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Bradley Hoops It up on Campaign

January 15, 2000

JOHNSTON, Iowa (AP) _ There was no laser light show, only glow-in-the-dark letters on black posterboard. But the pulsating music as Bill Bradley loped toward the school auditorium was the same beat that sends the New York Knicks charging into Madison Square Garden.

That beat had 71-year-old Bob Kusy dancing in his seat.

Long before he started following Bradley’s Democratic presidential campaign, Kusy followed his career in pro basketball. ``I knew all the guys back then, but Bill more than most because he was so good,″ Kusy said before Bradley’s appearance at Johnston High School, with his wife, Donna, a campaign volunteer, beside him.

Hardly squeamish about being seen more as a jock than a president, Bradley encourages fascination with his old athletic career. He regales every crowd with at least one tale from his years with the Princeton Tigers, the United States’ 1964 Olympic gold-medal team and the Knicks. His first political ads showed footage from the Olympic game and he sometimes brings old teammates like Dave DeBusschere along on the stump.

He joked to a high school boy in Exira that coach Phil Jackson moved from the Chicago Bulls to the Los Angeles Lakers as part of the strategy to win Southern California for Bradley.

``How much did you pay him for that,″ the boy asked.

Not missing a beat, Bradley replied, ``We were roommates on the Knicks. I just agreed not to tell a few stories.″

It’s the fans who can be sheepish.

Jessica Paindiris, 16, and her father recently traveled from their home in Connecticut to a Bradley campaign stop in New Hampshire, hoping for autographs on the two basketballs they carried hidden in shopping bags.

Jessica said she’s drawn to Bradley not just by his sports celebrity but by his integrity. ``We need that now, after Bill Clinton,″ the girl said.

Professional athletes running for office is not a new phenomenon_ ex-wrestler Jesse Ventura is governor of Minnesota and former Buffalo Bills quarterback Jack Kemp’s bid for president and vice president _ but it remains something of a novelty.

Much like Bob Dole would visibly cringe each time Kemp, his 1996 running mate, stripped off his coat to throw footballs, a touch of envy for Bradley’s sports appeal sometimes creeps into the remarks of Vice President Al Gore, Bradley’s rival for the Democratic nomination.

At a New Hampshire house party late last year, Gore joked: ``I played basketball in college, too. The difference is I didn’t make a big deal about it.″

One of Bradley’s campaign posters, featuring a vintage photo of him dribbling in his No. 24 Knicks jersey, proclaimed him a scholar, a star athlete and ``basically the guy you hated in high school.″

Friday night found him watching a basketball game at Theodore Roosevelt High. At halftime, he remembered learning discipline and courage as a boy by spending ``most Friday nights in the winter in a gym just like this.″

Roosevelt coach Michael Holmes told a reporter that, growing up, he would pretend he was Bradley when he and the neighborhood boys played hoops in the driveway. Today, Bradley, who attended Oxford University as a Rhodes Scholar after Princeton, ``is the perfect role model″ and helps make the point that ball players need to study too, Holmes said.

Bradley loves to tell the story about asking a Princeton professor to teach him the Russian phrase for ``Watch it, big fella″ _ one he repeats for campaign crowds in a throaty shout _ so he could fool the Soviet Olympic team into thinking he understood when they called their plays aloud.

Athletics is good training ground for commander in chief, said Holmes. ``Anybody who can block (former Boston Celtic John) Havlicek and (Cincinnati Royals Hall of Famer Oscar) Robertson, he’s the guy I want by the button. He’s seen pressure.″

For all the stories, Bradley mostly won’t touch a basketball in front of the news cameras except for autographs.

If he wants to look like a winner, better to demur from shooting baskets than miss one.