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The question no longer concerns what Bill Bradley (see cover) will be doing at 40. Governor of Missouri? Secretary of State? Maybe even president of the World Bank? Always capricious, such notions fade before sterner problems of the present: Will Bill Bradley make the team—the New York Knickerbocker team, that is? Will he make it in the manner that customarily has been his and that will satisfy the critics at their typewriters in the first row and the experts with their point spreads in the 35th row? Why he has not done so as yet is, indisputably, the major topic of discussion around the National Basketball Association and, possibly, the most furiously debated question in New York since the city's heretofore unbeaten poser of who strikes next was answered by the garbagemen.
The other distinguishing aspects of the season are neglected: Dave Bing's scoring, Nate Thurmond's knee, Rick Barry's lawsuits are all secondary to the subject of Bradley and his problems. So St. Louis is doing all that winning with mirrors. Earl Monroe is not really a Pearl but an O. San Diego is sinking so far out of the league that it may have to send the club mail to Tijuana. So what? What is wrong with Bill Bradley?
The question has an unfortunate tone, a certain "when did you stop beating your wife?" ring, and in some respects it is unfair. But despite the presuppositions it reflects and some ample evidence that it might become irrelevant, the question remains. Ten weeks after his extravagant introduction to the harsh reality of pro basketball, Bill Bradley has come to this.
It is Tuesday night, doubleheader night, in New York, and the kids from Hempstead and Huntington, from Brooklyn and the Bronx and from Jersey and Connecticut, too, have come to join the trucker, the tailor and the show-business ticket-taker in the new Madison Square Garden. The silken foxes with eyelashes out to here are down in front, and the cashmere-all-over fat guys with Roi-Tan longs hanging off their lips are there also, and all of them have swelled the gate to 19,500, the largest NBA crowd in history.
For the Knick game Walt Frazier is down with a virus, so Howard Komives is introduced at guard opposite Dick Barnett, and he is booed (Howard Komives is always booed in New York) as Bill Bradley sits on the bench. Without Frazier or Bradley or the other Young Turk, Cazzie Russell, the Knicks play a shoddy first quarter—uninspired and lacking a guide—and they cannot break away from a San Francisco team decimated by injury.
But, with the score tied, Bradley enters the game in the second quarter, and the loudest roar of the night goes up. He gets the ball and is open immediately but, as the crowd urges him to shoot, he gives and goes. The next time Bradley dribbles behind two screens but misses the rim with his shot and, visibly shaken, comes downcourt seconds later and throws the ball away.
A minute afterward the Warriors' Jimmy King goes right by him, following a fake, and sets up an easy score. Now the crowd groans as Bradley drives to the right side and, instead of continuing, passes off. Again the groan as his backward layup off a rebound is blocked. All alone the next time on offense, he shoots and misses once more, and now the crowd is silent.
Shortly, Bradley snaps out of his doldrums with a beautiful blind-side pass to Russell for a basket. Bradley makes two jump shots from 20 feet and feeds Russell again for a fast break (a "keen pass," the scorer calls it). Now he is hot and, becoming more aggressive and imaginative, Bradley makes eight straight New York points just before the half as the Knicks surge to the front.
It is just one quarter, but the scene is a model of the larger drama in which Bill Bradley has become involved since early December. He has mingled periods of indifferent, sometimes incompetent, play with flashes of brilliance. So far the pattern has eluded prediction, but perhaps the anticipation of a pattern was the very injustice the man did not deserve. Perhaps it was inconsistency that should have been accepted as the fate of any rookie in pro basketball. And yet, because it was all too obvious that Bill Bradley was not just another rookie, immediate, uninterrupted success was the firm expectation, and inconsistency was to be considered a form of failure. Bradley has been forced to learn and grow into the game in an atmosphere of fantasy, deprived even of the ghost of a chance of attaining the goals desired for him this season.
After being away from strenuous conditioning and difficult competition for more than two years while he studied at Oxford, Bradley joined the Knickerbockers three hours out of his Air Force uniform on December 9. He played in 10 games through the Christmas holidays. The most notable was his second, in which he scored 23 points against St. Louis but blew the game when he took an inexcusable shot with 15 seconds left and the Knicks ahead by two points. Then he was struck by a car driven by the now-famous Girl in the MG on a rainy New York street corner on December 28. He suffered cuts and bruises on his left wrist, left ankle and right hip and would have been hurt more seriously if he had not been able to leap over the fender of the sports car just before impact. By the time Bradley returned to action he had missed six games, and the Knicks had replaced Head Coach Dick McGuire with their chief scout, Red Holzman.