You get interested in something. You study it. You practice it for hours, single-mindedly, in solitude.
But then you find a way to share it with others. And what had been simple self-involvement gives way to something else — collegiality, compromise, community.
At least, that’s what Bill Bradley learned.
Over two amazing careers.
“Turns out there’s a lot in common between playing basketball and being a Senator,” he says, with a chuckle.
The boy from a one-stoplight town in Missouri went from shooting baskets in his driveway to becoming a Princeton grad, a Rhodes scholar, a headline-grabbing New York Knick, a three-term New Jersey Senator and, in 2000, a contender for the Democratic Presidential nomination.
He didn’t make that last shot. He’s hasn’t run for office since.
But at 79, Bradley remains intense and involved. And as proven by “Rolling Along” — a one-man movie having its world premiere June 16 at the Tribeca Festival — he looks back, and ahead, with the same focus that marked his days on the court, and in the Senate.
Q: So how did this become a film?
A: Well, when I gave my papers to Princeton, they did an oral history of my life, interviewing 60 or 70 people. Afterwards I did a reception for them and I stood up and told stories. And the producer Manny Azenberg, who I’ve known for years, came up and said he liked it. I don’t think I’d gotten a compliment out of Manny since the Knicks won that first championship! But he thought it could be a show, and so I started writing … Then COVID hit, and that killed things.
But then in ’21 I did it for four nights at the Signature Theatre in New York, with an audience and five cameras going. And this is a film of that.
Q: It covers a lot of ground. You talk, very movingly, about a small-town childhood. About the feel of a basketball in your hands as you’re about to take a shot.
A: I wanted to tell the story of my life. It’s a summing up, which I think a lot of people think about at this age. So it’s about the NBA championships, the U.S. Senate, running for President, but it’s also about triumph, it’s about failure, it’s about healing, it’s about generosity. I remember my grandmother used to say, “Never look down on people you don’t understand.” I think that’s an important lesson. I think it’s particularly important right now when I look at the country, and the divisions that are out there.
Q: Do you remember why you fell in love with basketball?
A: I just loved the game, the momentum, the shooting. Also, I was tall; all I’d hear was, “You should be playing basketball!” By the time I was 13, I knew this was what I wanted. And I was lucky, starting in school, to have some great coaches. I remember being at summer camp and the coach telling these 14-year-olds, “Remember, whenever you’re not practicing, somewhere someone else is — and when you do play him, he’s going to beat you.” So OK, after I got home I started practicing three hours every day. I practiced five hours a day on weekends.
Q: Still, when you finally turned pro — as you admit in the film — that first season was rocky. How did you deal with that?
A: The first year or so it was pretty rough, because I was failing. The people were really coming at me: “You no-good overpaid bum,” that sort of thing. So I just put myself in a protective covering. That changed after we won some championships! But also, it was an evolution for me, too. I didn’t necessarily like the invasion of privacy at first — people coming up when I was having dinner. But then I thought, how fortunate am I? And how easy it would be to just be a little generous and share a moment with them, or pose for a picture, or just listen to what they had to say. Just listen. And they listened, too, and saw maybe I wasn’t just a no-good overpaid bum but a human being, too.
Q: I know you were always interested in government, but running for office — especially in Jersey — can be something special. You say in the film you got a particular piece of advice on that first campaign back in 1978.
A: “You gotta kiss the women!” That was Billy Musto, the mayor of Union City. “You go out campaigning, you gotta kiss the women!” (laughs). But seriously, I found I really liked talking to commuters in Port Authority, walking the Jersey Shore, doing four or five dinners in one night — I liked the interaction. Some of it was negative, sure, but I loved being in touch with real human beings. And I loved New Jersey — the human diversity, the talent, the natural beauty. The Shore became part of our family’s identity — every summer we’d go there and spent at least a month. New Jersey is a very human place and if you like humanity you have to love New Jersey.
Q: When you took your seat in the Senate … what was that adjustment like?
A: Well, my first term I showed up at the Finance Committee and they were discussing international trade and I didn’t understand one word. But you see, I’d carried forward those values I’d learned in basketball, so I just thought, “OK, I’ve got some practicing to do.” Another value I took with me from sports was teamwork. For example, Cory Booker, my favorite guy … when he was first headed to DC he asked me, “What should I do first?” I said, “Get to know five Republicans.” And he did, and that helped him pass some important legislation … Anything I got done, from tax reform to cleaning up the Delaware River, came from working together. Giving the other side the benefit of the doubt.
Q: I don’t know that we see a lot of that anymore. Things don’t seem to get done …
A: No, I don’t buy that. You look at the infrastructure bill, the debt limit — things still get done. It’s just, the Senate is a very human institution. It’s made up of human beings, all of them with vulnerabilities; to get things done, you have to try to get to know them as human beings, and not just think Republican, Democrat, right-wing, left-wing … Still, it is hard sometimes because politics interferes with legislation. It gets in the way, because politics responds to the extreme. And you have some people who are more interested in politics and getting on TV than in passing legislation, because they think being on TV gives them power. They don’t understand that knowledge gives you power.
Q: What are the biggest issues ahead for this country?
A: Well, I think clearly we need to take a look at taxes; we’ve gotten away from where we were back in ’86, which was closing loopholes and having the lowest rates for the greatest number of people. And I really think we have to get ahold of AI. And that’s not going to be easy because honestly there are only a few legislators who understand the issue, and whenever you don’t understand something, you end up turning over the decisions to people who do. And that’s giving away an enormous power.
Q: Still, with all the problems we have, with all the challenges ahead, you sound hopeful about the future. Why?
A: Because I’m an American. That’s the definition of America, isn’t it? Hope?
The Tribeca Festival runs from June 7 through June 18 at various locations in New York. For information, visit tribecafilm.com/festival.
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