Bradley nets funds in `Garden' return

Former teammates, rivals flock to basketball court for an evening of politics

November 15, 1999|By CHICAGO TRIBUNE

NEW YORK -- With the familiar hardwood under his feet and his retired jersey No. 24 hanging from the rafters, Democratic presidential hopeful Bill Bradley high-fived his aging former teammates and broke into a wildly uncharacteristic midcourt jig yesterday at Madison Square Garden.

As first a basketball player for the New York Knicks and then a senator for New Jersey, Bradley was not known for outpourings of emotion. But yesterday marked a new era for the Hall of Famer, one in which he began earnestly capitalizing on his athletic history in an effort to connect with voters.

Once adamant about leaving his sports career behind, Bradley is now embracing the game and its lessons, hoping his experience will further his campaign for the Democratic presidential nomination.

The "Back in the Garden" fund-raiser yesterday afternoon, attended by about 5,000 people, raised an estimated $1.5 million and included praise and tributes from more than two dozen celebrities and sports legends. Tickets to the 2 1/2-hour political pep rally were sold through TicketMaster and Bradley's Website and ranged from $50 (for college students) to $1,000.

"This game meant a great deal to my life and it's part of my life," Bradley said after a series of tributes from Bill Russell, Oscar Robinson, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, John Havlicek and Bill Walton. Havlicek, once a Boston Celtics player and fierce opponent, is now Bradley's campaign co-chairman in Massachusetts.

"This arena is a part of my life. And it's great to have my teammates here in this, my biggest game," said Bradley, who played professional basketball from 1967 to 1977.

The political race is much more than a game to Bradley, who needs to raise money to keep pace with Vice President Al Gore. In a Des Moines Register survey of Iowa Democrats, Bradley trails Gore, his only opponent for the party's presidential nomination, 54 percent to 32 percent.

And these days, his teammates include actors Harvey Keitel and Ethan Hawke, director Spike Lee, and Women's National Basketball Association coach Nancy Lieberman-Cline. All appeared at the fund-raiser.

But it was the tall men with whom Bradley lived, worked and traveled around the country whospoke with the most passion: Walt Frazier, Earl Monroe, Willis Reed, Dave DeBusschere, Jerry Lucas and Dick Barnett.

In suits and sneakers, the former Knicks stood together, stirring up nostalgic memories of "Dollar Bill" and the 1970 World Championship team. The players even re-created Willis Reed's inspirational walk from the tunnel in Game 7 of the championship series against the Los Angeles Lakers.

"What you're seeing here is we're all very proud of Bill, and if we can help draw people who might not normally go to a political event, it's a great way to go," DeBusschere said.

Added Frazier: "Bradley energized my thinking about [politics]. A lot of guys I played with I wouldn't show up for anything they did. But Bill is unpretentious. He's team-oriented and a family man."

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