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Basketball friends generous to Bradley

By Mary Leonard, Globe Staff, 07/27/99

ASHINGTON - Forty-five minutes before the event, organizers still weren't sure if Celtics legend John Havlicek would show up at a Boston fund-raiser for former Knicks forward Bill Bradley.

After all, Havlicek had to reschedule ''a few things,'' travel in from Hyannis, overcome an allergy to politics, and - this was critical - say something nice about a rival ''whose hand,'' Havlicek later told the crowd, ''is imprinted on my butt.''

The evening last month, full of jock jokes, was a success for Bradley. The former New York basketball star and three-term Democratic senator from New Jersey raised more than $225,000 for his presidential campaign. Havlicek, who retired from the Celtics in 1978, spoke briefly to about 200 people at the Park Plaza Hotel and signed autographs into the night.

''It's unusual I'd be doing this, but then I've never had a friend who ever ran for president,'' said Havlicek, 59, who owns three Wendy's restaurants and was, Bradley says, the toughest opponent he ever had to guard. ''I like Bradley, I always liked playing against him, and now I'm in his corner.''

So are many other National Basketball Association greats whose glory days on the court are history but still have the moves to attract adoring audiences and coax $1,000 checks for Bradley's campaign.

This fraternity of Basketball Hall of Famers, former college players, and a number of sports franchise owners, coaches, and general managers, has come together in an informal fund-raising network that is not only unprecedented in presidential politics but also giving new meaning to Bradley's nickname during his Knick years: ''Dollar Bill.''

Cerebral senator

What makes it even more notable is that for the last two decades Bradley has honed the image of a cerebral senator and serious policy wonk and been loath to exploit his status as an NBA star. Now, as he runs for president, Bradley seems to be both capitalizing on the political potency of celebrity - pro wrestler Jesse Ventura's upset win in the Minnesota governor's race last year is a classic example - and accenting the All-American values he and other squeaky-clean athletes from another era brought to the game.

The Bradley campaign will hold ''Hoopla,'' its single largest sports-centered fund-raiser, today in Chicago, featuring Havlicek and another former Celtic, Paul Silas, and players from the Knicks championship teams of 1970 and 1973 - Willis Reed, Cazzie Russell, Earl Monroe, Phil Jackson, and Dave DeBusschere. The old pros, including Bradley, promise to mingle with the expected crowd of 1,500. For an extra $500 on top of the $100 and $250 ticket prices, they will shoot a few hoops with contributor-fans.

''For a lot of young sports fans, being with these Hall of Famers is like going to Mount Olympus,'' said Rick Wright, who played on the Princeton team with Bradley, a three-time collegiate All-American and now is national finance director of Bradley's presidential campaign. ''And having legends like Havlicek around is very positive for us.''

In an interview, Bradley said it is ''particularly gratifying'' but not so surprising that men who intensely and intimately shared an important time with him are on his new team. ''Playing with or against each other creates bonds that last a lifetime,'' said Bradley, who thinks of his Knicks teammates ''like family.''

Bradley said the veterans ''capture something bigger than basketball'' in the memories and imagination of older fans. Not so the younger ones. ''They come up and ask me why we wore such short shorts,'' Bradley said.

David Cohen, a 35-year-old Washington lawyer, says that for younger voters who are cynical about politics, Bradley's link to the world of pro basketball gives him credibility and stature other candidates don't have. ''If Phil Jackson says he's great,'' Cohen said as he waited to hear Bradley speak last week, ''that's good enough for me.''

Wright said he can't estimate how much of the $11.7 million collected by the campaign so far comes from the basketball network, but 15 to 20 of Bradley's largest fund-raisers have been headlined by sports figures, he said. Events with Jackson, a close Bradley friend who guided the Chicago Bulls to six NBA championships and is the new coach of the Los Angeles Lakers, reaped more than $1 million each in Chicago, San Francisco, and Brunswick, N.J.

Staying competitive

Such financial backing is helping Bradley stay competitive as he takes on Vice President Al Gore, the front-runner for the Democratic nomination. Bradley's July 15 filing with the Federal Election Commission showed his campaign had $7.5 million cash on hand, close to Gore's $9.3 million.

Larry Lucchino, another Princeton player who is now president of the San Diego Padres baseball team, got owner John Moores Jr. to agree to raise $1 million for Bradley. Washington Wizards owner Abe Pollin, who calls Gore ''a close friend,'' hosted a fund-raising lunch for Bradley at his country estate. Jerry Colangelo, president of the Phoenix Suns, held a fund-raiser last month for Bradley, even though he is supporting a fellow Arizonan, Republican Senator John McCain, for president.

In what could be Bradley's biggest sports coup, Michael Jordan gave the campaign the maximum $1,000, an amount matched by his wife, Juanita. Jordan said on ''Larry King Live'' he respected Bradley's leadership so much that ''I do see myself supporting him.'' Asked if Jordan would campaign for him, Bradley said, ''I don't think that will happen.''

For the time being, the Knicks' No. 24 is managing without the Bulls' No. 23 to make his core support group, investment bankers, lawyers, and Wall Street brokers, wax nostalgic about New York's golden days and open their wallets. At a recent fund-raiser at a Manhattan athletic club, the 55-year-old Bradley delighted donors by picking up a basketball and sinking two free throws with his eyes shut, Wright said.

''It's not just that Bill Bradley was a terrific basketball player,'' said author David Halberstam, whose most recent sports book is about Jordan. ''It's that he was the prototype of the scholar-athlete, a young, middle-class man in the Ivy League who did his homework and willed himself to be the best. He captured the imagination of a particular class of guys who could relate to him and who would have liked to do the kinds of things he did and would have liked to play ball the way he played.''

The mythology of the 6-foot-5-inch Bradley, arguably the best player in Ivy League history, the captain of the 1964 US Olympic gold medal basketball team, and a member of the Basketball Hall of Fame, looms large indeed in his official campaign biography.

It tells how relentlessly Bradley practiced (As a boy growing up in Crystal City, Mo., he would take 25 shots in a row from different spots around the basket. If he missed one, he would start over). It records how he was offered athletic scholarships from 75 colleges, chose Duke, but switched at the last minute to Princeton (which gave him no money) because it had a better record of producing Rhodes scholars. It recalls how he would score a record-shattering 45 points on a Saturday night for the Tigers, go straight from the game to the library, and study until it was time to teach his regular Sunday school class.

Drafted by Knicks

After college, Bradley was drafted by the Knicks but opted to spend a year at Oxford as a Rhodes scholar first. He wasn't the biggest, strongest, or quickest player when he joined the team in 1967, but he played hard and smart and blended with a squad fabled for its talent and teamwork. As a pro, Bradley refused to endorse products, and he became known as Dollar Bill because he was so frugal that he wore threadbare sportscoats and drove an old Volkswagen bug.

Bradley was tenacious but never pretentious, and he took a lot of ribbing for it, said veteran ABC-TV sportscaster Dick Schaap. Bradley once told DeBusschere, his roommate on the road, that he didn't want a car radio because it was too disconcerting while he drove. ''Dave didn't have the heart to tell Bill you could turn it off,'' Schaap said.

Richard Lapchick, director of Northeastern University's Center for the Study of Sport in Society, said part of the mystique of Bradley and the veterans backing him is they stood for old-fashioned values of hard work, selflessness, and discipline that are increasingly hard to identify in many of today's highly paid and sometimes badly behaved professional athletes.

''We're in a transitional stage where people are losing faith in sports figures,'' said Lapchick, whose father, Joe, was a New York Celtics Hall of Famer and later a Knicks coach. ''Players like Bill Bradley came from a different generation. He made his reputation when sports were clean and uncriticized, and athletes had positive baggage to carry.''

Bradley's fame was certainly a factor in his first Senate race, which he won in 1978, just a year after retiring from the Knicks. Other sports figures have succeeded in national politics, but Bradley is the first professional athlete to make a serious bid for the White House, and the sports myth may serve as more than a money magnet for the campaign. Doug McAuliffe, media strategist for Kentucky Senator Jim Bunning, a baseball Hall of Famer, said Bradley doesn't have to overcome the image of a ''dumb jock.'' He predicted the candidate's athletic legend will be an important link to traditional Democratic voters, particularly men, and make it hard for Gore to demonize him.

''Al Gore has a national name because of where he has been. Bill Bradley has a national name for what he has done and how he has performed in basketball and the Senate,'' said Donald Dell, a Bradley fund-raiser and chairman of ProServ Inc., a sports marketing company. ''The qualities that made Bradley a great player - the self-confidence, the mental toughness, the intense competitiveness - will emerge in this campaign.''

Larry Makinson, executive director of the Center for Responsive Politics, a nonprofit group that studies campaign finances, said Bradley's campaign is unique because ''it definitely seems to have access to a network of donors that other candidates don't have'' and is built more on friendships than favor-seeking. ''If you are going to have a network of fund-raisers, I would prefer it to be sports stars rather than Washington lobbyists,'' Makinson said. ''It seems more innocent.''

Reed to the rescue

Willis Reed, the powerful center on the Knicks' two championship teams of the 1970s, said he normally doesn't get involved in politics, but these days he goes where the Bradley campaign needs him, simply out of respect and affection for his former teammate. ''Bradley understood what he could do, and he always went out and did it well,'' said Reed, who calls Bradley ''a special person and a close friend.''

Reed, who is now a senior vice president of the NBA's New Jersey Nets, said he doesn't want or expect anything in return for his help. ''All I want to be is a friend of the president,'' said Reed, adding, however, he was sure ''my wife would make me go to his inauguration.''

This story ran on page A01 of the Boston Globe on 07/27/99.
© Copyright 1999 Globe Newspaper Company.

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