Certain people just make the rest of us look bad. Not from malice, but mere existence. That's Bill Bradley, formerly of the U.S. Senate, the New York Knicks, and, you'd have to assume, at least one other massive life goal that most of us can only dream about.
Last week, I sat down with Senator Bradley to talk basketball and the state of the NBA. As literary icon John McPhee once wrote, "When Bradley talks about basketball, he speaks with authority, explaining himself much as a man of 50 might do in discussing a profession or business." That, describing Bradley at 21 years old, comes from McPhee's legendary book on Bradley, "A Sense of Where You Are," a detailed glimpse at the college superstar's time spent at Princeton in the mid-1960s.
There was another passage that struck a chord with me. As McPhee describes his perspective on basketball before encountering Bradley, an epiphany on the court:
The players, in a sense, had gotten better than the game, and the game had become uninteresting. It attracted exhibitionists who seemed to be more intent on amazing a crowd with aimless prestidigitation than with advancing their team by giving a sound performance. Basketball had once consumed about ninety-two percent of my time, and I had played on high school and prep school school teams, as a freshman in college, and later, curiously, on the team of Cambridge University, in England...
But, despite all the obvious affection for the game, what had happened to me in later years as a spectator was not really a disillusionment so much as a death of interest.
That was McPhee's experience, and then he met Bill Bradley, who renewed his sense of hope for the sport, and spurred him to write one of the better basketball books in history.
But reading that, my immediate thought was: "Oh my God... Is he describing how Bill Bradley feels now?" Mind you, I love basketball, and I love the NBA, but even someone like me, who grew up with the current generation of stars, can identify with certain aspects of the passage above. The NBA does attract exhibitionists, the players are sometimes too good these days, and while I've never suffered from a lack of interest, it's understandable among others. And wouldn't Bradley, a denizen of fundamentals from a bygone era in basketball, be the perfect candidate to echo some of McPhee's sentiments?
Not so much. Said Bradley, "The game is still the game, and I still love it." And, well, better to get this out of the way up front. Bradley's not a cliched cynic. Some grizzled retiree, fed up with "today's players." He's just... better than that. (And he's clearly got Jay-Z's attention...)
Bradley continued: "If you win a championship, you win it doing many of the same things you had to do when we won championships. You have to be unselfish. You have to work very hard. You have to be resilient. You have to have a passion for what you do.
"When it comes right down to it, when Ray Allen goes back door, it's the same as when Frazier went back door... It's a beautiful moment. When Pau Gasol takes the pass at the foul line and immediately drops it along the baseline to Odom for an easy shot—just a flick of a pass—it's still beautiful to watch."
And really, it's refreshing to hear as an NBA fan. Here's the perfect candidate to fall prey to disillusionment and disinterest in today's game. And yet, "The game is still the game." Perfect. Which isn't to say he's without criticism for today's NBA.
First off: "They ought to call more fouls." He mentioned David Stern's emphasis on officiating, but nonetheless, it's a problem. "When I played the game, you played with your feet. And the game was about finesse. Movement," Bradley continued. "And now, often times, the game is about strength, and your upper body. Not always, but often. So that's one difference. It's strength, not fitness."
That and the death of the mid-range game remains a peccadillo for past superstars. "There's not a lot of players that shoot well off the dribble now. That's because of the three-point rule."
Bradley continued: "I always thought the objective of basketball was to get the maximum amount of movement to get the easiest shot, closest to the basket. With the three-point rule, the whole strategy changes, and you make a move and then throw it 30 feet out, where somebody takes a standing jump shot."
Does that make the game worse? Not necessarily, but it's definitely different.
Shifting gears, we talked about the realities of contemporary media, and how that's changed the nature of the game for today's superstars. Back in college, Bradley told McPhee, "[Success and fame] is dangerous. It's like a heavy rainstorm. It can do damage, or it can do good, permitting something to grow."
(Side note: Can you imagine saying something that eloquent and self-aware when you were in college? When I was in school, my self-awareness consisted of, "Wow, I'm really hung over. The dining hall opens at 11:30. Grease is good for hangovers, right? So, pizza?" And there's Bradley at 21, with a breathless metaphor that perfectly encapsulates the double-edged sword of fame and success. Like I said: he makes the rest of us look bad.)
Today, the scope's narrowed to focus even closer on prodigies like Bradley, and it reaches an even wider audience. For younger players, it's pretty damning situation. "It's 24-hour coverage of kids," Bradley said. "And kids are kids. They make mistakes. Not all do, but some."
Bradley added: "Players should be judged by what they do on the court, and their character, as demonstrated on the court. The press ought to lighten as to what courses people study, or ... this or that. The key thing is on the court."
Again, it's refreshing to hear this coming from someone as decorated as Bradley. As a former Rhodes Scholar, he'd have every right to lambast today's generation for shirking academics or devolving in character, but he's more thoughtful than that.
Condemning character would be too convenient for someone like Bradley. Instead, it's the coverage that's missing the mark these days. Not everybody's perfect—especially as teenagers—but in the end, we'd all be better off if the focus remained on the court.
Of course, Bradley concedes that some of this comes with the territory in the NBA. "You know, when you get to the professional level, you're basically an entertainer," he said. "You're paid a lot of money, and the [scrutiny] comes with it."
Along these lines, with respect to players' responsibility, Bradley praised the Suns' recent protest of Arizona's immigration laws: "Just because you're an athlete doesn't mean you're not a citizen. You know, doesn't mean you can't have an opinion."
He continued, almost defensively: "There's a former NBA player [Chris Dudley] running for governor of Oregon right now. NBA players get involved, NBA players care about the country as much as anybody else. Many of them have the money to live cocooned lives, but most of them don't forget where they came from."
Again, he's unwilling to give the easy answer, which would be, "Yeah. The Suns thing was great, but I wish more guys would take a stand in politics." Because they should, according to about a thousand different columnists across the country. But Bradley's been there , and realizes it's not that simple. "When I was a player, I was always very leery about getting involved in politics."
...Can you imagine him in today's media? And this guy went on to become a U.S. Senator.
And finally, we came back to basketball. We talked a little bit about the fundamentals of the game, and his favorite players in the league. When asked about his favorite individual players in today's game, Bradley stonewalled me. "I don't go to watch an individual." ... Oh.
That said, let the record state that he later named one player. "The best young player I like out there is Kevin Durant. He's a perfect blend of talent and character."
File this away for later in his Durant's career. Bradley's one of the more thoughtful basketball fans I've ever talked to, and yes, he loves Durant just as much as the rest of us. In fact, if there's one thing you might take take away from this interview five or 10 years down the line, it'd be this: The guy that proudly "doesn't watch individuals" had to name just one. Kevin Durant.
Instead of individuals, Bradley gets excited about teams. He's a Knicks fan, "Once a Knick, always a Knick." But, yeah, "I think that they figured their one chance of having a team was to get some money back from their salary cap, in order to get talent that would be more expensive. That's a decision Donnie Walsh made, and I respect that decision." Diplomatic. Remember: This guy's a politician.
He continued: "But I really like the Celtics and the Lakers." And that's where this dovetails. The Finals. Celtics-Lakers. The game is still the game. "Passion. Hard work. Unselfishness. You see that with the Celtics and the Lakers—that's why they're in the Finals."
"It'll be very competitive," he added. "The Celtics won... The Lakers won... So this is a decisive year. There are players on each team that have a history. People have to realize that a team is really a compliment of talent and personality. You need both in order to have a team that's committed.
"Both those teams are that way. That's why these Finals will be so good."
(Another side note: Asked for a pick, he was reluctant to offer much analysis, but said, "I'll go with the Lakers because of Phil. Always go with my friends. You always go with your brother.")
And really, the next two weeks are what this whole thing's all about. As Bradley talked about the meaning of a championship "That feeling of being the NBA Champion is really unparalleled, because you're the best in the world. Without question. How many people can say that in any profession?"
"There are a lot of great players," he added, "but you don't reach the top unless you win a championship."
That's boilerplate stuff, sure. But coming from someone like Bradley, it takes on added meaning. He's not some two-bit columnist offering a sermon on why LeBron's a failure. He's an ex-player that's been to the top, and knows exactly what's at stake in all this. That may seem obvious to some, but not all.
As Bradley elaborated: "Now, [a championship] requires other people, like a General Manager, and a coach. But you can't say you're career has ever peaked if you haven't won a championship. All great players realize that. Some sooner than others. I've been seeing it for 30 years.
"Some people come into the league and figure the game is stats. But the game is really character. And part of character is understanding where you fit with your teammates, to make a unit. No one person is as important as all five. That allows you to win."
Um... Did you just get chills? A little bit? If not, it works better when you imagine that quote as a part of Pacino's "inches" speech. And seriously, that's a pretty profound ideal. Not necessarily borne out by every NBA champ—I refuse to believe the 2006 Heat were "one unit" and the embodiment of character—but more than often than not, you'll see that Bradley's sentiment still dominates among the best teams in basketball.
The Spurs teams that peppered the decade with championships. The Pistons team from '04. The Celtics in '08. Even last year's Lakers. With each, there was a sense of unity that emerged, even if came afterward, that allowed us to see one unit, as opposed to a collection of individuals. Even today, that's what allows you to win in the NBA. The game is still the game. That's why we'll always love it.
Too often, we hear people talk wistfully of the "good ole days" of basketball, decrying the decay that's taken root in contemporary times. "The game's not the same," they say. But here's Bradley, an icon of the "fundamental basketball" that's mourned by the purists out there, saying essentially, not much has changed. The DNA of winners is still the same, and without fail, the game basketball still provides those rare, perfect moments that are just ... Beautiful.
With the NBA Finals around the corner, it's a welcome reminder.
The game is still the game, and it will always be the game. To win a championship in 2010, you have to do the same things you had to do in 1973. So don't fall prey to disillusionment. And over the next two weeks, sit back and enjoy. Chances are, something beautiful will happen.
(photo via New York Daily News)