Last week, I published a piece examining the changes in sportswriting over time and offering my take on what types of sports articles we need more of. I began my analysis by discussing “A Sense of Where You Are”, a 1965 New Yorker profile of Bill Bradley written by John McPhee.
As a bit of an addendum, I wanted to share some of my favorite quotes from that profile.
“His first afternoon at Lawrenceville, he began by shooting fourteen-foot jump shots from the right side. He got off to a bad start, and he kept missing them. Six in a row hit the back rim of the basket and bounced out. He stopped, looking discomfited, and seemed to be making an adjustment in his mind. Then he went up for another jump shot from the same spot and hit it cleanly. Four more shots went in without a miss, and then he paused and said, “You want to know something? That basket is about an inch and a half low.” Some weeks later, I went back to Lawrenceville with a steel tape, borrowed a stepladder, and measured the height of the basket. It was nine feet ten and seven-eighths inches above the floor, or one and one-eighth inches too low.”
“When he is dribbling, he can pass accurately without first catching the ball. He can also manage almost any pass without appearing to cock his arm, or even bring his hand back. He just seems to flick his fingers and the ball is gone. Other Princeton players aren’t always quite expecting Bradley’s passes when they arrive, for Bradley is usually thinking a little bit ahead of everyone else on the floor. When he was a freshman, he was forever hitting his teammates on the mouth, the temple, or the back of the head with passes as accurate as they were surprising. His teammates have since sharpened their own faculties, and these accidents seldom happen now.”
“Bradley’s play has just one somewhat unsound aspect, and it is the result of his mania for throwing the ball to his teammates. He can’t seem to resist throwing a certain number of passes that are based on nothing but theory and hope; in fact, they are referred to by the Princeton coaching staff as Bradley’s hope passes. They happen, usually, when something has gone just a bit wrong. Bradley is recovering a loose ball, say, with his back turned to the other Princeton players. Before he turned it, he happened to notice a screen, or pick-off, being set by two of his teammates, its purpose being to cause one defensive man to collide with another and thus free an offensive man to receive a pass and score. Computations whir in Bradley’s head. He hasn’t time to look, but the screen, as he saw it developing, seemed to be working, so a Princeton man should now be in the clear, running toward the basket with one arm up. He whips the ball over his shoulder to the spot where the man ought to be. Sometimes a hope pass goes flying into the crowd, but most of the time they hit the receiver right in the hand, and a gasp comes from several thousand people. Bradley is sensitive about such dazzling passes, because they look flashy, and an edge comes into his voice as he defends them. “When I was halfway down the court, I saw a man out of the corner of my eye who had on the same color shirt I did,” he said recently, explaining how he happened to fire a scoring pass while he was falling out of bounds. “A little later, when I threw the pass, I threw it to the spot where that man should have been if he had kept going and done his job. He was there. Two points.”
“He is painfully aware of his celebrity. The nature of it and the responsibility that it imposes are constantly on his mind. He remembers people’s names, and greets them by name when he sees them again. He seems to want to prove that he finds other people interesting. “The main thing I have to prevent myself from becoming is disillusioned with transitory success,” he said recently. “It’s dangerous. It’s like a heavy rainstorm. It can do damage or it can do good, permitting something to grow.”
“If he seems ministerial, that is because he is. He has a firm sense of what is right, and apparently feels that he has a mission to help others see things as clearly as he does. “I don’t try to be overbearing in what I believe, but, given a chance, I will express my beliefs,” he says. After the Olympics were over, he stayed in the Far East an extra week to make a series of speeches at universities in Taiwan and Hong Kong.”
“Nevertheless, considerable numbers of Princeton undergraduates have told me that Bradley is easily the most widely admired student on the campus and probably the best liked, and that his skill at basketball is not the only way in which he atones for his moral altitude. He has worked for the Campus Fund Drive, which is a sort of Collegiate Gothic community chest, and for the Orange Key Society, an organization that, among other things, helps freshmen settle down into college life. One effect that Bradley has had on Princeton has been to widen noticeably the undergraduate body’s tolerance for people with high ethical standards. “He is a source of inspiration to anyone who comes in contact with him,” one of his classmates says. “You look at yourself and you decide to do better.”
“Of the future beyond Oxford, he says only that he wants to go to law school and later “set a Christian example by implementing my feelings within the structure of the society,” adding, “I value my ultimate goals more than playing basketball.” I have asked all sorts of people who know Bradley, or know about him, what they think he will be doing when he is forty. A really startling number of them, including teachers, coaches, college boys, and even journalists, give the same answer: “He will be the governor of Missouri.” The chief dissent comes from people who look beyond the stepping stone of the Missouri State House and calmly tell you that Bradley is going to be President. Last spring, Leonard Shecter, of the New York Post, began a column by saying, “In twenty-five years or so our presidents are going to have to be better than ever. It’s nice to know that Bill Bradley will be available.” Edward Rapp, Bradley’s high-school principal, once said, “With the help of his friends, Bill could very well be President of the United States. And without the help of his friends he might make it anyway.”
“He refuses on principle to say that Bradley is the best basketball player he has ever coached, and he is also careful not to echo the general feeling that Bradley is the most exemplary youth since Lochinvar, but he will go out of his way to tell about the reaction of referees to Bradley. “The refs watch Bradley like a hawk, but, because he never complains, they feel terrible if they make an error against him,” he says. “They just love him because he is such a gentleman. They get upset if they call a bad one on him.” I asked van Breda Kolff what he thought Bradley would be doing when he was forty. “I don’t know,” he said “I guess he’ll be the governor of Missouri.”
“With just under four minutes to go, and Princeton comfortably ahead by five points, Bradley committed his fifth foul and left the court. For several minutes, the game was interrupted as the crowd stood and applauded him; the game was being played in Philadelphia, where hostility toward Princeton is ordinarily great but where the people know a folk hero when they see one. After the cheering ended, the blood drained slowly out of Princeton, whose other players could not hold the lead.”
“Bradley develops a relationship with his man that is something like the relationship between a yoyoist and his yoyo. “I’m on the side of the floor,” he postulates, “and I want to play with my man a little bit, always knowing where the ball is but not immediately concerned with getting it. Basketball is a game of two or three men, and you have to know how to stay out of a play and not clutter it up. I cut to the baseline. My man will follow me. I’ll cut up to the high-post position. He’ll follow me. I’ll cut to the low-post position. He’ll follow me. I’ll go back out to my side position. He’ll follow. I’ll fake to the center of the floor and go hard to the baseline, running my man into a pick set at the low-post position. I’m not running him into a pick in order to get free for a shot — I’m doing it simply to irritate him. I come up on the other side of the basket, looking to see if a teammate feels that I’m open. They can’t get the ball to me at that instant. Now my man is back with me. I go out to the side. I set a screen for the guard. He sees the situation. He comes toward me. He dribbles hard past me, running his man into my back. I feel the contact. My man switches off me, leaving the pass lane open for a split second. I go hard to the basket and take a bounce pass for a shot. Two points.”
“With both eyes open and looking straight ahead, Bradley sees a hundred and ninety-five degrees on the horizontal and about seventy degrees straight down, or about fifteen and five degrees more, respectively, than what is officially considered perfection. Most surprising, however, is what he can see above him. Focussed horizontally, the typical perfect eye, according to the chart, can see about forty-seven degrees upward. Bradley can see seventy degrees upward. This no doubt explains why he can stare at the floor while he is waiting for lobbed passes to arrive from above. Dr. Abrams said that he doubted whether a person who tried to expand his peripheral vision through exercises could succeed, but he was fascinated to learn that when Bradley was a young boy he tried to do just that. As he walked down the main street of Crystal City, for example, he would keep his eyes focussed straight ahead and try to identify objects in the windows of stores he was passing. For all this, however, Bradley cannot see behind himself. Much of the court and, thus, a good deal of the action are often invisible to a basketball player, so he needs more than good eyesight. He needs to know how to function in the manner of a blind man as well. When, say, four players are massed in the middle of things behind Bradley, and it is inconvenient for him to look around, his hands reach back and his fingers move rapidly from shirt to shirt or hip to hip. He can read the defense as if he were reading Braille.”
“With all his analyses of its mechanics, Bradley may have broken his game down into its components, but he has reassembled it so seamlessly that all the parts, and also his thousands of hours of practice, are concealed. He is as fluidly graceful as any basketball player I have ever seen. Quite apart from the excitement produced by the scoreboard, a spectator cannot help feeling a considerable elation as he watches Bradley accomplish his fakes and moves and shots. He does it all with a floating economy of motion and a beguiling offhandedness that appeal to the imagination. Many basketball players, outstanding ones included, have a tendency to be rather tastelessly rococo in their style, and Bradley stands out in contrast to them because he adorns nothing that he does. When a game is won beyond doubt, and Bradley leaves the court with three or four minutes to go, the coach of the opposing team has sometimes halted play to walk down to the Princeton bench and shake his hand. The coach doesn’t do this just because Bradley has scored thirty-five or forty points but because he has done it so uncompromisingly well.”
One additional factor — something that meant relatively little to Bradley — was that the game was to be played in Madison Square Garden. Bradley had never played in the Garden, but, because he mistrusts metropolitan standards, he refused to concede that the mere location of the coming test meant anything at all. When a reporter asked him how he felt about appearing there, he replied, “It’s just like any other place. The baskets are ten feet high.”
Connor Groel is currently enrolled in the Northwestern University MSJ Program at the Medill School of Journalism. He additionally holds a Bachelor’s degree in sport management from the University of Texas at Austin. Connor serves as editor of the Top Level Sports publication on Medium. His book, “Sports, Technology, and Madness,” is available now. You can follow Connor on Medium, YouTube, Facebook, and Twitter, and view his archives at toplevelsports.net.