Former New Jersey Sen. Bill Bradley was famous long before he got into politics, shining as a forward on the only two New York Knicks NBA championship teams in franchise history (1970 and 1973).
So Bradley never was as hungry for attention as most politicians are, from the time he took office in 1979 for the first of three six-year terms in the Senate.
Bradley ran for the Democratic presidential nomination in 2000, losing to Al Gore, and never held public office again.
And with that, Bradley mostly retreated into obscurity — at least, as obscure as a former basketball star and member of Congress can be.
Now comes word that at age 78, Bradley is in rehearsals for a one-man show on Broadway in which he reflects on his unique life.
As Washington Post writer Matt Bai put it, “Of all the politicians I’ve known over the years, probably none was more private or less eager to entertain than Bill Bradley.”
Bradley’s life and career are comprehensive enough that we can’t count on even a minute of his show being spent on his sponsorship of the Professional and Amateur Sports Protection Act of 1992.
But PASPA had a profound impact on the state of legal gambling in the U.S. for a quarter-century — and it was the result of Bradley’s personal experience.
The legendary Princeton player told me, for The Bergen Record, back in 2011 that early in his NBA career, fan reaction from near the front row as a game at Madison Square Garden concluded struck him deeply.
“We were ahead by five points or so, the opponent hit a basket to cut the lead to three points, and I heard cheering,” Bradley said after the seemingly meaningless basket. “I asked why, and someone said they were cheering because the [other team] covered the point spread.
“I know that when I was a player, I certainly didn’t like the idea of being a roulette chip.”
While still a member of the Knicks, Bradley appeared in TV commercials in 1974 urging New Jersey residents to oppose a referendum to allow for Las Vegas-style casinos across the state.
That referendum failed. But two years later, a proposal to limit such legal gambling to struggling Atlantic City was successful — leading to the opening of Resorts in 1978 and a host of other gambling dens in that city in the years that followed.
Bradley’s ever-serious side
Bai wrote of that ill-fated 2000 campaign that he covered: “We found Bradley cerebral and remote, ill-suited for the modern presidency. He found us, I think it’s fair to say, fundamentally unserious.”
I had the same experience a decade ago — which came about only after several persistent phone calls to his secretary that led to a 15-minute block of phone time with Bradley on the issue.
The initial push by New Jersey sports betting supporters to overturn PASPA came on two fronts: This was illegal “commandeering” by the federal government to force states to do its bidding in enforcing a sports betting ban, and also “unequal sovereignty” — the idea that Congress couldn’t be permitted to allow Nevada to offer full-scale sports betting while barring most or all such gambling in the other 49 states.
“Speaking as a layman,” I said to Bradley, it did seem odd that Nevada would be permitted such an economic advantage over all other states.
“As a layman?” Bradley replied incredulously, given that passage of the 2011 referendum — which indeed was successful by almost a 2-to-1 margin — would become a matter for federal judges, and not just the man on the street. The erudite Bradley was on to something. Even in the initial 2-1 victory for the NFL and other sports organizations before the U.S. Third Circuit Court of Appeals, the dissenting judge accepted the “commandeering” focus that ultimately found concurrence in the Supreme Court — while rejecting the unequal sovereignty plank.
Still opposed to legal sports betting
“I think it was an unfortunate ruling. I think it was a ruling that had no basis in what sport really is. I think that it was, once again, the Supreme Court being kind of nit-picking, and having a small-minded reading of the law, without understanding the implication for society as a whole.”
But Bradley’s crystal ball had some cracks in it.
“Now you can bet on high school games,” Bradley said. “You could bet on AAU games with 14-year-olds. You can bet on college games. There’s no prohibition whatsoever. And so various states would have to establish a law, if they wanted to curb this. If they didn’t, you could have betting on anything because the national law says that it’s open.”
Except that while a majority of the U.S. states have now legalized sports betting, none permit wagering on high school sports.
And Bradley’s home state of New Jersey, while it allows betting on most college games, does not allow wagering on Bradley’s successor players at Princeton or on any other state universities — or on any college games played in New Jersey, such as Saturday’s Army-Navy game at MetLife Stadium.
Photo: Lev Radin/Shutterstock