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A Tiger's tale

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Posted: Wednesday December 16, 1998 12:12 PM


Bill Bradley came to Princeton when I was a senior there. He had been planning to go to Duke, but then he broke his leg, started browsing through college catalogues again as he recuperated, changed his mind, and sort of showed up, unannounced. The word started drifting up to us on the campus newspaper that there was this incredible freshman with a big rump and arched eyebrows scrimmaging in the gym.

Nowadays, of course, there are rating services that rank high school players, one through 5000, or something like that, but in those quaint days in the '60s, life -- even basketball recruiting -- wasn't quite so organized. There was more mystery to the world then. There was still the chance for pleasant surprises. Anyway, then the basketball season started and everybody understood what a prize had dropped into our laps.

Princeton had a whale of a good varsity team that year. In 1961, we still said varsity, instead of "program." That tells you how innocent it all was. Unfortunately, it was the NCAA rule then that freshman couldn't play varsity, so we would all show up early for the freshman prelim to watch Bradley score 40 points and hand off for 20 assists when he got triple-teamed, toying with little crew-cutted tow-headed boys. We would be quite fired up by the time the hot-shot varsity came on.

In fact, once I remember Charley Eckman, the great and waggish referee, simply taking the ball and standing before our cheering section till we quieted down. "Princetons," he announced, "I got the ball, and the game won't go on till you act more like Princetons."

Bradley was a welcome addition to the Tiger's campaign Bruce Roberts 

But Bradley had arrived in a sad interregnum. The long-time basketball coach, Cappy Cappon, had just dropped dead of a heart attack. Cappy was quite a character. It was he who told me once at practice -- where I was impersonating an athlete: "Deford, you write basketball better than you play it."

But Cappy's death left a football assistant pressed into charge of the basketball team. All recruiting lapsed, and when Bradley moved up to the varsity as a sophomore, the senior stars had graduated and the rest of the team was pretty thin soup.

Now myself, I had also moved on, to be a lowly assistant reporter at Sports Illustrated, and there I mentioned one day that -- believe it or not -- the best sophomore basketball player in all the nation was down at my little Ivy League alma mater. Most everybody snickered at my foolish old-tie loyalty, but one editor took note of one of the more arcane things I had mentioned about Bradley, that during his freshman season, he had made 63 free throws in a row. At the time, the NBA record, held by Bill Sharman, was only 56. So, almost for a lark, I, the kid writer, was assigned to do a story on the kid player, and it ran -- under the provocative headline "A Princeton boy who beat the pros."

It was the first the world at large learned of Bill Bradley. But hey -- it was also my first big-deal byline. And, of course, simply because Bradley was, in fact, all I had said he was, my stock as a basketball expert took a quantum leap. Then, since some good players came to Princeton to play alongside of him, by his senior year the team was good enough to make the Final Four -- and Bradley was the player of the year in college basketball.

It all makes me think how right now, as Bradley's presidential campaign begins, that he's that undervalued Princeton freshman again, up against the pros.

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