverse pivot, go left and shoot a jump shot, 18 feet." Bouncing the ball tentatively at the foul line, he is in Dillon Gymnasium. "A point behind, three seconds to go, one-and-one. Miss, you take three laps." Swish, swish, and Princeton wins again.

If he misses he takes the three laps. This most coachable of athletes speaks of his coaches as he speaks of his parents, gratefully and proudly. Arvel Popp in high school, who wouldn't use a 6-foot-5 kid up front because he wouldn't learn the whole game. Ed Macauley at the summer camp, who taught him the set shot and something else: that when you aren't practicing, somebody else is. Van Breda Kolff at Princeton, who earned an Oscar pretending Bradley was just another player and became "a guy we'll always want to go back and see." But it began with Jerry Ryan in the seventh grade, perhaps the day Bradley was conspicuously absent from practice.

"I was den chief in the Cub Scouts," Bradley recalls, "and we had a meeting. Mr. Ryan called and said that if I wasn't there in half an hour I was off the team. I was there." He was there every morning at 7:45 and stayed late every afternoon. In the eighth grade they played 20 games and won them all, with Mr. Popp watching.

Mr. Popp was watching an end for his football team, just as Casey Stengel would have seen a pitcher. Bradley did become a pitcher in high school, just good enough to win, but he never became an end. "My parents weren't keen about my playing football," he says. "But there was no big issue about it. I just didn't play."

In most high schools a boy who doesn't come out for one sport is less likely to succeed in another, but Mr. Popp was content to eat cake. "He'd keep me practicing after the others left," Bradley says. "He knew I'd stay until he put the lights out anyway. No, guilty isn't the word, but I knew he wanted me to play football, and I wanted to show him I could be in as good shape as the football players. I think now that one reason for my success as a shooter is that I didn't play football. I had those extra months of practice."

It is not true that Bradley practiced two or three hours every day. In high school there was baseball in April and May and he sort of fooled around in June, so he didn't get to serious practice until July. As a sophomore at Princeton he was the first baseman, and he batted .316. "But I hadn't developed enough to make it worthwhile. I could concentrate on basketball, but baseball I just played."

So he concentrated on basketball. "The weeks I missed a day of practice," he says, "I could count on one hand. Well, two hands." During the summer of 1964 he developed a routine of persisting with each shot until he'd made 10 of 13. "That was so I could get practice done in an hour. When I had time I used to work on a shot until I'd made 25 in a row." The Olympic Games were going to shrink his senior year, so Bradley had to have a head start on his thesis, an examination of Harry Truman's senatorial campaign of 1940. It was a summer spent largely in dusty newspaper files, but there was always an hour. The hour was never drudgery. It was fun, and it channeled those energies.

Recently Bradley had as energy-channeling a day as one finds in the first year at Oxford. There was a film of ice on the Thames, but the sky was blue. Oxford was going to play Cambridge in what Bradley called The American Touch Football Championship of Europe.

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