Crystal City taught Bill Bradley key lessons for his journey through sports and politics
For Bill Bradley, Crystal City was more than just a place where he developed a love for sports.
It was also where he absorbed key principles that led him through an incredible journey in sports and politics.
After a highly successful stint at Crystal City High School defined by hard work and intense basketball preparation — for nine months a year, he practiced for three hours every weekday and four to five hours on Saturday and Sunday — Bradley rocketed to stardom as both a college and professional basketball player.
He eventually turned his attention to politics, winning three terms as a senator from New Jersey and running in Democratic primaries for president.
As he prepares to accept the Stan Musial Lifetime Achievement Award for Sportsmanship on Saturday at the Musial Awards, Bradley said his family and teachers in Crystal City taught him “discipline, selflessness, courage, imagination and responsibility.”
“And the more you succeed, the more fuel that provides to the fire and the harder you work,” Bradley said on The Politically Speaking Hour on St. Louis on the Air. “And so, some people say that's the origin of my workaholism. But it's also the origin of the way you make your way through life.”
While he didn’t end up winning titles in high school or as a star player at Princeton University, Bradley eventually became one of only two basketball players ever to win an NBA title, a Euroleague championship and an Olympic gold medal (the other person is Manu Ginóbili). He was a key player for two New York Knicks championship teams that were renowned for their unselfish and team-oriented play.
Several members of those championship teams, including Bradley, Walt Frazier, Dave DeBusschere and Willis Reed, were inducted into the Basketball Hall of Fame. Legendary coach Phil Jackson was also on the two Knicks teams as a player.
“The fact is that each of us knew that no one of us could be as good individually as all five of us could be together,” Bradley said. “And that the highest thing you could experience in basketball was winning the championship. And you'd have to do that with five players. And in addition, it was a great group of guys. And it was easy in some ways. I felt that I belonged in that group.”
Crystal City informed Bradley’s views on race
While he was in office, Bradley worked on a number of important policy initiatives — most notably an overhaul of the tax code in 1986. But he also was known for bringing attention, and pursuing policy solutions, to bridging the country’s racial divides.
When he ran for president in 2000, Bradley often noted that Crystal City was ahead of its time when it came to race relations. In a speech during that campaign, Bradley discussed how the town’s Little League baseball program was integrated before the schools were and how his team walked out of restaurants in the Bootheel of Missouri that wouldn't serve his team’s Black catcher.
“My father, who was a small-town banker, had a lot of wisdom,” Bradley said. “And one of the things he said is you could never tell him who saved or paid back their loans by the color of their skin.”
Some of his teammates on the Knicks provided him with eye-opening accounts of dealing directly with racism. He said Dick Barnett used to tell him stories about how his all-Black Tennessee State team would sit at segregated lunch counters as a means of protest — and added that “he had the discipline not to respond when white people spit on him for trying to integrate the restaurant.”
“And so all of these experiences come together to inform my own feelings about the importance of racial unity in our country — and the importance of seeing beyond color to character,” Bradley said. “And being able to realize that we're all so much better not only as a team, but as the country when we do things together than when we are constantly at each other's throats.”
When he was a senator, Bradley openly called for police departments to forge more cohesive relationships with Black communities — several decades before the schism between police and African Americans came under increased scrutiny after an officer fatally shot Michael Brown in Ferguson.
Today, Bradley said he believes better relations are possible, especially if police departments can become more racially integrated and more connected to the communities they serve.
“The job is to win the trust of the community, who then help the police do their job: which is to get the bad guys and not to just rack up arrests for the books,” Bradley said. “And so I think yes, it is possible. And farsighted leaders in the law enforcement community know that, and in many places they have managed to produce that kind of police force.”
Bradley will receive the Musial award in a ceremony at the Stifel Theatre in St. Louis. The event will air Dec. 24. on CBS.
To hear more from Sen. Bradley, including his thoughts about whether St. Louis should once again have an NBA team, listen to St. Louis on the Air on Apple Podcast, Spotify or Google Podcast, or by clicking the play button below.
“St. Louis on the Air” brings you the stories of St. Louis and the people who live, work and create in our region. The show is produced by Miya Norfleet, Emily Woodbury, Danny Wicentowski, Elaine Cha and Alex Heuer. Ulaa Kuziez is our production intern. The audio engineer is Aaron Doerr. Send questions and comments about this story to firstname.lastname@example.org.