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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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The Moral Re-Armament movie was over, and everything had turned out all right. The confused bishop, the embittered Negro and the golden-hearted prostitute had found God or at least had rediscovered Mr. Brown, a gabby young man who postulated morality with geometric certitude.

The audience filing out of the little hall on High Street in Oxford, England included Beatle-browed students, babes in arms and William Warren Bradley of Crystal City, Mo., the former Princeton basketball star, now a Rhodes scholar. Bradley's basketball eminence was partly attributable to a peripheral vision that spans 195�, and his presence at MRA's pop morality play was a function of an intellectual curiosity that spans 360�.

The light burns far into the night in Bradley's 12-by-l2 cubicle as he pursues the Oxford read-it-yourself regimen of politics, philosophy and economics. But his application to the task, like his perfection of the jump shot, is assiduous without being grim. To Bill Bradley, Oxford is, as he insists basketball was, a "phase" he must pass through. Apply himself he will, and enjoy himself, too, then pass on to a new phase. The trick, in a world so full of interesting things, is not to miss too much in passing. An essay, for example, can be worked on late tonight, or early tomorrow, or both. It is only a few hundred long strides from lunch with a grandson of Gandhi to The Gunfight at O.K. Corral, with things to contemplate on the way: How did Lindsay win in New York, and why would the Cards trade Groat and Boyer? "No, I've got almost seven minutes. What's your theory?" Interview Bill Bradley and be interviewed.

There being no compelling lecture that evening, Bradley might have sat in on the Nietzsche Society's consideration of man as a means or an end, "but I wouldn't want to before I've read Zarathustra." Or he could have sat around and talked with guys, preferably not American guys, "but that's not something you plan." Anyway, he was curious about MRA and about cricket, and he knew that the MRA film would be introduced by Conrad C. Hunte, a West Indian cricketer. It intrigues Bradley that Oxford's curbstone historians recall no one who took up cricket as late in life as 22 and succeeded, so he might try it. "Besides, when you've been practicing basketball a couple of hours every day since you were 9 you develop physical energies that have to be channeled. It's like taking dope: you can't just stop."

Hunte was billed as "the world's best opening batsman and a member of the World Eleven," so Bradley sought him out after the film. So did others.

"This is Bill Bradley," Hunte said, introducing him around. "He's the greatest basketball player of America." There being no hoop attached to a wall within 14 miles of the Carfax (old British for crossroads, the pedestrian peril at Oxford's main intersection), the Moral Re-Armers were unimpressed. Still, Hunte kept dribbling the name. Bradley maintained a wan smile that failed to mask the expression of a young man wishing he had found some guys to talk to—even American guys—or had curled up with a book.

Bradley falls short of the genius category, although he often was so described when his legend spilled over into the area of myth during his final year at Princeton. But he is too bright and too curious not to wonder whether he just might be the greatest basketball player in—or out of—America. The thought danced through his head when the New York Knickerbockers offered him all sorts of sugarplums to play pro basketball for a little while. It wasn't the money; he has mixed feelings about money. "But the NBA players are the best," he says. "You have to wonder if you could play with the best." Bradley still wonders, but he does his wondering inside a hair shirt of modesty. A comparison with Oscar Robertson, the only player generally assumed to be his better, would evoke from Bradley his most useful adjective, "absurd." His self-discipline is so rigid that it almost totally denies him use of the future tense when discussing Bill Bradley. He might, for example, emerge from Oxford a harmonica virtuoso, but he will consider it a violation of privacy to reveal that he is trying to master that instrument. It will be embarrassing, like Conrad Hunte's accolade to unproved attainment, because he hasn't done it yet.

Bradley has no more use for beer or wine than for some other four-letter words, but the experience of the MRA evening drove him to drink. On the walk back to his college he stopped at a cocktail lounge and drowned his uneasiness in an orange squash. He also devoured three bowls of potato chips. "That's the first time that's happened since I've been here," he said, referring to the Hunte business. "I've met quite a few people, but they just know me as a guy. It's been really great."

Hunte's name-dropping had reminded him of the extravagant final winter at Princeton, when freshmen would brag, "I saw him," and sophomores would point out Dodge-Osborn as "the place where Bill Bradley lives." Bradley mimicked his worshipers for a moment, then apologized. "I didn't mind it too much, but I'd rather have been known as a human being."

By 10:45 that night the orange squash was gone and an anxious waiter had spirited away the remaining chips. Bradley excused himself, saying he had to go back and "refine" his weekly economics essay. He refined until 2:30, a nicety he could not afford at Princeton, where the 1964 Olympic Games consumed the first part of his senior year and the NCAA Tournament nibbled at the second semester. He spoke of basketball then as "a relief from the academic load," and he graduated with honors in history. But now, tutored in P.P.E. by Oxford dons, whose knack it is to make a student's most abstruse finding seem elementary, Bradley was reflecting soberly that "most of my work at Princeton was done on deadline."

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