As Bill Bradley remembers an unforgettable time in a life filled with extraordinary accomplishments, national pride as a collective experience remains a cherished memory from the 1964 Tokyo Olympics.
Visiting Japan for the first time, the future three-term New Jersey Senator admitted he gained a greater appreciation for the global community that would enrich his life in the decades to come.
“Going in you feel a part of your nation and at the end you feel a part of the world,” the 1983 Naismith National Basketball Hall of Fame inductee said in a recent telephone interview with The Japan Times.
He added: “After two, three weeks you enter in (Olympic Stadium) just as individuals, you walk in with people that you get to know or people that you meet at the time — German, Australian, Ghanese, Irish . . . Pakistani — so it’s the world.
“The Olympic saying ‘higher, stronger faster,’ I think when it flashes on the big electric Jumbotron you really feel a part of the world.”
Bradley, who turned 71 on July 28, witnessed the beauty and the ugliness of international relations at that time.
“Living in the Olympic Village, that was one of the early times politics had a role in the Olympics,” the host of the Sirius XM weekly radio show “American Voices with Senator Bill Bradley” said. “We lived right next door to the North Koreans. They pulled out of their living quarters.” (“North Korea’s 144-man delegation has decided to boycott the Olympic Village unless six of its athletes are reinstated for the games and also are permitted to live at the Village,” UPI reported in an Oct. 7, 1964, dispatch in The New York Times.)
In preparation for the Olympics, Bradley and his 11 U.S. teammates endured intense training at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii. National team coach Hank Iba, who guided Oklahoma A&M (now Oklahoma State), to back-to-back NCAA titles in 1945-46, pushed them to the limit for three, four weeks with two-a-day practices.
“When we went into it, we wanted to be the best we can be,” Bradley said. “In the training . . . I remember I lost 8, 9 pounds a workout.”
Despite the physically demanding workouts, he found time to read up on Russian history while in Pearl Harbor.
After training camp concluded and after its pre-Olympic exhibition games, a long airplane journey awaited Bradley’s team — from Seattle to Anchorage, Alaska, to Tokyo. For the 195-cm Bradley, it wasn’t a luxurious ride. He sat in a middle seat between 206-cm Lucious Jackson and 213-cm Mel Counts.
“It was the first time I’d ever experienced jet lag,” he says now. In Tokyo, “I couldn’t figure out why I was waking up at 3 or 4 in the morning. They didn’t explain that to us,” he added with a laugh.
The hard work paid off. Team USA, captained by Bradley, the team’s lone college undergrad and youngest player at age 21, captured the gold medal by beating the Soviet Union 73-59 on Oct. 23, 1964, at Yoyogi National Gymnasium before a packed house of 6,000 spectators, according to news accounts of that time, picking up its ninth win in as many games in the Japanese capital, 47th consecutive victory in Olympic competition and sixth straight gold in the event.
The game was “very intense,” Bradley said, “(but) we had quicker ball players.” He called Iba a great coach who “drilled us till we ran our plays perfectly.”
After the Americans, led by Oscar Robertson, Walt Bellamy, Jerry Lucas, Jerry West, among others, steamrolled the competition in the 1960 Rome Olympics, the same expectations were placed on the defending champs four years later. “So we had a big responsibility. We worked hard at it and delivered,” Bradley said.
The 1964 U.S. squad featured players ranging in age from 21 to 29 in an era when pro players were barred from competing, and four years after the “first Dream Team,” as Bradley put it, claimed the top prize. He was the team’s second-leading scorer (10.1 points) in the 16-nation tournament.
It was a “great honor” to be the U.S. captain, he said. “It was an honor for me to play that role, going out to meet the captain of the other team before the game.”
In the backcourt, the late Walt Hazzard, who starred on the first of John Wooden’s 10 NCAA title-winning squads at UCLA in ’64 and future Hall of Fame coach Larry Brown, whose hoop IQ and leadership skills to be a great coach were evident at that time, Bradley confirmed in the recent interview, also played on the squad. Bradley said the Olympic experience was a big thrill, with the medal ceremony being the most memorable.
“Of course you never forget standing on the victory stand with a gold medal around your neck, hearing your national anthem, as well as a sense of accomplishment,” Bradley said from his New York City office nearly 50 years later.
Does Bradley’s Olympic gold pale in comparison to his two NBA titles as a starting small forward for the New York Knicks in 1970 and ’73?
“They are not comparable,” said the man who ran for president in 2000 as a Democratic candidate during the primaries. “Each one is different. The Olympics has a special flavor all its own.”
Iba insisted Bradley was “the team’s best defender,” legendary Sports Illustrated writer Frank Deford reported in a 1964 article.
Is that what Bradley felt he accomplished in Tokyo?
“No,” he said. “You just do the best job you have and are not thinking about who’s first-best, second-best, third-best. You use all of your effort to try to achieve that.”
In essence, Bradley and his teammates took a strictly business attitude to Tokyo.
Therefore, the Olympic experience — games and practice sessions consumed many hours — left little time for leisure or viewing other events. But Bradley watched another Princeton student-athlete, Jed Graef, capture the men’s 200-meter backstroke gold medal in a then-world-record time of 2 minutes, 10.3 seconds. “I didn’t see any of the others,” he says now. “I didn’t see (100-meter gold medalist track sprinter) Bob Hayes, didn’t see (10,000-meter gold medalist runner) Billy Mills. “The experience was taken up with your work, your job.”
But with a hint of nostalgia, he offered: “But I saw enough of Donna de Verona to fall in love,” referring to the glamorous swimmer and future TV sportscaster. He also said that de Verona was Team USA’s “best all-around athlete” in Tokyo, where she won gold in the 400 individual medley and 4×100 relay.
The son of a bank president, the Crystal City, Missouri, schoolboy basketball star and two-time high school All-American was a prized recruit. He received 75 college scholarship offers, but he turned them all down to attend Princeton University, which didn’t offer athletic scholarships.
Three years after he matriculated at the Ivy League school, Bradley and his teammates rolled to a 33-point rout of Australia in their Olympic opener on Oct. 11, and three days later, they hammered Uruguay 83-28.
On Oct. 16, Yugoslavia provided the American’s biggest test, but they lost 69-61, a game in which Bradley scored 18 points, his highest single-game effort in Tokyo.
The Daily Princetonian headline for that game declared, “Bradley Stars as U.S. Olympic Team Nears Final Round,” The story introduction began this way: “Eighteen points in the toughest game the U. S. Olympic Team has played — against Yugoslavia — has been typical of the performance Bill Bradley has been giving in Tokyo. . . . Bradley has been in double figures three times in the first seven games, and his all-around floor play has been instrumental in keeping intact this country’s record of never having lost in Olympic basketball competition.”
Then, as expected, Team USA advanced to the championship match by routing Puerto Rico 62-42 in the semifinals, with Bradley scoring 16. He tallied in 10 in the tourney finale two days later against the Soviets, his fifth double-digit scoring effort of the tournament. (“The admiring Russians even called him ‘Shootnik,’ ” New York Times columnist Arthur Daly wrote in May 1967.)
The team’s performance catapulted Bradley to greater fame in his homeland — before his senior season at Princeton.
And what a senior season — and final college tournament — it would be. He scored a jaw-dropping 58 points (22-for-29 from the field, 14-for-15 on free throws) with 17 rebounds against Wichita State in the ’65 NCAA Tournament’s third-place game. He was selected as the tournament’s Most Outstanding Player. In his three-year stint on the Princeton varsity squad, Bradley averaged a remarkable 30.2 points per game. He earned his second consensus first-team All-American accolade, and AP and UPI player of the year awards as a senior. He also became a Rhodes Scholar that year.
As he aimed for excellence on the basketball court, beginning as a prep in Missouri, his focus was always about the team.
Fifty years later, what best sums up what he accomplished on the basketball court in Tokyo?
“Being a team member who passed, defended and shot within the Iba system,” said Bradley, who was once mentioned as a possible successor to former NBA commissioner David Stern.
Years later, Knicks great Walt “Clyde” Frazier declared, “He was the quintessential teammate.” And he was talking about a guy who, in 1965, went to Oxford as a Rhodes scholar and then entered the NBA in 1967 with a rookie contract for $100,000, an unheard of amount at that time — along with a massive following in the New York-area media.
Bradley’s books, including “Values of the Game,” and “Life on the Run,” provide detailed sketches of his ideals, too. His most recent tome, published in 2012, is titled “We Can All Do Better,” a collective call to action to improve the American political and civic landscape.
What lasting impressions did Tokyo and the Japanese leave on Bradley after his departure from the capital city a half-century ago?
“I saw new Asia and Japan, and it impressed me,” he said.
As Japan rebuilt its cities after widespread destruction in World War II, Bradley saw the nation’s remarkable transformation and Tokyo’s massive changes to meet the demands of hosting the Olympics, the first to be held in Asia.
“Great road system, culture strong, good mix of old and new, (and) unfailingly polite, smart people,” he said.
Bradley has revisited Tokyo “too many (times) to count” since his joyful experience in October 1964, and it helped him prepare for a career in public service after his retirement from the Knicks in 1977. (He was elected to the U.S. Senate a year later.)
Being in Tokyo for the Olympics “introduced me to Japan,” he noted. As a Senator, he was chair of the Japan-U.S. legislation conference at Stanford University.
To gain a deeper perspective on Bradley’s place in the public arena after the Tokyo Olympics, The Japan Times contacted John McPhee, a well-known Bradley expert.
McPhee is a Pulitzer Prize-winning author of more than 30 books, including “A Sense of Where You Are, the timeless portrait of the then-Princeton senior, published in 1965. (He has been a staff writer for The New Yorker since that year.)
McPhee, of course, wasn’t the first to observe that Bradley carried himself in public with poise and respect.
“He was really good at handling that from the get-go,” McPhee said by telephone from New Jersey. “He started having that kind of (superstar) attention when he was in high school, and I was always impressed with that characteristic of Bill.
“The thing I really envy most about what he can do is related to that, and that is that things in his mind don’t spill over from one thing to the next unnecessarily,” added the longtime Princeton writing professor. “In other words, if something is troubling me, it’s like dropping something into a bath tub and it spreads out all over the place. I become preoccupied, as do many people, whereas Bill is able to compartmentalize things in an amazing way.
“He can turn from basketball player to student to this, that and the other thing . . . and this was particularly true when he was a brand new Knick. He wasn’t playing, he was sitting on the bench. Things were not going well, and yet go out to dinner with him or do this or that, and his mind was on totally different things . . . and he was talking about all kinds of other subjects.”
McPhee described this as a “singular focus.”
Naturally, Bradley’s senior year at Princeton included post-Olympic celebrations. During one football game that fall at Palmer Stadium, he was honored at halftime along with Graef and Lesley Bush, who claimed gold in women’s platform diving. McPhee’s father, Harry, head physician of the U.S. Olympic team in Tokyo, joined them on the field for the ceremony.
McPhee, who is 12 years older than Bradley and his daughter Theresa Anne’s godfather, revealed that in Tokyo the star concocted a clever scheme to help his Princeton pal Graef avoid the need for a ticket for a basketball game.
Listen to McPhee’s recollection of their successful stunt: ” . . . Jed Graef is a tall guy, and Bill got him an equipment bag, or had him carry one that looked like one, and Bill walked him in with the U.S. team. He had Jed Graef walking beside him. He got Jed Graef into the basketball game.”
Tom Gouttierre first met Bradley in Kabul in 1970, shortly after the Knicks captured their first NBA championship. At the time, Gouttierre was a Peace Corps volunteer and taught basketball to Afghan students.
“Bradley was rewarding himself for having won the NBA championship . . . and he wanted to take an around-the-world trip with the primary objective of getting to Afghanistan to the site of the Rudyard Kipling short novel called ‘The Man Who Would Be King,’ which was later made into a movie starring Michael Caine and Sean Connery and Christopher Plummer,” Gouttierre told The Japan Times. “He wanted to go to that region because it was a story that really fascinated him.”
In a telephone interview, Gouttierre, longtime director of The Center for Afghanistan Studies at the University of Nebraska at Omaha, said he remains in awe of what Bradley and his U.S. teammates accomplished on the basketball court in Tokyo.
“The Americans were invincible,” was his apt description. He distinctly recalled Bradley revealing that “winning that medal for one’s nation is something that no other particular achievement in the sport could at least surpass.”
“I know that was a great sense of pride for him,” Gouttierre told The Japan Times. Gouttierre has kept in contact with Bradley over the years and their careers have overlapped, with Gouttierre giving testimony about Afghanistan, in the aftermath of the Soviet Union’s 1979 invasion, before the U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee on which Bradley served.
In one of the most remote regions of the world, Bradley was a natural hit in a mountainous Afghan village, playing American rock ‘n’ roll tunes on his harmonica and dishing out basketball-playing tips, including the fundamentals of the hook shot.
“He was gracious (with his time),” Gouttierre said. “I think they never expected him to miss a shot. . . . They were just overwhelmed.”
Deford, the Sports Illustrated reporter and fellow Princeton alum, noted that Bradley exceeded everyone’s expectations at the Tokyo Olympics.
” . . . Because Bill played for an Ivy League team, there was, in some quarters, always a cynical conclusion that he couldn’t really be that good,” Deford wrote in an email to The Japan Times. “When he starred on the U.S. national team, that put to rest all those doubts. It also showed that he could be a great teammate and leader amongst the very best players. Perhaps it gave him some additional confidence, too . . .
“Bill always had a great awareness of self. In any event, after leading the U.S. team to the gold medal, he returned to become the player of the year in college, and to lead Princeton to the Final Four — an extraordinary achievement.”
In a page one story from the Boston Globe in July 1999, when Bradley was campaigning in the Democratic Party’s presidential primaries, Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist David Halberstam was quoted as saying, “It’s not just that Bill Bradley was a terrific basketball player. It’s that he was the prototype of the scholar-athlete, a young, middle-class man in the Ivy League who did his homework and willed himself to be the best.
“He captured the imagination of a particular class of guys who could relate to him and who would have liked to do the kinds of things he did and would have liked to play ball the way he played.”
Indeed, after a half century in the public spotlight, there aren’t many surprising or unknown facts about Bradley.
But here’s a juicy nugget: Bradley has never seen recorded broadcasts of his team’s basketball games from the 1964 Tokyo Olympics.
“I’d love to see the games if they’re available,” Bradley commented.