A Sense of Where You Are: Bill Bradley at Princeton by John McPhee

Summary

  1. John McPhee was able to spend time and get to know Bill Bradley during his heydays at Princeton. McPhee beautifully writes about Bill, not only as a basketball player but as a person too

Key Takeaways

  1. I watched the general flow on the court for a while, and it was soon clear enough who had drawn the crowd, and that he was the most graceful and classical basketball player who had ever been near Princeton, to say the very least. Every motion developed in its simplest form. Every motion repeated itself precisely when he used it again. He was remarkably fast, but he ran easily. His passes were so good that they were difficult to follow. Every so often, and not often enough, I thought, he stopped and went high into the air with the ball, his arms rising until his hands were at right angles to one another and high above him, and a long jump shot would go into the net. My father, once a college basketball player himself, was so moved by this that he nudged me with his elbow. It was not the two points, obviously enough—it was the form and the manner with which they had been scored. I looked from the boy’s number down to the mimeographed sheet in my hand. His name was Bill Bradley. He was six feet, five inches tall. And he came from Crystal City, Missouri.
  2. He not only worked hard on defense, for example, he worked hard on defense when the other team was hopelessly beaten. He did all kinds of things he didn’t have to do simply because those were the dimensions of the game.
  3. The most interesting thing about Bill Bradley was not just that he was a great basketball player, but that he succeeded so amply in other things that he was doing at the same time, reached a more promising level of attainment, and, in the end, put basketball aside because he had something better to do.
  4. For one thing, he has overcome the disadvantage of wealth. A great basketball player, almost by definition, is someone who has grown up in a constricted world, not for lack of vision or ambition but for lack of money; his environment has been limited to home, gym, and playground, and it has forced upon him, as a developing basketball player, the discipline of having nothing else to do. Bradley must surely be the only great basketball player who wintered regularly in Palm Beach until he was thirteen years old.
  5. Bradley says that when he was seventeen he came to realize that life was much longer than a few winters of basketball. He is quite serious in his application to the game, but he has wider interests and, particularly, bigger ambitions. He is a history student, interested in politics, and last July he worked for Governor Scranton in Washington.
  6. Bradley is one of the few basketball players who have ever been appreciatively cheered by a disinterested away-from-home crowd while warming up.
  7. “When you have played basketball for a while, you don’t need to look at the basket when you are in close like this,” he said, throwing it over his shoulder again and right through the hoop. “You develop a sense of where you are.”
  8. Most basketball players appropriate fragments of other players’ styles, and thus develop their own. This is what Bradley has done, but one of the things that set him apart from nearly everyone else is that the process has been conscious rather than osmotic. His jump shot, for example, has had two principal influences. One is Jerry West, who has one of the best jumpers in basketball. At a summer basketball camp in Missouri some years ago, West told Bradley that he always gives an extra hard bounce to the last dribble before a jump shot, since this seems to catapult him to added height. Bradley has been doing that ever since. Terry Dischinger, of the Detroit Pistons, has told Bradley that he always slams his foot to the floor on the last step before a jump shot, because this stops his momentum and thus prevents drift. Drifting while aloft is the mark of a sloppy jump shot. Bradley’s graceful hook shot is a masterpiece of eclecticism. It consists of the high-lifted knee of the Los Angeles Lakers’ Darrall Imhoff, the arms of Bill Russell, of the Boston Celtics, who extends his idle hand far under his shooting arm and thus magically stabilizes the shot, and the general corporeal form of Kentucky’s Cotton Nash, a rookie this year with the Lakers. Bradley carries his analyses of shots further than merely identifying them with pieces of other people.
  9. His high-scoring totals are the result of his high percentage of accuracy, not of an impulse to shoot every time he gets the ball.
  10. 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.
  11. 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.”
  12. One of his most enviable gifts is his ability to regiment his conscious mind. After a game, for example, most college players, if they try to study, see all the action over again between the lines in their books. Bradley can, and often does, go straight to the library and work for hours, postponing his mental re-play as long as he cares
  13. “Basketball discipline carries over into your life,” continuing, “You’ve got to face that you’re going to lose. Losses are part of every season, and part of life. The question is, can you adjust? It is important that you don’t get caught up in your own little defeats.”
  14. The metaphor of basketball is to be found in these compounding alternatives. Every time a basketball player takes a step, an entire new geometry of action is created around him. In ten seconds, with or without the ball, a good player may see perhaps a hundred alternatives and, from them, make half a dozen choices as he goes along. A great player will see even more alternatives and will make more choices, and this multiradial way of looking at things can carry over into his life. At least, it carries over into Bradley’s life.
  15. “The average basketball player only likes to play basketball,” van Breda Kolff says. “When he’s left to himself, all he wants to do is get a two-on-two or a three-on-three going. Bradley practices techniques, making himself learn and improve instead of merely having fun.”
  16. His most remarkable natural gift, however, is his vision. During a game, Bradley’s eyes are always a glaze of panoptic attention, for a basketball player needs to look at everything, focusing on nothing, until the last moment of commitment. Beyond this, it is obviously helpful to a basketball player to be able to see a little more than the next man, and the remark is frequently made about basketball superstars that they have unusual peripheral vision. People used to say that Bob Cousy, the immortal backcourt man of the Boston Celtics, could look due east and enjoy a sunset.
  17. 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 focused straight ahead and try to identify objects in the windows of stores he was passing.
  18. At Princeton, Bradley has become such an excellent basketball player that it is necessary to look beyond college basketball to find a standard that will put him in perspective. The standard’s name is Oscar Robertson, of the Cincinnati Royals, who is the finest basketball player yet developed. Robertson, who is known in basketball as The O, stands out among all professionals for the same reason that Bradley stands out among all amateurs. Other players have certain individual skills that are sharper, but Bradley and Robertson are accomplished in every aspect of the game.
  19. 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.

What I got out of it

  1. Beautifully written book showing how hard and deliberately Bill practiced to get as good as he was. Also highlighted how humble and multi-faceted he is