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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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Cambridge didn't show, but the Oxford team got on the Rugby field of Corpus Christi College and began throwing passes, the way guys do. Bradley began his energy-channeling by running along the perimeter of the field. He was still jogging and hadn't touched a ball after 10 minutes, when someone yelled, "Hey, Bill!" and let fly. On the sideline an American student had been trying to explain the game to his English girl friend, and he was giving up. "That's Bill Bradley," he said, pointing to the sweat-suited figure running along the far sideline. "Oh, yes," the girl said vaguely. "He's a legend, isn't he?"

In a second the girl saw a flicker of the legend Mr. Popp had envisioned back in Crystal City. The pass was thrown badly, behind Bradley. Without breaking stride he reached back languidly with his left hand and the ball rested there, vertically. He loped along for five more strides, holding the ball aloft as if he were carrying the Olympic torch, then gathered it in. He gathered in eight more before he missed.

The boys back in the NFL should not be misled about the quality of the intrasquad game on the playing field at Oxford that day. Sweat shirts that said things like Williams and Navy didn't elevate it from the Central Park class. But, for the record, Bradley scored two of his team's touchdowns and set up the other with an interception. They won. "Eighteen-nil," an English student told his companion, then added: "Inscrutable, isn't it?"

It would be absurd to rate a football player off one choose-up game of touch on a Sunday afternoon. All right, it's absurd, but there are guys who can learn table tennis in the morning and beat the teacher in the afternoon. Nobody would have bet the young Mickey Mantle couldn't have made a living as a halfback, and nobody should bet Bradley couldn't be a tight end.

Or a cricket Blue? Probably not, because, as he was aware when he and his parents were sifting those 75 scholarship offers (only to choose Princeton without a scholarship), there are so many things more important than sports. Bradley bristled at a suggestion that Rhodes might rotate in his resting place if he could see Ghanaian students strolling through the Oxford where he intended diamonds should be the Anglo-Saxon's best friend. "He had a few other things in mind," Bradley says.

Things like these: "his qualities of manhood, truth, courage, devotion to duty, sympathy for and protection of the weak, kindliness, unselfishness and fellowship; and his exhibition during school days of moral force of character and of instincts to lead and take an interest in his schoolmates, for those latter attributes will be likely in afterlife to guide him to esteem the performance of public duties as his highest aim."

Mr. Rhodes, meet Mr. Bradley. Hear him on his way home from the Olympics tell students at Chung Chi (in Hong Kong) and Tunghai (in Taiwan) that both conformity and nonconformity betray shortages of moral courage. "I mean you don't have to go out and get stoned because everybody does." (To Bradley the everybody-does rationale is "the opiate of multiplicity," a phrase he heard in a sermon.)

Oh, he's naive. With an undeveloped sense of the obscene, Bradley occasionally employs a colorful British term the American equivalent of which would never pass his lips. In a bucket-of-blood pub near the London docks he did not notice the double takes of the dockwallopers when he ordered an orange squash and he pronounced the place "nice." It was a nice place to get maimed, but Bradley liked it because the sandwiches were big.

In the 20th century we like our Renaissance man to be one of the boys, so maybe Bradley needs a trip around the block, a sort of weekend with Zorba. Or maybe, as time in his company hauntingly suggests, adventures into the vulgar are not as profitable as we who have been around the block tell each other. Maybe it is good to be good. Maybe it's even practical.

Dacre Balsdon has been at Oxford since 1920 and a don since 1928. In Oxford Life he is incisive about the university's function, devout about its purpose and humorous about both. "The don who once told a startled collection of mediocre undergraduates that Oxford was a waste of time for anyone who did not get a First or a Blue," he writes, "was not entirely stupid. There is no particular virtue in being second-class, even if that is the fate of most of us."

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