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Man on a Mission : Can Bradley Take Two Years Off, Then Lead BYU to NCAA Title?

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

The tall man loped back and forth in front of a basketball hoop, dropping a ball through the net as if he were playing a hoax on the dimensions of the game.

Shawn Bradley was participating in a pre-practice layup drill in Brigham Young University’s Marriott Center, but to a small gathering of observers, it looked more as though he was placing a grapefruit on a shelf in his refrigerator.

Again and again, without jumping, he laid the ball down into the basket.

Just as the rim appeared to become an extension of Bradley’s elbow, BYU Coach Roger Reid called for his players to split into teams for a scrimmage. Reserve center Gary Trost, who is 6 feet 10, knew what was coming. And it came in a barrage. Inside of 10 minutes, Bradley blocked five shots.

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When forward Jared Miller made a 15-foot shot that followed the trajectory of a punt over Bradley’s intercontinental reach, the entire team applauded.

“No one can imagine what it’s like playing against someone that big,” Trost said. “It’s so, so . . . different. No one can imagine that kind of height.”

At least not without stretching one’s imagination.

For the record, Shawn Bradley is 7 feet 6 inches. The 18-year-old freshman is the tallest college basketball player in the United States. And, if you believe some experts, not the least of whom is Nevada Las Vegas Coach Jerry Tarkanian, Bradley might one day be “the best big man who ever played.”

Others, such as NBC analyst Al McGuire, predict that stardom and untold riches await Bradley in the NBA. Both the money and the realized potential, however, are a few thousand slam dunks and slammed doors into the future.

Once this season ends, Bradley plans on postponing his basketball career for two years to become a Mormon missionary.

For now, Bradley settles for leading the nation in blocked shots (5.6 a game, 150 total), averages of 16 points and eight rebounds, and leading a largely undistinguished team to a surprising 17-11 record.

Like almost all the opposing coaches whose teams have faced Bradley this season, Reid is profuse in his praise, because, the coach says, he is more than merely tall.

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“He has a shooting touch, agility, the ability to move and run, he can pass when he gets double- or triple-teamed, and he blocks shots,” the coach said. “His rebounding could be a little better, but when he gets physically stronger, that will come.”

Indeed, Bradley’s weakness is his weakness. His 210 pounds have been stretched over 90 inches. Shorter, heavier players endlessly attempt to shove him away from the low post, at times reducing his effectiveness on offense. Still, Bradley finds open routes around, or more frequently over, defenders with spin moves and turnaround jump shots.

“I knew he’d be a factor right away defensively at the college level,” Reid said. “But offensively, he’s come around quicker than I expected. Overall, he’s done more this year than I ever expected.”

If that’s true, Reid is riding high, because expectations rocketed in Provo when Bradley committed to BYU as a high school senior. The coaching staff exulted with the rest of the community after it was learned Bradley picked BYU over UCLA, North Carolina, Arizona, Syracuse, Utah and Duke.

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“I was in the office when he called to say he was coming,” Reid said. “I’ll tell you, this place was rattling. We were jumping up and down. As a coach, and I think I can speak for the assistant coaches, it was the happiest day of our lives.”

Bradley grew up and up as something of a boy wonder in the small town of Castle Dale, Utah, (population 1,910). A principal once pleaded with his parents, Reiner and Teresa Bradley, not to move away from the area so their son could rack up basketball championships for the local high school.

“And that happened when I was in kindergarten,” Bradley said.

By the time he made the sixth grade, Bradley was 6-1. Over the next two years, he grew another seven inches. At 16, he reached 7 feet. Throughout the growth, Bradley remained a gifted athlete.

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“He was always coordinated despite being tall,” said Reiner Bradley, who is 6-8. “When he was 4 years old, we gave him a bike and he was riding it around after about an hour. When he was 6 or 7, Teresa (who is 6 feet) put him in a gymnastics class. That probably helped, too.”

He played football--quarterback and receiver--in junior high, baseball and golf in high school. He batted .400 as a junior first baseman and his best nine-hole score in golf was a decent if not spectacular 42. But, then, what could be unspectacular about a 7-6 guy hacking away with a hyper-extended driver? “I hit a three-iron about as far as my friends hit their drivers,” Bradley said. He was blessed with enough balance and coordination for his favorite sports hobby to be water skiing.

All of which sounded good enough for Syracuse Coach Jim Boeheim, who sent Bradley a birthday card when he turned 15. Messages from Dean Smith, Lute Olson, Jim Harrick, and about 100 other college coaches soon followed. Meanwhile, Bradley led Emery County High to state championships during his junior and senior years, averaging 26 points, 15 rebounds and nine blocked shots.

When Bradley eventually signed with BYU, located two hours north of his home, Cougar followers began thinking about the heretofore unthinkable--a national championship. BYU has had successful teams in the recent past. Danny Ainge led the Cougars to the round of eight in the 1981 NCAA tournament and the 1987 team was ranked as high as No. 2 during the regular season. But a serious run at a national title has never been a consideration, much less an expectation.

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Bradley’s arrival has changed that.

“The expectations for the future are that we’ll win a national championship,” said Val Hale, BYU’s assistant athletic director. “I know our coaches don’t like to hear that, but a lot of (opposing) coaches have come through here and said, ‘BYU will win a national title if Bradley stays for four years.’ ”

They have also said other things, such as there is no way Bradley will stay in Provo that long.

East Tennessee State Coach Alan LeForce, whose team beat the Cougars in Bradley’s first college game, told The Times last month: “Shawn Bradley is playing his last year of college basketball. He’s going to come back from his mission and make millions and millions of dollars. He’ll be 30 pounds heavier, stronger, and he can make so much money. He has the skills of a 6-2 guy. He runs, dribbles, blocks shots, shoots. The only thing he needs is some weight. If he stays, Brigham Young will win the national championship.”

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“I don’t know where (LeForce) got that,” Bradley said. “He just pulled it out of the air.”

The plan all along for Bradley has been to complete his freshman season, go on the church mission and then return to BYU before joining the NBA. That remains his plan, although he is uncertain regarding the specifics. In a recent interview, he hinted he might pass altogether on the voluntary missionary work.

“Right now I’m a little confused about it, but I am planning on going,” he said. “I’ve always dreamed of going on a mission. You get a chance to go out and help other people. I want to leave in June, if I do leave.”

As for his return, that would come in June, 1993. “I’ll definitely play my sophomore year,” Bradley added. “After that, I don’t know. If it’s the right situation, I might go to the NBA. If not, I’ll stay in school.”

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Regarding BYU’s new-found aspirations, Bradley says not to worry. If he sees a remote possibility of an NCAA title in BYU’s future, he will stay in school.

“If that wasn’t my goal, I wouldn’t be playing right now,” he said. “I think it’s a realistic goal. There’s a good possibility BYU could be among the top teams in the nation by then.”

What with some players choosing to go on missions and others returning, BYU’s basketball program swings in six-year cycles. “We love it, we deal with it,” said Reid, whose son Randy, a highly recruited point guard, soon returns to the program after completing a mission in New Jersey.

The effect of a two-year layoff for Bradley is a mixed bag. He is certain to mature physically and it’s probable he will gain weight; conversely, Mormon missionary work is comprehensive enough not to allow much time for lifting weights or shooting baskets.

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“My mission helped me,” said Trost, a sophomore who preached in the Philadelphia area. “I went out at 205 pounds and came back at 230. My shooting skills stayed, and I matured as a person. When you go to the hard parts of Philadelphia knocking on doors, you lose fear of anything.

“The experience will help Shawn in the long run.”

Seemingly, it is the long run in which Bradley is interested. Not that he needs to disperse his fears or gain yet unattained inner strength. For a teen-ager who has always stuck out in a crowd--and been viewed by some as a freak--Bradley has remarkable self-esteem.

“He’s got great confidence in who he is,” Reid said. “Every place he goes, people gawk at him, but his size hasn’t caused him any psychological problems. He feels very good about himself.”

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“I know I’m not the normal 18-year-old kid,” Bradley said. “But, hey, I like being tall.”

In fact, during a recent visit to a Philadelphia 76er practice, he would have gladly taken another half-inch or so. Before BYU played at LaSalle in December, Bradley sidled off on a short trip to meet Manute Bol, the 76ers’ reserve center who is listed at 7-7.

When Bradley walked in, the 76ers, to a man, stopped what they were doing and stared. Bradley walked up to Bol, shook his hand, and the measuring began.

Rickey Green, a 6-1 guard, had Bradley and Bol back to back, trying to figure who had the edge. Bradley had once met Utah Jazz center Mark Eaton, who is 7-4, but this was unlike anything he’d experienced.

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“All the guys on the team were lined up as we stood next to each other, saying, ‘I don’t know Manute, it’s awfully close,’ ” Bradley recalled. “Turned out he was about one-quarter inch taller than me.”

Bol kept repeating to anyone who would listen, “I’m still the king, I’m still the king.”

As for Bradley, he said simply: “It was neat. I’d never met anyone so tall. For the first time in my life, at least since I’ve been 7-6, I looked up to someone.”

For the first time, the tall man wasn’t the tallest.

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