More than 40 years since taking the college basketball world by storm, he remains the face of the Ivy League. And that has nothing to do with his service as a United States Senator or his run for President.
For Bill Bradley, the seeds of Princeton and the Ivy League were planted at an early age. "Other people on the sandlot wanted to be 'Hopalong' Cassidy of Ohio State and I wanted to be Dick Kazmaier of Princeton," recalls the Basketball Hall of Famer, referring to the 1951 Heisman Trophy winner.
The other resonating image for Bradley as a youngster was seeing Yale's John Lee grace the cover of a 1957 issue of Sports Illustrated. "That had a kind of reorienting effect on me because it told me you could get the best education and, at the same time, compete against the best."
But the greatest basketball player ever to play in the Ivy League almost didn't end up there. One of the most celebrated players in Missouri high school basketball history, Bradley received more than 70 scholarship offers before originally deciding on Duke. Soon after, he suffered a broken foot playing baseball, an injury that caused the high school senior to contemplate a life without the game that had come to consume his life.
"I thought to myself, 'Well, where would I go if I didn't play basketball?'"
"The Princeton freshman class was supposed to convene on a Monday and the Duke freshman class on a Wednesday," remembers Bradley. "On the previous Friday I came home from a date and I woke my parents up and told them I had changed my mind."
Bradley's impact was felt immediately and Princeton basketball would never be the same.
In his 1965 book A Sense of Where You Are, Pulitzer Prize winning author John McPhee tells the story of the first time he saw Bradley play in a freshman game against Penn. McPhee describes a sold out Dillon Gym with "a large crowd outside."
They were there to see Bradley, who would score more than 30 points a game for the freshman team. During one stretch, he connected on 57 consecutive free throws – a mark then unmatched by any other player, college or professional.
It was naturally a smooth transition for Bradley on the basketball court, but he underwent his share of initial struggles in the classroom. "The first year was very tough for me academically," says Bradley. "I almost flunked out in my second semester. I was playing baseball too, so I quit baseball and spent all my time studying and pulled my grades up at the end of the year."
Once acclimated to the academic rigors of Princeton, Bradley picked up right where he had left off as a freshman, scoring 28 points in his varsity debut against Lafayette in 1962 on his way to a 27.3-point, 12.2-rebound average for the season, while leading Princeton to the Ivy League title. The Tigers would go on to lose to St. Joseph's by a point in the first round of the NCAA tournament, despite a 40-point effort by Bradley.
Princeton repeated its Ivy League supremacy again in 1963-64, with Bradley adding to his growing legacy as each game passed. He broke the single-game Ivy scoring mark with 49 points versus Cornell in Ithaca – with 37 coming in the second half. Later in the year against Harvard in Dillon, he surpassed his own record, pouring in 51 points on 18 field goals, both Ivy League records that still stand.
Long-time Associated Press writer Jack Scheuer remembers one of Bradley's trips into The Palestra. "There was one particular game where, in warm-ups, we were all watching him from the press area," recalls Scheuer, who has covered Philadelphia area basketball since the 1960s. "And this number goes up and down every year but I think it was 26 straight jumpers that he made. He moved all around the court. We just watched in awe."
In the summer of 1964, the entire world watched in amazement as the "Pride of Princeton" – the basketball prodigy who would leave a game in Dillon and go straight to the library or return from an Ivy weekend road trip only to wake up and teach Sunday School a few hours later – helped lead Team USA to Olympic gold in Tokyo. He submitted his application for a Rhodes Scholarship the day before he returned to the states with his new hardware.
"He's one of the finest players and finest gentlemen I've ever met," said fellow Hall of Famer Hank Iba, who coached Bradley on the Olympic Team.
Bradley would return to Princeton that fall even more of a national celebrity and even more focused on helping bring a national championship to Old Nassau. So determined was he that he began using his notoriety to attract surrounding talent.
"I became very active trying to recruit people to Princeton that I thought were good basketball players and academically acceptable," says Bradley. "I recruited three or four players that really made the 1965 team."
As it turns out, Bradley would have made an excellent coach as well. That 1965 team would become the most successful in school history, capturing its third straight Ivy crown while advancing to Princeton's first and only Final Four appearance.
"We came together that year and we had a great season," says Bradley of his senior year.
The Tigers rolled to a 13-1 Ivy mark, with their only loss coming to Cornell by a single point. Against Cazzie Russell and top-ranked Michigan in the ECAC Holiday Classic at Madison Square Garden, Princeton led the Wolverines 77-63 when Bradley fouled out having scored 41 points with four minutes and 37 seconds left to play. Michigan used a 16-1 run to close the game as they won on a Russell jumper with three seconds remaining.
For Bradley, the shining moment of that season was Princeton's dominating performance in the East Regional Final, as the Tigers pounced on heavy favorites Providence 109-69 – a game where everything just seemed to come together for the Tigers as they collectively made 14 consecutive field goals during a stretch in the second half.
Bradley would score another 41 points but remembers that game as being a great team performance.
"If I look back on all the basketball games I've been in in my life, it was one of the five best team efforts."
And that statement says a lot, considering Bradley would go on to win two NBA titles with the New York Knicks on two of the greatest NBA teams ever assembled.
Princeton would go on to lose their next game, a Final Four rematch with Michigan, ending their hopes of a national championship, but Bradley was not done. In the consolation game – his final as a collegiate – he went off, scoring a Final Four record 58 points versus Wichita State on 22-of-29 shooting from the field and 14-of-15 from the foul line, to go along with 17 rebounds.
"I was playing my game and throwing the ball to my teammates," remembers Bradley. "Suddenly I found that my teammates were throwing the ball back to me. The coach [Bill Van Breda Kolff] called a timeout and he said to me 'Look, this is your last game, shoot the blank ball.' So I did."
All in all, Bradley would go down in history as the most prolific scorer Princeton and the Ivy League had ever known, amassing 2,503 points in his three varsity seasons while grabbing 1,008 rebounds, the most in Princeton basketball history. He was a three-time All-Ivy selection and a three-time All-American.
Bradley was awarded a Rhodes Scholarship and graduated with honors in 1965. Ironically, just as his aforementioned Ivy heroes Kazmaier and Lee had done, Bradley deferred a professional career in sports, instead electing to pursue his academic studies at Oxford.
When he finally made his way into an NBA uniform with the New York Knicks, he put together a Hall of Fame career, winning two NBA World Championships in 1970 and 1973.
"He was the quintessential teammate," says fellow NBA Hall of Famer Walt Frazier, who lists working on Bradley's 2000 Presidential campaign as "one of the highlights of [his] life." "He lead by example with a quiet fortitude. We had a nice rapport going with the back door passes, but he's a better person than he is a basketball player."
After retiring from the game in 1977, Bradley embarked upon his next challenge, a career in politics. He was elected to the United States Senate in New Jersey in 1979, where he held his seat until 1997. After running for President in 2000, Bradley stepped away from politics and now serves as a managing director for the investment-banking firm Allen and Company, LLC. He hosts a weekly radio show on Sirius Satellite Radio called "American Voices."
No matter the words used to describe him, they fail to do Bill Bradley justice. From the moment he stepped on campus at Princeton, he has understood what it's all about.
"Bill was a terrific teammate, a great player and a wonderful person who possesses tremendous character," says Princeton Athletic Director Gary Walters, whom Bradley helped recruit and calls "an integral part" of the 1965 Final Four team. "He was larger than life as an undergraduate."
"I felt that one of the things I was doing at Princeton was upholding an ideal," said Bradley. "It was trying to prove that a team of real students could actually compete against the best. And so that was a result in part of the team being in the Ivy League and the high standards that the league had, and I always felt honored to be a representative of the League."
In summing up his Princeton experience, Bradley recites the final three lines of the Robert Frost poem "The Road Not Taken:"
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I-
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.
"To me it was the most important decision that I've made in my life. It opened up a whole new world to me that I would never have known."
— Wesley Harris