As a mormon missionary in Australia for the past 23 months, 7'6" Shawn Bradley has ministered to Aboriginal families in the outback, comforted a heroin addict in Sydney and picked leeches off his ankles while walking through the subtropical rain forest. Last week he said he was ready for rigors of a different sort. Through a phone hookup between Sydney and Salt Lake City, the 21-year-old Bradley confirmed that he was forsaking his final three years of collegiate eligibility at Brigham Young and applying for this June's NBA draft, in which he will certainly be a lottery pick and could be the No. 1 overall selection.
Money was one factor in Bradley's decision. Last summer, 1992 top pick Shaquille O'Neal signed a seven-year, $40 million contract with the Orlando Magic. If Bradley becomes the No. 1 pick in June, he will probably get an equal or better deal. If he stays in college, and the reports of an impending rookie salary cap prove true, he could receive far less. Another motivation is that, by swatting shots in well-attended NBA arenas, Bradley can continue to pursue the ultimate goal of his mission: to further his faith. His father, Reiner, recalls the questions that plagued Shawn in June 1991, before the freshman chose Australia for his two-year stint: "He would ask himself, 'Is basketball my mission? Am I serving the church by being an exemplary basketball player in the national spotlight?' "
While Down Under, Bradley coached a team of nine-and 10-year-olds, but he went for one eight-month stretch without even picking up a basketball. When he did play, it was only once each week and against junior-college-caliber competition. He told SI recently that his skills will be at "rock bottom" when he returns to the U.S. "I'm in the worst physical shape of my life," he said. Bradley has gained 30 pounds since arriving in Australia. In college he was listed at 210, but Bradley admitted he rarely exceeded 200. "They stacked the weight," he said.
Despite his I-beam build, Bradley was an altitudinous force during his one season at BYU, averaging 14.8 points and 7.7 rebounds per game in 1990-91 while setting an NCAA freshman record with 177 blocked shots. His on-court skills are obvious, but Bradley's time in Australia may play just as big a role in any success he might have in pro basketball. "The work I've been doing is the most humbling experience anyone could have in his life," he says. "It strips you down to bare metal, down to your very core, and helps you find out who you are. It's a big change to come out here and start a mission." Now he'll take that mission to the NBA.