Bill Bradley: Basketball and American Culture

stark symposium

Yesterday the Stark Center hosted a symposium on Basketball and American culture on the campus of UT.  Introducing Bill Bradley, the keynote speaker, was former basketball coach of the Lady Longhorns Joy Conradt whose 38 year long career involved over 900 wins.  Given Bradley’s accomplishments it was difficult to make the introduction short.  Here are some of the high lights:

  • Two-time All-American high school basketball player
  • 75 college scholarship offers (declines all of them for Princeton which offered no athletic scholarship)
  • Takes Princeton to the NCAA Final Four
  • NCAA Player of the Year in 1965
  • Ivy League career record holder in average points, and free throw percentage.
  • Youngest Olympian on 1964 Gold Medal Team
  • Magna Cum Laude graduate in History
  • Rhodes Scholar (Two years in Oxford instead of going to NBA)
  • Wins European Champions Cup in Basketball (while studying at Oxford)
  • Drafted to the New York Knicks
  • Two time NBA champions during 10 year NBA career
  • Enters politics and is elected to New Jersey Senate – Serves 3 consecutive terms.
  • Runs for Democratic Presidential nominee  (loses to Al Gore in 2000)
  • Currently involved with financial advising, is a member on Starbucks’ Board of Directors, the author of 6 books, and operates a weekly radio program, “American Voices.”

Despite the litany of accomplishments, Bill Bradley walked up to the podium, a towering figure at 6’5, and offered a humble yet powerful “Love Letter to Basketball.”

According to Bradley, his love for the game began when he was a boy growing up on the banks of the Mississippi and his mother decided to put up a hoop in their yard.  With a ball, a hoop, and his own imagination, Bradley emphasized how this love started alone, but grew to the point where he developed a habit of committing himself to 3 hours each school day and 10 hours every weekend to improving his game.  His mother then encouraged him to attend a clinic to be coached by professionals when he was fourteen.  In one of his many anecdotes, Bradley stated that the gym became a place where he felt most like himself.  It became his home.

He then articulated the four central values that he learned in this home which have carried him through all the stages of his life.  These are by no means revolutionary, but I think valuable to consider.

Discipline:  This first value of the game was hammered into Bradley by a high school coach who told him, “If you are not practicing, know that someone with similar goals to you is out there practicing.  And when you meet, which one of you will have your goals realized?”  Bradley took his coaches words seriously and committed himself to rigorous practice, emphasizing that it was done alone when no one else was watching.practice

Selflessness:  This second value of the game came to Bradley from another coach who told him that every player on the court is only “one point on a five-point star.”  Despite the American narrative of rugged individualism, Bradley argued that effective teamwork is only possible when every member acts selflessly.  And this is evident on the court by the players who look to pass before shooting, who screen away from the ball, and who help out on defence.  He pointed out that players who pass when it is their last option, are not selfless.  Like discipline, selflessness is making decisions in a game that are rarely evident to anyone but yourself.  According to one article, the only factor that kept Bradleys scoring average down was the fact that he looked for an open man 90% of the time he had the ball.

Resilience: This third value of the game Bradley defined as a mental toughness to come back from failure.  Despite all of his successes Bradley talked about dealing with many failures in his life.  He lost critical games, had poor freshman grades, and lost to Al Gore in 2000.  That last one had to hurt. Yet each of these he learned to face with resilience because of basketball.  Whenever he lost a game he made sure that he was the first one back in the gym after game day.  He would not allow himself to practice a shot from a different location until he had made 13 in a row.  Bouncing back from failure on the basketball court taught him how to bounce back from it when he moved on from the game.

jump shot

Imagination: The last value of the game Bradley defined as an ability to get others to see the same game in a new way.  For example, someone had to conceive of leaving the ground to shoot a basketball.  Someone had to imagine that the rim could help shield you from a defender if you did a reverse lay-up.  Someone had to imagine you could turn defence into offence by initiating a fast break.  Using your mind to imagine new possibilities is an important factor for being successful in the game, and in other areas of your life.

Again, these four lessons are not revolutionary, but I appreciated Bradley’s ability to show by stories and by his own example how transferable these athletic values are for people navigating their way through life.  Because of this Bradley continues to encourage audiences to celebrate sport and to view coaches as teachers and mentors of young men and women.  He also encourages people to understand that basketball is more than a game.  It is a craft, honed by discipline, enhanced by selflessness, perfected by resilience, and made beautiful by imagination.

beautiful game


2 thoughts on “Bill Bradley: Basketball and American Culture

  1. Thanks for sharing. I’m going to pass this on to our Athletic Committee as an articulate and helpful apologetic for sport… something we need to be reminded of here.

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