One fall afternoon they were playing pickup basketball in Brigham Young’s Smith Field House, an old, low-slung concrete building where two-handed set shots once were launched. Two dozen players, all in standard-issue gray T-shirts, ran formless games to 15 or 21. Interlopers paused to watch from the stiff wooden chairs at courtside. One of them questioned a savvy local:
“How tall is he?” pointing to BYU forward Steve Schreiner.
“Six-seven,” said the local.
“Really? That tall? How about him?” singling out forward Robert Jones.
The local laughed. “Bradley throws your perspective out of whack, doesn’t he?”
There was a time when Shawn Bradley was certain the growing would cease, if only from common sense. Everybody stops sometime, most people just closer to the ground, is all. But there he went, until as a junior in high school he stood 7-4 and told reporters who hiked into the central Utah hamlet of Castle Dale (pop. 1,910) to witness him in the flesh, “They thought I’d be 7-6 or 7-7, but I’m through growing. I just know it.”
The figure upon which folks at BYU have settled -- for now -- is 7-6. That should be about it, for Bradley has seemed to chug to a halt at the age of 18, and the conventional wisdom is that this exceptional altitude is what distinguishes him most. t is, principally, Bradley’s size that pushes people toward this type of analysis:
“He’s the best big-man prospect since Kareem came out of high school,” UNLV Coach Jerry Tarkanian said. “The kid’s so big, he’s coordinated, he can run ... he’s a three-million-dollar player.”
Or this: “This sounds crazy,” said Brett Vrooman, a 7-foot veteran of nine years of professional play in Europe who frequents the BYU campus. “I think if he had made himself available for the NBA draft this year, somebody would have taken him. Just as an investment for the future. There are some very tall people in the NBA who are effective, even though they aren’t athletic at all. Shawn is an athlete.”
He has played barely half a dozen college games, and in those games this much has been established: He is young, physically weak, full of potential and capable -- right now, today -- of disturbing your offense to no end no matter who you are. Despite a season low of four points in a 93-81 loss at La Salle Tuesday night, Bradley is averaging 15.2 points, 8.6 rebounds and 5.4 blocked shots a game. “You think you’ve got a sure two,” said Utah State Coach Kohn Smith, “and he takes it away. He creates many, many problems.” So yes, he throws perspective out of whack.
But there is more, for this season brings only the early pages of a long, unwritten book about a Huck Finn redhead with a deep, resonant voice and 215 pounds of weight distributed like pulled taffy. He sets back by decades the image of the child who, because he is so tall, must also be awkward and shy. Quite the opposite, Bradley is not only athletically skilled but emotionally secure and engaging to the point of seeming much older. Beyond fitting in, the kid is -- dare we say? -- hip. From his street-smart verbiage (“People be talkin’ smack at me all the time”) to his careful negotiation of NCAA rules (“I went to about nine BYU games last year -- just bought a ticket and went on in”), he is far more big time than small town.
His father, Reiner, is 6-8; his mother, Teresa, is 6-foot, so he came by his height quite honestly. Class, he has learned.
“I love being 7-6, I just love it,” Bradley said. “My entire life, it’s something I’ve lived with. There were trials, being made fun of when I was younger. Even last year, playing in (high school) all-star games. Guys would say, ‘Poor farm boy from Utah.’ Well, I can play with them. I just believe you make the best of what you have. So I have to duck through a few doorways or wait a little bit extra to find a new pair of pants. I think it’s worth it.”
BYU Coach Roger Reid said, “The thing about Shawn is, whatever he does in basketball, he’s a better person.”
In high school, Bradley played baseball and batted .407; he made Castle Dale’s eight-man golf team because only six people tried out, for which he likes to tweak himself. He water-skis and eats like three or four normal people, yet does not gain weight, which will be his most significant fight. “I eat anything and everything,” he said. Vrooman, who spent nine gluttonous years gaining 25 pounds, said, “He’s so thin, it’s almost an optical illusion, but that doesn’t mean he’s going to gain weight. It’s not automatic.”
As of today, he has an effective low-post game, though he predictably can be pushed outside. Good hands, better jumping ability than you would expect, and sublime awareness of his effect on the game. “Some of the things I make people do, they make me laugh right on the court,” Bradley said. “They’ll fake and fake and fake ... and then pass back outside for the three-pointer).”
The end of this chapter is six years away. Bradley, a Mormon, will serve a church mission -- by his own choosing -- beginning sometime after he turns 19 on March 22. As to where he is sent, to knock on doors proselytizing and performing other duties in service of the religion, that is very much uncertain. One BYU recruit, Randy Reid (the coach’s son), is in New Jersey. Junior Nate Call, the Cougars’ point guard, was shipped to Bolivia and suffered severe burns when a smoldering campfire ignited. In short, the two years could either enhance or diminish a very valuable career. No matter.
“All my life, growing up in the church, I always planned on going on a mission,” he said. “There are certain missions where you get a chance to play ball. If I get one of those, great. But I’m going where they want me to go. I’ll mature, and not just physically.”
He won’t be reunited with BYU’s fine recruiting class (including forward Mark Durrant and Reid, both in great demand nationally) until the 1993-94 season. By which time appetites will have been whetted and put on anticipatory hold for about long enough to expect mighty large things, indeed.
“They’ll say, ‘You better be good, we’re expecting big things from you,”’ Bradley said. “I like it. It’s kind of cool.”
Which is another very tall concept.