Bradley's Hoop Schemes

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Jan. 5 2000 3:30 AM

Bradley's Hoop Schemes

The candidate campaigns the way he used to play basketball.

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If the Democratic presidential nomination were a basketball game, we would be going into the second half with the Gore team, led by the former bench-warmer from the Harvard freshman team, holding a slight lead. The Bradley squad, led by the former All-American from Princeton, hasn't quite caught up, and the captain is complaining that opponent Gore isn't playing fair.

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"I think we've reached the sad day when a sitting vice president distorts a fellow Democrat's record because he thinks he can score a cheap political point," Bradley said recently.

This isn't just a runaway sport metaphor. Bradley's whining about Gore's tactics is, in fact, an essential aspect of his political style and is surely derived from his style as a basketball player.

Not that Bradley's complaints aren't sometimes justified. Gore's tiresome accusation that Bradley favors Medicaid "vouchers" seeks to link his foe subliminally, if irrationally, to Republican plans for school vouchers. The vice president's effort to portray Bradley as a latter-day Newt Gingrich is unconvincing considering that Bradley is frank about his desire to spend a lot of tax dollars expanding the availability of federal health insurance.

But if anybody should recognize why Gore is dishing out cheap shots, it is Bradley. As a player, Bradley was a gifted shooter with remarkable stamina, but he lacked the foot speed and upper-body strength of many NBA athletes. He compensated for his liabilities with tactics, which, while not exactly cheating, were not quite within the rules either.

One of Bradley's former opponents, Baltimore Bullet forward Jack Marin, spent every game "trying to escape Bradley's vise-like hold on his shorts," the Washington Post recently reported.

"He was one of the dirtiest players I ever played against," Marin told the Post. "He held and pushed and tugged. It was irritating."

A former Princeton teammate was quoted as describing Bradley's style as "Darwinistic." "Basketball is a contact sport," Gary Walters said. "He was never a goody-two-shoes. If Bill had been a pitcher, he would have thrown brushback pitches. That's the game within the game."

Now this competitive style seems to be a point of pride. According to the Post, Bradley's wife, Ernestine, likes to tell supporters about her first Knicks game, where she was amazed to discover that her "gentle, totally open, inquisitive" boyfriend threw elbows like a street fighter. "Watch the elbows!" she warns to applause.

But now that Gore is throwing elbows back in an effort to stave off Bradley's gains, the gentleman-scholar-statesman is quick to take offense.

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