An Oxford scholar turned European champion

Apr 23, 2013 by Javier Gancedo, Print
Bill BradleyEuropean club basketball has witnessed many superstars over the years, but only a handful were able to rewrite history. Bill Bradley was one of them. His unique personal story dates back to the mid-1960s and provides one of the first links between the United Kingdom and elite basketball in Europe. Although an indirect link, it may be said quite accurately that almost 50 years before the event comes to London next month, Europe's first-ever Final Four was decided by a player who lived that entire season in the heart of the UK.

Born in 1943 in the Missouri, in the midwestern United States, Bradley excelled at basketball from an early age. By age 15, Bradley was 1.97 meters tall, possessed great peripheral vision and had a great work ethic. He was named all-American twice in high school, after which he was offered 75 college scholarships. Bradley initially wanted to join Duke University, but a broken foot made him choose a college without taking basketball into account. He rejected all 75 offers in order to attend non-scholarship Princeton University.

Once at Princeton, Bradley averaged more than 30 points at a time when first-year students didn't play on any university's main team. Once allowed to join the main team, in his second year, Bradley quickly earned all-American first team honors in 1963. The prestigious magazine The Sporting News chose him as Player of the Year in 1964, the same year that Bradley survived the Olympic basketball trials to become the youngest player in the U.S. basketball team. At the Olympic Games in Tokyo, the USA went undefeated to conquer the gold medal. Bradley had 10 points in a 73-59 title-game victory against the Soviet Union was his team's second-best scorer in the tournament with 10.1 points per game. In 1965, Bradley led Princeton to the NCAA tournament's Final Four against all odds. He scored 58 points in the consolation game and earned Final Four MVP honors.

In 1965, Bradley was was awarded the James E. Sullivan Award, presented annually to the United States' top amateur athlete, as the first basketball player to win the honor. Bradley graduated with honors from Princeton and the New York Knicks chose him as a territorial pick the 1965 NBA draft. But Bradley had received a prestigious Rhodes Scholarship to study at Oxford University in England - and decided to go for it. Other famous Rhodes scholars include famous astronomer Edwin Hubble and former U.S. President Bill Clinton. At the same time, Bradley had made some Italian friends at the 1964 Olympics. Once he arrived to England, in a country where basketball was far from popular, Bradley started to miss playing. But an opportunity showed up, one that changed European basketball forever.

Bradley was playing with the U.S. team at the 1965 University Games in Budapest when Ricky Pagani, a former player with Olimpia Milano who spoke 12 languages, managed to contact him on behalf of long-time club owner Adolfo Bogoncelli by pretending to be an American manager. Pagani promised Bradley to follow him anywhere in order to sign him for Milano. No sooner had he said it than Pagani was en route to Budapest by car and once there managed to find Bradley, who welcomed the offer. Bradley wanted to keep studying in Oxford, but could fly from London for Milano's games in the European Cup - what is now the Euroleague. The agreement was signed at around $1,000 per game plus travelling expenses and the freedom to join the team on day before each game. If Milano went all the way in the competition, Bradley would have played a maximum of 12 games.

Milano had legend Cesare Rubini as head coach and would also add center Skip Thoren midway through the season. The team had reached the European Cup semifinals in 1964. Bradley studied until travelling alone to whichever city Milano played in each week. A club employee waited for him at each airport, and if Bradley was lucky, he could practice with his teammates the morning before the game. Bradley, who had been compared to Oscar Robertson barely months before he went to Oxford, was the best player in Europe by far.

Bradley's debut in Milan was outstanding. Simmenthal downed Giessen of West Germany 103-73 and he had 36 points. Local newspaper Il Giorno wrote: "A first-rate opera tenor would have envied the personal ovation that saluted him when his extraordinary personal recital ended." Milano soon dispatched Giessen and Hapoel Tel Aviv of Israel to reach the group stage with perennial contenders like Real Madrid of Spain and Slavia Prague of Czechoslovakia, as well as Racing Mechelen of Belgium. Bradley had 43 points in Milano's first group stage game, a 104-94 loss to Mechelen. Bradley spent little time in Milano but shocked everyone with his abilities, on and off the court. Soft-spoken, polite and even-tempered, he could walk down Corso Buenos Aires and read price tags in the shop windows without turning his head due to his peripheral vision.

Bill BradleyThe competition system was a group stage made of two-way elimination rounds. Simmenthal bounced back to beat Mechelen 95-66 and go up to 1-0 in the standings. Simmenthal lost its next two-way series against Slavia, always with Bradley as its top player. Bradley would write economics essay and think about a life without basketball, as he was considering going to law school after Oxford and was already very interested in a diplomatic career. He had turned down good NBA offers to live on a $2,500 scholarship. Like a superhero, Bradley would go from a regular, unknown student in England to a European basketball star when he travelled to join Milano.

Just to survive that season, Milano needed to beat Madrid, which had won the previous two continental titles, in a two-way series. The Italians started with a 71-66 first-leg win in the Spanish capital as Bradley had 20 points. The sports newspaper El Mundo Deportivo spoke wonders about his performance: "The best player of the game, without any doubt, was Bradley - an Olympic star in Tokyo. This great player offered an outstanding exhibition." In their second game, Milano needed a six-point win to advance to the European Cup Final Four, a brand new format that season. Madrid led 35-37 at halftime, but Milano used a 10-0 run to take the lead for good at 45-37, extending it to 70-59 before cruising to a convincing 93-76 win. Bradley had 27 points but his teammate Nane Vianello led all scorers with 40.

After helping Oxford beat archrival Cambridge 76-64 in a game played in ront of 500 mostly British fans, Bradley practiced with Milano in the lead-up to Europe's first Final Four. The semifinals were to be played in Milan and Bologna, Italy. In the first of them, Slavia Prague thrashed AEK Athens 103-73 behind 31 points from Jiri Zidek Sr. A day later, on March 31, 1966, Milano had to face mighty CSKA Moscow in Bologna. CSKA led 36-37 at halftime but Bradley stepped up after the break and met expectations, lifting Milano to victory with a game-high 20 points. Once in the title game, played in Bologna in front of 8,000 fans, Slavia overcame an early double-digit deficit to get a 22-27 lead late in the first half. Vianello, Thoren and Bradley combined to take the scoreboard back 41-35 at halftime on their way to a 77-72 victor to win the club's first European title.

Gabriele Tacchini described the final in his book, 50 Years of Milano Milano: "It was Skip Thoren's final game in Italy and he wanted to leave his mark. He kept his promise, playing a perfect game, being chosen the best player and taking one of the nets, which he cut, back to America. It was a thrilling win, which made it more beautiful for being a balance game, as Milano led 65-64 with 5 minutes to go (...) Vianello and Thoren stepped up on offense to seal the work Bradley had done on defense."

It was the first continental crown for an Italian team, in fact, by any team not from the Soviet Union or called Real Madrid. Bradley went back to school in Oxford, probably not knowing that he changed European basketball forever, opening the door for many other great players in Italian and European basketball. Milano would have to wait for 22 years until Bob McAdoo, a former MVP in the NBA, stepped in to lead the team to back-to-back continental crowns in 1988 and 1989.

As for Bradley, he left Oxford two months prior to graduation to join the Air Force Reserves. Oxford let Bradley take "special exams" and he graduated in 1968. He would go on to play for the New York Knicks, winning NBA championships in 1970 and 1973. He was the first player to win the Euroleague, Olympics and NBA titles - something that only Manu Ginobili has managed to achieve after him. Bradley retired from basketball in 1977, was elected to the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame in 1983. His number was retired by the Knicks and he started a great career in politics. Bradley was a three-term Democratic U.S. Senator from New Jersey, between 1979 to 1997, and also ran for U.S. president before leaving politics to write books and serve as a corporate director.

But before all that, he changed the European basketball map - and he did it living in England.