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Bill Bradley is Ready to Tell His Own Story

Bill Bradley won two championships with the New York Knicks. He won gold on the US Olympic basketball team. He went to Princeton and then, as a Rhodes Scholar, to Oxford. He represented New Jersey in the US Senate for three terms. He ran for President. He hosts a radio show. And now he tells his story in a new documentary, "Rolling Along: An American Story," currently on Max. 

In an interview, Bradley talked about how being on stage is like being on a basketball court, what it takes to make a great team, which Supreme Court decisions are "stupid," and why he wanted to tell his story.   

You have an unusual combination of producers, including Hollywood directors Spike Lee and Frank Oz. How did that come about and how were they involved?

I gave my political papers to Princeton. They did an oral history interview with about 50 people. I invited all 50 to a reception and 40 showed up. And I stood up and told stories about each of the 40. And one of them, a guy named Manny Azenberg, who produced 72 plays on Broadway, a friend for 50 years, came up to me afterwards and said, “You sound a little bit like Hal Holbrook doing Mark Twain. You ought to work something up.”  And so I did, over the next year I wrote the script and took it to 20 cities around the country to workshop it. I performed it in small theaters, at law firms, and at the commissary on the Warner Brothers lot. There were about 50-60 people there. I was just reading it. And a guy came up and said, “I’m Mike Tollin, and I did ‘The Last Dance’ about Michael Jordan. I think this could be a film.” And so Mike Tollin was on board.

And then I ran into my old friend, Spike Lee, in Walt Frazier's restaurant one night. By this time, I had memorized it, right, by walking around Central Park and muttering to myself, so I said, “I've done this thing.” And he said, “Come do it for me.” So, I did it one-on-one for him, an hour and 50 minutes at that point. And at the end, I noticed he's got tears in his eyes. And so I think, “Maybe I've got something here.”

After I memorized it, I then had to do it every day. Like shooting baskets, you've got to do it every day. Every day at 3.30pm in the rec room of our apartment building, I would do the show. I started out doing it for nobody and then it got around. People would come listen, sometimes two people, eight people, four people, three people, 14 was the highest number.

One day, two people come in, one of whom was Frank Oz, who heard about it from somebody who had been to an earlier one of those sessions. And afterwards, he said, “I'm going to do it.” And so, he got involved, gave a lot of editing notes when we got to the film, and gave me some very helpful suggestions, as did Spike.

So these are all angels, right? Mike, Frank, Spike. And then the last angel came two years later, two weeks before Tribeca. I wanted to use a song by Van Morrison called “And the Healing Has Begun.” That was my hope for the film, that it might have a healing effect. And then Van Morrison's agent called and said, “Van does not give you permission to use the song.” So, I called my friend Stevie Van Zandt. And he said, “Bruce wrote a song in the early 80s called ‘Summer at Signal Hill.’” But Bruce Springsteen and Stevie sold the rights to their songs. So, I had to go to Sony. But they were very, very helpful. Two days before Tribeca began, I got permission to use “Summer at Signal Hill.”

What advice did you get from Frank Oz and Spike Lee? 

There was a phase where I had a lot more music in it, a lot of my favorite songs at various points. Spike said, “Lose the music. You're enough.”  And Frank, he was a constant saying, “Trust your soul, trust your soul, trust your soul.” He freed me to be what I wanted to be in that moment, in that particular story.

How does preparing for this film compare to getting ready to play a basketball game?

First, I have to get a feel for the place, the theater. I’ve got to feel the court. I organized my life like I was going to play a basketball game. We played at night. So, I would eat my meal at two in the afternoon. I'd take a nap. Then, when I was sitting in the room ready to go out those four nights, it's like being in the locker room. I'm waiting to go out and do something I love.

You mention several times feeling like an outsider in your hometown, at Princeton, at first with the Knicks. How did a sense of being an outsider help you as an observer?

It was essential. I was always alert to what was going on around me, to the smallest nuance, how people were reacting to me. Not because I was a basketball player, but because I was the banker's son, right? Or because I was an evangelical Christian in a secular, highly secular environment. You're always attuned to other people when you feel like you're different or the outsider. As I say in the film, it wasn't until I was with the Knicks and the team gelled that I felt that I really belonged. And that's why that family has lasted a lifetime.

What does it take to make a great team?

As I said, we weren't the best players in the league, but we were the best team. And for two years, we were the best team in the world, meaning we won the NBA championship. I think a lot has to do with the personality of each player and having a mesh of personalities and talents. 

You know, you can't have everybody that does one thing well; you have guys who do different things well, and they complement each other. And then their psychology has to complement each other, too. And it helps to have a good leader. We had a good leader in Red Holzman who knew that less was more. You know, he had three rules: hit the open man on offense, help out on defense, and the hotel bar belongs to me. And that was it. 

Good teams are selfless above all. I mean, in basketball, the objective of the game is maximum player movement and maximum ball movement. That rewards unselfishness. And that's clearly what we had. Obviously, there are other things like courage or selflessness. Imagination is big. Responsibility, discipline are absolutely key. So those are some values. You have to respect each other too. You have to respect and trust each other. 

Moving over to the Senate. I feel like we don't have much respect and trust in Capitol Hill. 

How do you address that?

Well, we had it when I was there, that's for sure. As I say at the end of the film, we live in such a divided country that maybe we could learn something from what made the Knicks team successful so many years ago. Take responsibility for yourself. Respect your fellow human being. Disagree with them openly, honestly, civilly. Enjoy their humanity. And what my grandmother used to say, “Never look down on people you don't understand." To me, that's the basic message of the film. 

You can find a way to talk to people. No problem. You focus on our common humanity. Most people have children. They want them to have a good education. They want them to have a good life. They want to have their elderly parents taken care of. Focus on that. And that common humanity is what we need more of these days. Every kid is told in sports, “If you lose, congratulate your opponent.” That should be politics, too. You lose, congratulate your opponent. You should act out of honor, not out of grievance, and you should know with the combination of humility and hard work that you can achieve excellence. And if all of us achieve excellence, or many of us achieve excellence, we move the country forward.

Do you think the pernicious impact of dark money is a factor in the divisiveness in Congress?

This is one of the issues that I spend a lot of time on. We need a constitutional amendment, because the Supreme Court stupidly created that problem with the Citizens United ruling, among many of their stupid decisions, like saying you now can gamble in sports, which is a stupid decision, and that you can unionize your college and high school teams, stupid decision. 

But beyond the stupidity of the Supreme Court, or because of it, you need a constitutional amendment that simply says state, local, and federal governments may limit the amount of money spent in a political campaign.

In your day, athletes were generally not political, but now we're seeing a lot of political views being expressed by athletes.

I think it's positive. Why shouldn't athletes be like any other citizens in the country and be able to express their political views? The NBA commissioner, Adam Silver, has stated very clearly he wants his players to express their views, wants them to be involved in their community. That's a positive thing for basketball players, writers, for, you know, Zen artists, and for bricklayers, and for everybody.

That's what being a citizen means, taking an active interest in the world around you, having an opinion and working to try to shape it in the way you believe.

In the film you tell us your teammates teased you for talking to strangers. What are some of your favorite things to ask them?

How are you doing? What do you deal with in your life? What do you? How about your family? What do you hope for them and how are you going to provide for it? People like to be asked. It evolves into a conversation, and they will tell you stories. Sometimes these are hard luck stories. Sometimes they're beautiful stories. If you really have an open heart and a good set of eyes and you don't talk all the time, you can learn a lot.

You also talk about your love of travel. What is it that most Americans don't know that they would learn from traveling around?

Most Americans think there are greater differences among us than there are. If they went around and talked to a lot of people, you'd find a lot of similar kinds of stories that reflect our common humanity.

Why do you want people to hear your story?

It's about love of the country, love of the game. It's about forgiveness, about perseverance, sadness, joy, triumph, defeat.

It's not a hero's journey. It's a human journey.

Nell Minow

Nell Minow is the Contributing Editor at

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