Review of Life on the Run

Author: Bill Bradley

This may seem odd–I am reviewing a book that is now more than forty years old. Yes, I am, because I feel that it is an important and noteworthy book that should be on modern reading lists.

Bradley, we know, was a small forward for the late-1960s/early-1970s New York Knicks, after having excelled at Princeton and later at Oxford as a Rhodes Scholar. Later he became a United States Senator, serving three terms.

Life on the Run covers a twenty-day stretch in the 1973-74 season, when Bradley was 30 years old. It is, as its title suggests, about much more than basketball, about life itself–life as a member of a team, life as a single man traveling, life spent on a physical pursuit, life spent in the eye of the public, and, perhaps most importantly, life in the troubled early 1970s, with the disastrous second Nixon administration and the murderous economic stagflation that characterized the era.

What emerges almost immediately is that the NBA was a different league. There was no three-point shot; dunks were infrequent. I do not know its demographic makeup at present; when Bradley wrote it was only 65% African-American, but this was before the days of mammoth contracts and endorsement deals, before the age of Magic and Bird and Jordan, and before the unceasing corporatization of the league. The players were not exclusively basketball players, though they all had allotted significant chunks of their lives to the game. Players got letters from fans, and were accessible in hotels and around town.

Bradley’s New York Knicks were perhaps the most cerebral team and the most interesting collection of men as men that the NBA has ever seen. Phil Jackson has since become the greatest head coach in league history. Jerry Lucas memorized the New York City phone book, and Bradley tells of a test given him by Bobby Fischer, the legendary chess player–an association you would not see from today’s athletes. Dave Debusschere, who was Bradley’s roommate on the road, was the rare two-sport professional athlete, though by the time the book was written he had ceased to pitch for the Chicago White Sox and was a full-time basketball player. Bradley is careful to include biographical sketches of his teammates and their coaches. Even the Knicks’ trainer comes out as interesting: Danny Whelan was a trainer for baseball and basketball teams for several decades, and tells stories of the Pacific Coast League, while entertaining himself in his off hours by sitting in on big criminal trials in the cities to which the Knicks travel.

Along with Wheeler Bradley describes his masseuse in LA. Bradley mentions that he is aging, and how he takes longer to get loose before games. We get a close look at the then-injured Willis Reed, an icon for Knicks fans who was literally on his last legs. Standing over all and overseeing his Knicks team was the coach, Red Holzman, a man who never publicly blamed his players but who oversaw their development into true professionals and high-IQ members of a winning team.

Of special interest to any basketball junkie are Bradley’s comments on the game itself, and on some of its legends. He credits Bill Russell with creating pressure team defense and highlights Wilt Chamberlain’s brilliance and travails. He describes his respect for Jerry West, and we get a close look at Walt Frazier and Earl “the Pearl” Monroe–who gets mugged by racists outside Madison Square Garden while trying to hail a cab a half an hour after the Knicks win there–their own home court. Bradley describes his own encounter with crime outside the old Chicago arena, on the dangerous South Side, where he had been robbed at gunpoint a few years earlier. At least since Paul Pierce was stabbed in Inglewood, I cannot recall any professional basketball player encountering such danger in recent years.

Bradley details his ideal of basketball–as a team sport, with players who were not too close as individuals. Woe be to LeBron supporters. Bradley documents the careful construction of plays and the hours of repetition that go into executing them well on the court during games. He describes one-on-one battles between young players and assistant coaches, as well as how they come out during the games between stars; but he also describes DeBusschere’s frustration with guards like Frazier when they do not pass to the forwards or centers. We come away from the book with a good understanding of how those Knicks played. Lucas was a shooter. Jackson was a gangly slasher and rebounder. Frazier was flashy. Monroe was a magnificent passer. Bradley did whatever the team needed to win

The last thing which interested me was Bradley’s commentary on the players’ sex lives, as well as the business of basketball. He describes the infrequency of forming connections on the road, but also the team laughs about groupies who were passed around from player to player and compared. He notes the infamous reserve clause, describes some of the trends in collective bargaining, notes many of his teammates’ business ventures–Frazier’s record company, Lucas’ get-rich-quick schemes, Reed’s small business adventures–and laments that the agenting process, then in its infancy, was going to ruin many young players financially.

I HIGHLY recommend this book to all basketball fans; it is a serious read, but highly accessible, and at 240 pages it is not a long read, but also not a quick one.