|Jan/Feb 2000 Miscellany|
Character formation is a layering process that's assembled from birth to death. It's not instant, but a mantle woven from an individual's successes and failures. It can be seen in a simple event, by the way a man treats those who can do nothing for him. Character can be better explained through the intricate stitches made by time's alterations. When all else is lost, character is the fabric left to insulate a man when he's down.
As a high school junior in 1960, I was up against some tough competition during tryouts on the basketball court. In a clumsy maneuver I tripped myself and lay licking my wounds. My lips couldn't figure out if the salty taste in my mouth was blood, sweat or tears, but when I looked up, I saw an encouraging face close to mine. Embarrassment wrapped me in its red-hot cloak of confusion, and I wondered if there might be a hole big enough to crawl into. An enormous palm appeared above my face when Bill Bradley offered a helping hand. As I stood, I realized that my head was only chest high to his Lincoln-like proportions, and with that insight a youthful vision of being a basketball player was junked in the yard of broken dreams.
At an awkward time, I was touched by a paragon that day and became water bearer for the future standard bearer of our nation. Although water-boy might be considered a lowly position in most sports, I was convinced that it was the most important job on the team. A person who carried water was the bearer of life. It's true that in the distribution of physical attributes size and might overlooked me, but that didn't stop me from carting water for the winning Crystal City Missouri High School basketball team of 1960-61.
We were the infamous Fighting Hornets whose best known player was a lad with dark hair named Bill Bradley. Because of Bill's driving desire for court perfection, 'Easy' Ed Macauley, then the coach of the St. Louis Hawks basketball team, compared Bradley to basketball great, Jerry Lucas, who led the Ohio State Buckeyes to the 1960 NCAA championship. If we were to consider Bill Bradley's political success at the current point in history, I wonder who old 'Easy' might compare Bradley to--- Truman?
I grew up in Crystal City, a mere six blocks from where Bill Bradley lived. During the early sixties, this small town situated on the western bank of the Mississippi River about thirty miles south of St. Louis, was gripped with a sports spirit of biblical proportions. The whole populace conformed to the cause in an unconscious yearning for excellence, a craving for notoriety so strong and so insistent that with tsunami zeal every man, woman and child in the city was swept along in its current.
Earlier, when I was about ten, I'd learned the streets of this Tom Sawyer/Huckleberry Finn burg better than Jesse James knew the inside of his hideout, Indian Cave, which was also located on nearby bluffs overlooking the muddy Mississippi. It was in the alley behind Bill Bradley's house that I first recognized his fierce commitment to getting it right…
One Midwestern evening the autumn air smelled as pungent as a wheel of sharp cheddar cheese. With my head lowered to gain speed, I peddled my bike around the corner of Taylor Avenue, daydreaming boyhood thoughts of imagined greatness. It was then that I heard the repetitive thump, thumping sound. Familiar with stop, drop and roll if your body's on fire, it was drummed into my head at an early age what to do if there was trouble on a bike. So, I stopped, checked the bike's wheels for a flat, then rolled the chain back and forth listening. The noise came again from behind one of the white stone houses. Curious, I made a wide sweeping turn into the cinder-paved alley, but the pounding had stopped. Instead, gliding past the garage behind Bradley's house, I saw a basketball spinning a wide arc through the air into a net, dead center.
To me the three most exciting reverberations in the world are the crack of a bat on a baseball that's destined to fly over the left field fence; the slap of a football connecting with the outstretched hands of a touchdown-bound running-back; and the delicate swish of a basketball finding nothing but net on a fade-away jump-shot. As I rested on my bicycle watching, I was impressed by the courtly display from this ringmaster. There, in front of my eyes, was an intense gangly boy not much older than I was chronologically, but light years ahead in determination. Bradley was all alone shooting one free throw after another. I must have stood staring at this preoccupied shooter for more than fifteen minutes before he noticed me. His only indication in my direction was a half grin and a nod before he turned around with an easy move, dribbled once or twice, took aim and effortlessly made two more points, adding to the thousands already tallied.
By the time I entered Crystal City High School I had reached my full-blown adult height of 5'8". To be considered for Coach Arvel Popp's (pronounced pope) basketball team a hopeful had to jump high enough to touch the rim of the goal. On a good day after a bowl of Wheaties I was barely able to brush the bottom of the net. Consequently, I settled for the position of water-boy on a team destined for greatness. The five starters including Bill Bradley were Tom Haley, Steve Trautwein, Sam LaPresta and Charles Lucas. All of them made levitation look natural.
During my term as water-boy, Crystal City High School had an enrollment of just over 400 students. Although nowadays high school teams are more carefully classified, making it a rule that schools with thousands of students do not compete with ones containing a few hundred, this was not the case when the Hornets played basketball. In the gut wrenching struggle for top place on the heap, teams were categorized as small, medium and large. Four hundred was the minimum number of students a school needed to be ranked as large.
Imagine the basketball team of one of the smallest 'large' schools in the state, Crystal City, battling Goliaths from urban areas such as St. Louis and Kansas City for the number one spot in high school basketball. Similar comparisons could be made to sports upsets such as when the U.S. hockey team beat the USSR at the 1980 Winter Olympics or the miraculous New York Mets' victory over the Baltimore Orioles, but to do so would not be exactly fair. In the instance I'm describing, the winning force for the underdog team was one accomplished player, Bill Bradley, a competitor who through his own dedication to excellence, inspired his teammates to compete well beyond their natural abilities.
Although football might be considered the most popular sport in America today, a few years ago basketball was just as important. Social, religious, and family life revolved around these Crystal City High School sporting events. Supporters from all generations possessed winning thoughts, as did the players. Starting on the first day of school, hives of townspeople buzzed for weeks, hoping for the sweetness of success. Winning became the cause for playing sports, and a state championship trophy was the Holy Grail.
In retrospect, the1960-61 basketball season seemed to bring an exceptionally thrilling time of camaraderie to Crystal City citizens. Almost as if they knew they were watching the birth of greatness, the townspeople came to the games to sit on the edge of hard wooden bleachers, rising to their feet at the first sight of Bill Bradley and his teammates. Bradley's two most ardent supporters, his father and mother, were part of the cheering crowd. The former, who tried to stay comfortable in the corner of the gym sitting on a chair brought from the principal's office, was quiet, anxious and crippled with arthritis. Bill's mother sat behind the players' bench, screaming at the top of her lungs, along with the rest. As always, I was able to trot in at the end of the line, sharing in the glimmering moment of adoration heaped upon these basketball gods.
At the start of every game the name of each player was broadcast over a loudspeaker. Following the announcement a burst of horns came from the pep squad band along with hysterical cheers from the crowd, shaking, stomping and yelling the building into earthquake tremors. When the last player's name was called… "And at the center position...Bill Bradley," the din from hundreds of adoring fans became so engulfing that the wings of association swept me off my feet in exultation. It was a heady experience and my size didn't matter anymore.
Our almost perfect regular season was marred by one loss to Cleveland High School. The tournament leading to the state finals only fed the winning frenzy. Although enough has been said throughout the years about Bradley's athletic proficiency, what endures in my mind is the way he remained calm in the eye of the tempest. While in the locker room before the finals I could see a nervous strain on every player's face except one; Bill Bradley's confidence came not from ego but from resolve. It was then that I remembered the late evenings six years earlier when Bradley spent countless hours in the alley behind his house shooting baskets and hundreds more practicing in the gym. He was a man of his word, one who had come prepared to win. Anything less wasn't on his scorecard.
The final state championship game came down to Crystal City High School vs. St. Louis University High School. Even the opponent's name had ominous connotations, a high school that was also a university. Earlier in the season we'd beat St. Louis U. High by a score of 67 to 66. We knew they were out for revenge. Before the game, I'd seen Bradley wince in pain several times in the locker room. Due to a ligament strain, he had to wear a brace on his right knee. When the gladiator entered the arena, though, all traces of discomfort disappeared.
That night the noise and the spectators were multiplied by thousands. The press was out in force, and blinking flashbulbs from hundreds of shutter bugs blinded us in every direction. Throughout the game Bradley was double and triple teamed, but that didn't stop him from passing over, under and between defenders to any teammate who happened to be open. During game-time breaks as I passed out towels, Coach Popp advised the players, but it was Bradley's last words to the four starters that I remember. Each time as the buzzer called them back to the hardwood, he said, "We can beat this team!"
But that's not the way it turned out. Ironically, we lost the game by one point. Crystal City High School won second place in state that year. After the game the least affected person on the team was Bill. While some players, including the water-boy, sat around dejected, cursing their fate, Bradley was cool and composed. Unlike many, he knew this was only one small setback in life, a lesson learned in the agony of defeat. And unlike most, Bill Bradley realized there would be bigger challenges ahead.