Lessons learned from a game well-played

Basketball is Life…the rest is just details. When I was growing up I had a t-shirt that said just that and I wore it until it fell apart.

I loved the game from an early age and I watched it every chance I got. My earliest memories were of college basketball on a small black and white TV in my uncle’s basement. Several grown men and myself watching Duke against the University of Michigan and Cazzie Russell in 1964. Duke beat Michigan 91-80 on that night to advance to the NCAA Championship game against UCLA, only to become the first victim of John Wooden’s 10 national championships.

The more that I knew about the game and the people who played it and coached it, the more I have wanted to know. In my years working at the University of North Carolina basketball camp, I spent much of my free time listening to the stories of the late York Larese, one of New Yorkers brought down to Chapel Hill by Coach Frank McGuire in the late 1950s and early 60s.

As we stood in Woollen Gym, Larese would muse about games he played in the gym, pointing to places on the floor and plays that happened there.

Like so many things, the game seemed different then. There was a purity to it that so often is missing from the game that has developed today. While the athletes that play today are certainly better, the idea of the team above self is far from being universal, particularly in the pro ranks where the current practice of superstars “teaming up” has left the game with only a handful of teams capable of claiming the world championship.

The Boston Celtics stole the hearts of many NBA fans in the 1950s and 60s, primarily because of the great display of teamwork on exhibit every night the Celtics took the floor. Celtics center Bill Russell was the epitome of the team player, sacrificing so much of his individual game for the good of the team. Russell and Wilt Chamberlain staged epic battles and Chamberlain almost always came out on top head to head, but more often than not it was the Celtics who wore the crown at season’s end.

One of the most unique players of that era was the New York Knicks, Bill Bradley. Bradley had a 10-year career with the New York Knicks and was part of world championship teams in 1970 and 1973. While Bradley was a steady presence for the Knicks during his time there, it was the path he took getting to the Knicks that was far from run of the mill.

Growing up near St. Louis in a small Missouri town along the Mississippi River, Bradley had a work ethic second to none. Bradley wrote of his work ethic in his book, “Values of the Game.” As a young player, Bradley went to a summer basketball camp run by Ed Macauley of the St. Louis Hawks. Bradley recalled Macauley telling campers that when players of equal ability were to play against each other, the one who practiced the most would win.

Bradley took the advice to heart and was determined to never be outworked. In the chapter entitled, “Discipline”, Bradley outlined a regiment of skill development that became his constant companion. From June to September, Bradley worked out three hours a day, four days a week. From September to March, the workload increased to every day, three hours during the week and five hours on Saturday and Sunday. Prior to the beginning of the season, Bradley ran the roads, worked on his vertical leap, and improved his dribbling.

Bradley credits the discipline he developed in basketball carrying over to the other parts of his life. Bradley was one of the most sought-after high school players in the country, scoring over 3,000 points in his high school career. He originally decided to go to Duke, but during the summer after his senior year he broke his foot playing baseball. The injury led Bradley to consider the vulnerability of a career dependent upon a body void of injury.

With that in mind, Bradley changed his college pick to Princeton, although he would do so without any financial aid. The Ivy League did not offer athletic scholarships and Bradley’s family did not qualify for aid based on need. During his freshman year at Princeton, Bradley struggled academically, but using the same work ethic he did during high school basketball, Bradley rebounded and by his senior year, his grades were in line with other members of the graduating class.

The struggles in the classroom did not carry over to the court, where Bradley flourished. Freshmen were not allowed to play varsity basketball, but during his final three years at Princeton, he scored 1,253 points, averaging 29.83 points per game. Bradley’s coach at Princeton, Bill Van Breda Koff, said it wasn’t Bradley’s physical attributes that made him the player he was, but instead, his “self-discipline.”

Observers say Bradley’s average could have been much higher if not one of the other values that Bradley writes about, “Selflessness.” Bradley made what was referred to as “hope passes”. Hope passes were passes that Bradley made to open teammates less likely to score than Bradley. It was one of those principles in which Bradley believed.

During his senior season at Princeton, Bradley decided to put an NBA career on hold and go to graduate school, but not just any graduate school. Bradley applied for and received a Rhodes scholarship and spent the next two years studying at Oxford University in England.

Following his NBA career, Bradley pursued a role in politics, serving as a U.S. Senator from New Jersey. Bradley said his basketball background even carried over to his government work. Bradley described once hiring a director for his senate office that he was unsure was a good hire. Once they played basketball together, Bradley said the employee was a good rebounder, played good defense and screened away from the ball.

For Bradley, those traits added up to being a hard worker, competitive and unselfish. Bradley said it was then he knew he had made the right choice.

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