The lights went up and fans roared as Bill Bradley took center court Sunday, joining former Knicks teammates Earl Monroe, Willis Reed, Dick Barnett and Walt Frazier.
But this was no 1970s flashback or ordinary reunion. This was a $1.5 million fund-raiser intended to help Bradley go from Madison Square Garden to the Rose Garden.
The event, attended by 5,000 people, included tributes and reminiscences from ex-teammates and former rivals.
"You are what America needs," former Celtics great Bill Russell told Bradley after ribbing him for his plodding style. "As slow as he was, he had to have discipline."
The rally offered the sheer novelty of so many outstanding athletes speaking so eloquently, and with one voice, about political issues.
"I've been intentionally apolitical my whole life, so this is scary for me," admitted former Los Angeles Lakers great Kareem Abdul-Jabbar.
Nancy Lieberman-Cline, coach of the WNBA's Detroit Shock, lauded Bradley's efforts in the Senate to secure Title IX, which provides equal funding for girls sports in school. Bill Walton, who starred for the Portland Trail Blazers and Boston Celtics, described Bradley's campaign as a commitment to "improved health care, improved child care, improved race relations."
And many of the black players spoke about Bradley's commitment to racial harmony, a theme as rooted in the '60s and '70s as his glory days on the Knicks' championship team.
"Some of what Bill's campaign is about is going back to the good old days of unity, solidarity and idealism," said former Philadelphia '76ers great Julius Erving, who said Bradley's background in sports makes him "a much better candidate than someone who has been in politics their whole life."
Vice President Al Gore is facing a strong challenge from Bradley for the Democratic nomination. Bradley, an ex-New Jersey senator, played with the Knicks from 1967-1977.
Many of Bradley's basketball pals also spent Sunday morning on the TV talk shows.
"I believe in him, and he's such an old friend and good human being," former Knick Dave DeBusschere said on CBS' "Face the Nation." "... I already have been campaigning from the start with Bill, and I'm going to continue to do so."
On NBC's "Meet the Press," Russell said of Bradley: "He's almost what we call a superpatriot, just loves his country, see."
Reed told ABC's "This Week" he hoped the Garden event would "make people aware of what Bill Bradley's all about and
Everything about the "Back to the Garden" event stood in stark contast to typical Manhattan political fund-raisers, most of which are by invitation only, require formal dress, and take place in Park Avenue penthouses, hotel ballrooms and private clubs with gorgeous views.
|Bill Bradley (left) is joined by (from left) Dave DeBusschere, Jerry Lucas, Willis Reed, Walt Frazier, Earl Monroe and Dick Barnett.|
Bob McCullough, who volunteers with a community youth group in Harlem called Each One, Teach One, was given 100 tickets by the Bradley campaign.
"Bill Bradley stands for equal rights, racial harmony, ending poverty," he said.
Jennifer Clouting, an environmental consultant from Rhinebeck, N.Y., bought her $100 ticket through Bradley's Web site.
"He gives me a sense of hope I don't feel from anyone else in politics," she said.
Also attending were Knicks center Patrick Ewing, film director Spike Lee, who brought his videocamera, New York Liberty player Rebecca Lobo and tennis great John McEnroe.
The event ended with a speech in which Bradley championed the very values of which the other players spoke.
"With hard work and clarity of purpose and a willingness to give our neighbor the benefit of the doubt, there is nothing we cannot achieve," he said.
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