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Bradley's 'Life On The Run'

Room service and television are facts of life for professional athletes. To Bill Bradley, they meant opportunity wasted.

"Every city we enter is full of crises and problems that never reach us in a hotel room," he wrote during his days as a New York Knick.

So Bradley used his peripatetic existence to study America. He dined with fans, consulted with local politicians, visited out-of-the way neighborhoods. "Under his guidance, we'd visit an art museum in Houston, or a spectacular shoreline vista in Oregon, or attend a political lecture in Boston," recalled former Knick Phil Jackson.

But such a lifestyle carried risks: After a night game in Chicago, Bradley and two friends were robbed at gunpoint while meeting outside the arena.

Bradley titled his basketball memoirs "Life on the Run." These days, the former New Jersey senator is back on the run, crisscrossing the nation in his campaign for the White House.

Longtime supporters say they are drawn to Bradley's integrity and intelligence, though his meticulousness can be maddening.

"Bill goes through this minute and detailed and, from my point of view, excruciating soul-searching before he comes to a decision," said Bradley's wife of 25 years, Ernestine. "That's just who Bill is."

Bradley turned down a scholarship at basketball powerhouse Duke to attend Princeton. When professional basketball beckoned, he left for Oxford. Supporters urged him to run for president in 1988 and 1992, but he declined only to enter the 2000 campaign as the underdog to Vice President Al Gore.

If not for his contrary streak, he might be in the other party today. Bradley came to Washington in 1964 as a summer intern for Pennsylvania Rep. Richard Schweiker, a Republican, and quickly moved to the presidential campaign of Republican William Scranton.

But on his own that summer, he sat in the Senate gallery and watched the debate over the Civil Rights Act.

"That's when I became a Democrat," he says.

Bradley is famously frugal despite a wealth now exceeding $5 million. His rumpled clothing stood out amid the flashy dressers on the Knicks. In 1996, his final year as a senator, he was still puttering around New Jersey in a 1984 Oldsmobile with 160,000 miles on it.

His biggest vice is cashews. His wife worries that eating too many will worsen his double chin.

William Warren Bradley, an only child, was born July 28, 1943, in Crystal City, Mo., a factory town of 3,500 on the Mississippi River.

His father, Warren, a Republican, was the quiet, dependable president of the local bank, physically limited due to severe arthritis. The bank weathered the Great Depression without foreclosing on a single homeowner. His mother, Susan, was a former teacher who had her son take lessons in everything from typing to swimming, the French horn to the French language. (Dad drew the line at ballet.)

Young Bill spnt countless hours alone with a basketball, pieces of lead in his sneakers to improve his jumping.

"I've never seen a little boy as focused as Bill was," said Carol Cunningham, who lived next door. "This concept that if you were going to do anything, then you had to do it the very best you can, is from his mother. She had the strongest will I've ever seen in any human being."

Bradley remembered those days Tuesday when he told reporters: "I had to shoot behind here; it was the rule." The balding, 6-foot-5 Bradley pointed to the back edge of a parking-spot-sized court, far from the hoop.

His own rule.

"A lot of kids were shorter than I. It wouldn't be fair for me to pull up. Couldn't take advantage."

As a freshman at Princeton, Bradley "was constantly afraid of flunking out," said classmate Dan Okimoto. "He approached studies with the same intensity, commitment, determination, discipline that he approached basketball. He would go study until 2 a.m. after a basketball game."

Still, Bradley found time to teach Sunday school at Princeton's First Presbyterian Church and to have a social life, including some dates with Diane Sawyer, then a student at Wellesley College.

A three-time All-American at Princeton, Bradley led the U.S. basketball team to the gold medal at the 1964 Olympics in Tokyo.

He raised eyebrows outside the sport as well. In 1964, New York Post columnist Leonard Shecter wrote, "In 25 years or so our presidents are going to have to be better than ever. It's nice to know that Bill Bradley will be available."

When the Knicks offered him a contract in 1965, Bradley declined and attended Oxford University on a Rhodes Scholarship. He traveled through Europe, played other sports, gained 30 pounds, grappled with religious faith.

Basketball ultimately reclaimed his interest, and in 1967 the Knicks signed "Dollar Bill" Bradley to a four-year, $500,000 contract. He joined the team in midseason after five months in the Air Force Reserves.

There were many jokes about Bill Bradley the athlete, including this one: on his highest jump, a newspaper could not fit under his feet. Bradley laughed his way to 10,439 career points, two championships and a place in basketball's Hall of Fame.

In 1970, a documentary production company wanted Bradley to interview poet Marianne Moore, a sports fan. Company employee Ernestine Schlant, who lived in Bradley's building on the Manhattan's west side, slipped the proposal underneath his door.

The project was scrubbed when Moore fell ill. But Bradley and Schlant began dating and were married in 1974.

Bubbly and talkative next to her low-key husband, the German-born Schlant is now a professor of German and comparative literature at New Jersey's Montclair State University. Their daughter, Theresa Ann, is 22 and a college student.

The couple fretted that Bradley's New Jerey-Washington commute was depriving their daughter of a full-time dad. When Theresa was 10, she moved to Washington and enrolled in school.

Ernestine became the commuting parent; Bill became the breakfast-fixing, drive-to-school dad, and took to the task.

"Believe it or not, he makes the best cereal mixtures," marveled his wife. "You don't just pour one brand of cereal in a plate, but you mix the various brands, and you add raisins or you add blueberries or you add whatever you bought the night before."

Ernestine's daughter from a first marriage, Stephanie, has four children, who crane their necks to talk to the man they know as "Papa Bill."

Bradley ran for Senate in 1978 from his adopted state of New Jersey. At 35, he became the nation's youngest senator.

His signature achievement, the 1986 tax reform, offered a window into his style. First he immersed himself in the tax code. Then he wrote a detailed plan, published in 1984 as "The Fair Tax." He crossed party lines to work with the Reagan administration. He even shot hoops in the House gymnasium with Rep. Marty Russo, D-Ill., while lobbying for his support.

Bradley breezed to re-election in 1984 but got the political scare of a lifetime in 1990.

While he raised more than $12 million and appeared in playful ads shooting baskets, Republican challenger Christie Whitman criticized him for refusing to discuss tax increases imposed by Democratic Gov. Jim Florio. Whitman came within 50,000 votes of an upset.

The close call prompted Bradley to be more outspoken on issues dear to his heart, like race relations. In a 1992 speech, he whacked a pencil against the Senate lectern 56 times to dramatize the beating of black motorist Rodney King by Los Angeles police officers.

Bradley says he is thankful he declined to run for president in 1992. His wife was diagnosed with breast cancer later that year, and Bradley was by her side as she recovered from surgery and chemotherapy.

Declaring politics "broken," Bradley announced in 1995 that he would retire from the Senate the following year. Disappointed supporters wondered if his days in politics were over.

But it turns out that Bradley just needed some time to be Bill Bradley. He spent two years traveling, consulting, teaching and listening, before finally declaring himself ready for the game of his life.

By LAURENCE ARNOLD