“101 Greats of European Basketball,” a limited-edition collection published in 2018 by Euroleague Basketball, honors more than six decades’ worth of stars who helped lift the sport on the Old Continent to its present-day heights. Author Vladimir Stankovic, who began covering many of those greats in 1969, uses their individual stories and profiles to show that European basketball’s roots run long and deep at the same time that the sport here is nurtured by players from around the world, creating a true team dynamic unlike anywhere else. His survey covers players who were retired before the book was published and who inspired the many others who came after them. Enjoy!
Senator between the hoops
The death in 2011 of Cesare Rubini, a great legend in Italian sport, reminded me of the first triumph of an Italian team in the European Cup, the forerunner to today’s EuroLeague. It happened in the 1965-66 season in Bologna, in what was the first Final Four ever, although that format lasted only two seasons at that time, not to be reinstated again until 1988. The Final Four teams in 1966 were eventual champs Simmenthal Milano, Slavia Prague, CSKA Moscow and AEK Athens. Rubini was the boss of the Milano team that would win the title. In the semifinals, the Italian team defeated CSKA by 68-57, and in the title game, played on April 1, Milano stopped Prague by 77-72. Duane “Skip” Thoren scored 21 points, Gabriele Vianello 21, Sandro Riminucci 10, Gianfranco Pieri 4, Massimo Masini 3, Giandomenico Ongaro 4 – and Bill Bradley 14.
Bill Bradley… Without a doubt, he is one of the best Americans to ever play in Europe, but his life and his two careers, sports and politics, deserve a story of their own. William Warren Bradley was born on July 28, 1943, in Crystal City, Missouri. In high school, he was already a national-level star in basketball. He scored 3,068 points and received scholarship offers from 75 universities! At the beginning, he had chosen legendary Duke University, but during the summer of 1961, he broke his leg playing baseball. Thinking about his future outside of basketball, he finally chose Princeton, even refusing a scholarship promised by Duke. Already in his first season as a freshman, he scored more than 30 points per game and made 57 free throws without a miss. As a sophomore, he was already a starter on the team and in 1963 he made the all-American first team. Even then there was word that Bradley was ready to play in the NBA, but he wanted his degree first. He earned his spot on the U.S. national team for the 1964 Olympics in Tokyo, where he would become the best player. In the semifinals against Puerto Rico (62-42), he scored 16 points and in the title game against the USSR (73-59) he scored 10. In his last season with Princeton, as team captain, he took the team to the NCAA Final Four. They lost in the semifinal but in the game for third place Bradley scored 58 points and was named MVP of the tourney.
Bradley finished at Princeton with 2,503 points for a 30.2 average. In 1965, he won the James Sullivan prize, the highest accolade in American amateur sports. He was the first basketball player to ever win the award. He was the most desired player for NBA teams and, according to the rules of the time, as a territorial pick, the New York Knicks selected him in the draft. But pro basketball was not in Bradley’s plans just yet. He had also won a prestigious Rhodes Scholarship to attend Oxford University in England for post-graduate studies. And this is where Simmenthal Milano comes into the story. The club offered Bradley a good economic deal and also some terms that would be almost impossible today. Bradley only had to play in the EuroLeague games. He didn’t even practice regularly with the team, only from time to time if flight connections allowed some extra time before the game. But it really looked like Bradley didn’t need the sessions. In the games, no one could notice any lack of integration with his team. He was a scoring machine. For instance, against Racing Malines in the quarterfinals group, he scored 43 points in Belgium and 33 at home. His contribution to the first Italian team to win the European club title was huge. The captain of the Simmenthal team in 1966, Gianfranco Pieri, remembers Bradley on the Olimpia Milano official website:
Rubini, the prophet
“I have vivid images of our first game,” Pieri writes. “We were at the 1960 Olympics in Tokyo. Rubini wanted to sign Bradley and he told me to go talk to him. We talked for a while and after that, we exchanged a couple gifts. Two years later we were teammates in Olimpia, me as a captain and him as the star of the European Cup. At that time he was studying in Oxford and every Tuesday he traveled to play with us.”
Rubini, the prophet, had said: “He is a phenom. He plays like God, and on the side, he studies to become president of the United States.”
A Bradley presidency almost happened, in fact, but that was many years later. Bill Bradley had a brilliant career as a professional player. After serving six months in the US Air Force, he finally signed for the New York Knicks in December of 1967. In his third year, 1969-70, the Knicks won their first NBA championship and repeated again in 1972-73, when Bradley took part in his only all-star game. It was his best season, as he averaged 16.1 points and 3.4 assists. When he retired in 1977, he left behind 742 games and 9,217 points, a 12.4-point average.
While he was a pro player, Bradley also was also getting ready for a second career, in politics. He excelled as a social worker. He taught in Harlem, talked a lot with businessmen, students, politicians and the press. The basketball community honored him in the highest manner possible by inducting him into the Hall of Fame in 1982. The Knicks also retired his jersey with number 24 in 1984. The only other players so honored before him were Willis Reed, Walt Frazier and Dave DeBusschere.
His political career took place with the Democrat Party but, as an independent thinker, he once broke that discipline and backed a Republican president, Ronald Reagan, on certain issues. When he retired as a player in 1977, he ran for the U.S. Senate in New Jersey. He beat his rival, conservative Jeffrey Bell, with the 56% of the vote. In 1984, he repeated in the spot with 65% of the vote and he was proposed for the presidential election, but he declined. Later, after retiring from the Senate, he decided to run for the Democratic nomination for president in 2000, against Al Gore, who was then the vice president of the United States. In March of that same year, seeing that Gore had more support inside the party, he decided to step out of the race. In January of 2008, Bradley gave public support to Barack Obama. To this day, Bradley is considered a progressive among American thinkers. And in Italy, the Olimpia Milano fans still remember him with a special kind of love for bringing them Italy’s first European basketball trophy.
Bill Bradley, a senator and a Lord of the Rims.