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LONG, TALL BRADLEY : Lean but Mean, the 76ers’ 7-6er Joins the Big Time for Big Money After Two Years Away From the Game Can He Muscle His Way to the Top

<i> Former Sports Illustrated reporter Robert Strauss is now TV critic for the Asbury Park Press and a frequent contributor to The Times' Calendar section. </i>

THE SPORTING CLUB IS PHILADELPHIA’S high-swagger health spa, the place where corporate honchos, political shakers and glitterati deign to perspire on the latest in exercisiana. These are not folks to be cowed by celebrity, especially during an intense bout with a computerized rowing machine or StairMaster.

But one late-summer noontime, the sweaty strokes and high-stepping stopped for a moment, and normally jaded mouths gaped a bit. Gliding off the nearby basketball court was a figure they had all probably heard about but still hadn’t quite fathomed.

That figure, 7-foot, 6-inch Shawn Bradley, had only a few weeks before cut a gargantuan swath through the pocketbook of erstwhile Nutri-System magnate Harold Katz, now owner of the Philadelphia 76ers. Katz is paying Bradley $44 million over the next eight years in hopes that the young man can force the team back into the top echelon of the National Basketball Assn., a place the Sixers inhabited for much of the past three decades until a series of ill winds and bad moves left them virtually talentless and bereft of spirit.

The new contract for Bradley, now in his first pro year, puts him in the high-atmospheric money league with baseball’s Barry Bonds, football’s Steve Young and hockey’s Wayne Gretzky. Yet despite the largess coming his way by the millennium, what awed the Nike-and-Avia-clad gapers at the Sporting Club was not Bradley’s portfolio. It was, simply, him.

“My! I never realized. Wow! So that’s what 7-foot-6 is,” says club member Mary Murphy, stopping her Lifecycle abruptly and craning around a column to see the anointed savior of the 76ers duck under a doorway to the racquetball courts. “I’ve seen tall. But this. Wow! This is something else.”

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The 76ers have staked their future on the hope that Bradley is, indeed, something else: someone, possibly, who may change the way big men play basketball in the future. After they took Bradley, the second overall selection in the spring draft of top collegians, they either cut or traded all but four members of the squad that finished the 1992-93 season, a housecleaning without precedent in recent professional sports. And they did all this for a 21-year-old man who had not played a competitive game of basketball in more than two years.

At the end of Bradley’s freshman year at Brigham Young University, a season in which he averaged 14.8 points and 7.7 rebounds a game and blocked an NCAA freshman record 177 shots--admirable, though certainly not astounding, statistics--he decided to follow the precepts of his Mormon religion and go on a mission to make converts to the faith. He spent two years in Australia, often in rough neighborhoods around Sydney, where he shot some baskets but never played a full-court game. When Bradley then announced he would forgo his last three years of eligibility at Brigham Young and turn pro, he did not hide any of this. In pre-draft meetings with the teams owning the highest picks in the draft, Bradley, unlike many other potential stars, declined to show off his basketball skills, which indeed were rusty, or perform in other physical tests. He laid it on the table: Whatever team picked him would be taking a chance.

The 76ers, knowing that a dominating basketball center can make a team like no other position player in sports, rolled those $44-million dice.

*

THE ULTRA-BIGS ARE COMING! The ultra-bigs are coming! Bradley is being touted as the first player of his size to be more than a one-dimensional shot blocker. He can shoot from the outside, he rebounds well, and he’s said to have “soft hands,” which means he handles the ball with ease. And, of course, with a fingertip-to-fingertip wingspread of 90 inches, wider than some centers are tall, he can block shots by merely raising an arm.

Bradley weighs 248 pounds, but some basketball pros say he still might betoo frail to hold his own night after night against the muscled monsters who play center for most NBA teams. Nevertheless, says NBA scouting director Marty Blake, “There’s never been a player like Shawn Bradley. He’s going to be a great talent. Something that people have overlooked: He’s a little mean. The first time around the league, he’ll be pushed around a little bit. The second time he goes around the league, he’ll be pushing back. They’re going to be coming back to the coach saying, ‘Get this guy off my back.’ ”

In his first preseason game against a premier NBA center, the New York Knicks’ 7-foot, 240-pound Patrick Ewing, Bradley was intimidated into a 2-for-12 shooting night and looked a little gawky when elbowed and pushed around, but he also looked strong on defense.

“Shawn’s baggage is that guys his size have never worked out,” says Terry Pluto, who covers the NBA for the Akron Beacon Journal and is the author of several books about pro basketball. “They don’t rebound well. In fact, they don’t rebound; they don’t score; they don’t run. But they do block shots. In Bradley’s case, they want him to be big and play small.”

The center’s place in basketball has gone through a number of permutations over the century since Dr. James Naismith put up peach baskets in a Springfield, Mass., YMCA to give football players something fun to do inside during the winter. For part of the 20th Century, the center had one big play, the jump ball. To begin each period and after each basket, the referee would loft the ball between two opposing players who tried to bat it to one of their teammates. You wanted a tall guy to win those jumps and then, basically, get out of the way. On offense, the best of the early centers stood at the foul line bumping small defenders so his team’s best shooters could get free; the big men rarely scored themselves. On defense, the centers joined the thicket of arms and bodies under the basket to prevent easy layups.

George Mikan was the climactic player of this era. A huge man for his time at 6 feet, 10 inches and 245 pounds, Mikan was the first big star of the NBA, which was formed out of the shards of two other postwar professional leagues in 1949. Mikan’s Minneapolis Lakers won four of the first five NBA championships, with Mikan clogging up the narrow 12-foot-wide foul lane and filling up the basket with an assortment of short hook shots and layups. In a boring and bullying game, Mikan’s bulk and strength made him stand out.

Upon Mikan’s retirement in 1954, the NBA decided to speed up its game, awarding penalty shots after a team’s fifth foul in a quarter--which cut down on intentional fouling--and requiring the offensive team to take a shot within 24 seconds, which eliminated the slow, deliberate pace of the old game. Two years later, a new center came into the league to take advantage of the faster game. Bill Russell was a master defender, rebounder and passer at 6 feet, 9 inches. He was strong but lithe, and he led the Boston Celtics to 11 NBA titles in the next 13 years. A typical Celtic play started with Russell rebounding and passing deftly to a guard who would dribble the ball up court before the other team could set its defense. It was the fast break, a new style of play dependent on Russell’s savvy defense and rebounding.

Two years after Russell’s debut, another center overturned the game. Wilt Chamberlain combined the strength of Mikan with the grace and defensive prowess of Russell. Unlike Russell, who scored only about 16 points a game, 7-foot-1 Chamberlain was an offensive machine for the Philadelphia Warriors, rolling over smaller, weaker and less talented defenders with an assortment of fall-away jump shots, finger-roll lay-ins and, of course, the slam-dunk, rarely shot before the dramatic Chamberlain came into the league. He averaged 37.6 points and 27 rebounds a game his rookie year; no one had ever averaged 30 points or 25 rebounds before. Two years later, he averaged an incredible 50.4 points per game. No longer could a center be a mere massif. He now had to score and intimidate.

“Wilt’s coming was second to none. There has never been a player in the history of the NBA to come in with such fanfare and deliver instantly,” says Sonny Hill, Philadelphia’s acknowledged basketball guru, godfather of its youth leagues and a contemporary of Chamberlain in the Philadelphia schoolyards. “Sure, there is some fanfare with Shawn Bradley, but it is nothing compared to that with Wilt.”

As Chamberlain moved to the 76ers and then the Los Angeles Lakers, he and Russell, together and separately, were the prototypes of the modern centers. Their spectacular skills, and their rivalry, coming near the dawn of the television era, gave them massive influence on future players.

“Wilt and Russell were to basketball what Arnold Palmer was to golf. Turn on the television on Sunday and there they were: Wilt vs. Russell. They brought their sport into the living rooms of America, just as Palmer did with golf,” Billy Cunningham, a teammate of Chamberlain on the 76ers and now part-owner of the NBA’s Miami Heat, told author Pluto in “Tall Tales.” “It was never Boston vs. Philly or Boston vs. L.A.; it was Wilt vs. Russell. You have to realize that the dunk as we know it--the scary power play it can be--started with Chamberlain. And the great defensive player, the man capable of stopping the dunk--that was Russell. When you were on the court with them, they so dominated that you’d find yourself stopping just to watch them. I’ve never had that feeling with any two other players.”

After the Chamberlain-Russell era, the search was always on for a center. Shooters are nice, general managers now say, but show us the big guys first. Even the great Michael Jordan, a 6-foot-6 guard, was only the third selection in the collegiate draft in 1984, Houston picking 7-foot Akeem Olajuwon first and Portland taking 7-1 Sam Bowie after that.

No matter how talented a shorter player, he’s usually second fiddle in the college draft. This year there was a host of shorter, more proven players such as forwards Jamal Mashburn of the University of Kentucky and Isaiah (J.R.) Rider of the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, either of whom the 76ers could have chosen. But the allure of Bradley’s awesome 7-foot-6-ness, the chance of finding the next Mikan or Russell or Chamberlain in their locker room, proved overpowering.

*

“WE ALWAYS TRIED TO BE REAL PROUD of our height,” says Reiner Bradley. “Myself, I’ve never had a problem being tall. My wife, Teresa, hasn’t. And our kids have been raised that way. So stooping just doesn’t happen.”

Reiner Bradley is a broad-beamed 6 feet, 8 inches. But spend some time with his son Shawn, and Reiner looks only a belt-buckle or two above average. And Teresa Bradley seems a mere tot at six feet even.

“My family is tall, and Reiner’s family is tall, and we just assumed that our family would be tall, but, of course, 7-6 never entered my mind. That’s tall!” Teresa exclaims in a voice that tells you that even she is still awed by Shawn’s size.

Reiner Bradley, too, has a difficult time explaining his son’s height.

“I’ve always said that you don’t know what 7-6 is until you’re standing next to him,” he says. “There’s just no way you can describe that.”

Let’s try. Seven-foot-six is standing next to Shawn Bradley as he’s slouching on a bench and still being eye-to-eye. Seven-foot-six is bending reflexively under nearly every doorjamb, chandelier and tree limb. Seven-foot-six is growing up sleeping on two beds your grandfather welded together end-to-end. It is eating 7,000 calories on a workout day just to keep up your weight. It is tall enough to look down on Kareem Abdul-Jabbar’s bald spot, have your forearm touch a basketball rim while standing flat-footed and have everyone speculating about the guy inside those 7 feet, 6 inches.

“I wouldn’t trade it for anything,” says Shawn, after finishing his workout at the Sporting Club. “Seven-10, 8-6, I don’t care. You know, keep going. I love being who I am. And I would not trade it for anything.

“If I was any different than I am I wouldn’t be who I am, and that includes being 7-foot-6,” he explains. “I wouldn’t be me. And I don’t want to change that.”

Bradley grew up loved and self-assured on the central Utah plateau, the eldest of four children. Reiner and Teresa Bradley brought baby Shawn home from Germany, where Reiner had been stationed in the Army, and decided to settle on a ranch three hours south of Salt Lake City in Castle Dale, a town of 2,000 souls, most pledged to the Mormon faith. It didn’t take long to know that Shawn was going to be tall for his age, at any age.

“When he was 4 years old, we bought him a Schwinn Sting-ray bike,” recalls Reiner Bradley. “Most kids at 4 can’t even reach the pedals. I gave him a push, and he was off. He just didn’t know how to stop. I had to run in front and catch him to teach him how to stop. But he never had training wheels. Even then, he was always athletic.”

Shawn played Little League baseball and learned to ski on snow and water, still his favorite pastimes (now prohibited by his 76ers contract because of the chance of injury), but it wasn’t long before Reiner, a high school center himself, introduced him to basketball.

“When I was in the fourth grade, he would take me and play with me at 5 o’clock in the morning before school. We would pick up some missionaries, go to the church and play basketball,” Shawn says. He was already six feet tall. “I played against people my size rather than my age. I would hurt the kids my own age because they were too small. I would play hard and aggressive and try to have fun and end up having to talk to some principal or some teacher for knocking someone over or making someone else cry.”

He took gymnastics lessons, played quarterback in youth football and even hit .407 one year as a first baseman on the Emery County High School baseball team. But as he grew to 6 feet, 11 inches in the ninth grade, then in yearly jumps to 7-1, 7-4 and, finally, 7-6 at age 17, it became clear that basketball would become Bradley’s life.

“I’ve always been one to watch (a game on TV) for a few minutes, and then I would go out in the back yard, and that’s who I’d be playing against,” Shawn says. “I’d be doing things that they did, and then I’d try to beat them with my stuff. I started that at 8, 9, 10 years old. I’d play against them in my mind. Sometimes I won; sometimes I lost.”

“I used to love watching him out the kitchen window,” says Teresa Bradley. “I couldn’t hear him, but I could see him talking to himself. He would do a little fake and then dribble around. He was announcing his game. I’d just chuckle when I would look out there and see him playing those imaginary games.”

There was little chuckling among Bradley’s real-life teen-age opponents. He led Emery County to Utah state basketball championships his junior and senior years, losing only two games in that stretch. Crowds would overflow the gym and have to watch the team play on closed-circuit TV in the auditorium. Bradley played on several all-star teams and in the McDonald’s Classic, the prime showcase for the nation’s high school seniors (where he won a three-point shooting contest), so recruiters across the country knew about the giant from the Utah ranchland. But being a Mormon naturally led Bradley to Brigham Young University.

“I would have given anything to have gotten him. I would have sold my soul to the devil. I guess I would have had to,” says University of Utah basketball Coach Rick Majerus with a hearty laugh. “His commitment to his religion is paramount in his life, and it will always be that way, which is what drove him to BYU.

“He’s a very nice young guy and has an air of authenticity about him. He almost belongs back in Boys Life magazine: God, mother and countryhood.”

Brigham Young Coach Roger Reid figured Bradley would be the player of a lifetime for him. “He’s a 7-6 guy in a 6-4 body. He can fill lanes and has a good shooting touch. I liked his competitive nature; he wasn’t afraid. That makes you a pretty rare commodity,” Reid says. “Shawn was probably the most highly recruited athlete in the history of the state.”

When Bradley left BYU for his Australian mission, Reid was not too upset. Many BYU students, including athletes, go on missions while in school. At age 19 for men and 21 for women, young Mormons are allowed to apply for a two-year stint, often abroad. Although two years without competitive sports leaves most young players in lousy physical condition, the missions can give them a psychological advantage. “The athletes who go on a mission are more emotionally stable and mentally mature,” Reid notes. “When you leave at 19 years of age to serve the Lord away from your family, it helps your maturity. When you learn how to give to other people, that gimme, gimme, gimme other athletes have isn’t there. Shawn’s had another perspective. He’s not just me-oriented.”

But it is clear that Reid isn’t completely comfortable with that last statement. He had counted on Bradley to be playing at BYU this year. “I know the fans are disappointed,” Reid says. “Shawn had made comments that he was going to take BYU further than it had ever gone before.” But $44 million is $44 million. “Evidently he made the right decision,” the BYU coach says.

Agents and other advisers convinced Bradley and his parents that, because there might be some restrictions on NBA salaries in the future, Bradley should turn pro immediately, a surprise, pleasant though it was, to the 76ers.

“There was some talk, maybe in mid-January, when some NBA coaches were saying, ‘Did you hear that Shawn Bradley may be coming out?’ But I discounted it, figuring it was typical of the rumors that start,” says Jim Lynam, the 76ers general manager. “But then I started saying, ‘That Bradley, it would be interesting.’ ”

After waddling through a 26-56 record last season, the 76ers find Bradley more than merely interesting. On July 28, the day the team signed Bradley, management announced it would not sign seven of the 12 players who ended the previous season with the 76ers. In the ensuing weeks, another player decided to play in Europe and yet another was traded. Only guards Johnny Dawkins and Jeff Hornacek and forwards Tim Perry and Clarence Weatherspoon remain, with the roster being filled mostly by other teams’ castoffs, most notable among them 38-year-old center Moses Malone. Malone led the 76ers to their last NBA title a decade ago and will be used to spell Bradley and, in practice, teach him the rough game of NBA centerdom.

“If that’s what it takes, then that’s what I’ll do,” Bradley says of his lessons. “I’ve always believed in the concept that you are a different person on the court than you are off. I understand how that works.”

*

THE TRANSFORMATION FROM SWEET TO NASTY is just one of the transitions Bradley is trying to make these days. He arrived in Philadelphia in early July, a virtual mass of jelly. He may have been a potential savior, but after more than two years without significant exercise and eating a lot more Snickers and Milk Duds than training-table grub, Bradley had become the NBA’s largest couch-potato.

“His resting heartbeat was 80 per minute, which is awful,” says Pat Croce, the Philadelphia conditioning guru whose clients have included baseball great Mike Schmidt and 76er legend Julius Erving and, since July, Bradley. “Athletes have 50s a minute. ‘How can a kid do nothing for two years?’ I asked him. ‘You should be ashamed of yourself.’ He said, ‘Pat, it was not part of the mission statement. Exercise is not part of the mission.’ So I just stepped away from that.”

But Croce could not step away from the Bradley project. The 76ers were not spending $44 million for a guy who couldn’t run 10 minutes without breathing hard. Even before he signed his contract, Bradley was doing daily weight, aerobic and anaerobic training with Croce in the afternoon, following two to three hours of morning basketball and running at the Sporting Club.

“It’s heart-rending to see how hard he has to work,” says Reiner, wincing at the pain of his son’s daily six-hour workouts. “He’s giving his entire body and soul. But he never gives up.”

“It’s his new job,” Teresa adds.

Croce put Bradley on a 7,000-calorie-a-day diet, 65% carbohydrate and only 15% fat, enough for a few of Bradley’s beloved Snickers bars. Though Bradley had gone from a toothpick-like 205 pounds in college to 245 immediately after the mission, the extra 40 pounds was not quite enough and, at the same time, too much; it wasn’t muscle.

“You think you’d love to be forced to eat 7,000 calories, but that’s at least three times what you might eat in a day,” says Croce. “And he does everything right if you don’t want to gain weight. He’s a slow eater, picks at his food and doesn’t finish.”

Two months after the rigid diet and exercise regimen, Bradley’s frame had solidified, and his resting heartbeat was down to 60 per minute. He was playing two hours of full-court pickup games, but out of sight of reporters, whom the 76ers barred from the Sporting Club court until the games were finished. There seemed to be little question of Bradley’s desire, even his endurance. But there is still the enigma of whether the guy can be the new NBA force or even play with the current crop of big boys.

“What do you do with a body like that? We haven’t had one yet who has been successful,” says author Pluto. “All of the great centers were smaller. Wilt was 7-foot-1; Kareem was maybe 7-2; Russell was 6-9; Shaq (last year’s rookie-of-the-year, Shaquille O’Neal) is 7-1. People concentrate on the height aspect, but basketball is such a lateral game, especially if you are a shot blocker, you have to be able to move from side to side. Incongruous as it seems, they’ve actually told (Utah Jazz 7-foot-4 center) Mark Eaton not to jump because he might stumble and not be able to block shots.”

But the Sixers, and others, think they have the right man. “There’s no question in my mind about Shawn Bradley,” says Blake, the NBA’s scouting director. “Anybody who thinks any differently doesn’t know anything about basketball. There has never been a player like Shawn Bradley. I’ve been in this business 40 years, and I know you get a center like this once every 20 1/2 years. He has a lot of the mean streak in him. He can run the court. He played shortstop and first base in baseball. He’s an athlete. A lot of guys 7-6 can’t walk. I don’t know of anyone 7-6 before who could even play. He’s a franchise.”

Nevertheless, Philadelphia is a tough sports town, perhaps the only one where fans boo their home team more than they boo the visitors. A man dressed as Santa Claus was pounded with snowballs at one Eagles football game. Can Bradley warm to such as this?

“It does matter, I can’t get around that, if you win or lose. You don’t play the game to lose. But I also understand that if people are giving their 100% effort, giving it all they’ve got, it’s going to be accepted. That’s what I plan on doing,” says Bradley. “That’s fair enough, isn’t it?

“I drive around in my car, a Chrysler Le Baron, sitting way down, got my hat and my sunglasses on, so I’m looking like this,” says Bradley, slithering into a gargantuan knee-to-chin coil. “And people are going, ‘Shawn, how’re you doing?’ It’s fun. I mean, I enjoy it. I’m having fun with it.”

The 76ers are preaching patience with Bradley.

“I think his curve of improvement is going to be dramatic,” says Lynam, the general manager. “It’s certainly not now where he’s going to be. So you say, ‘When’s that going to be?’ Who knows? What kills me is that people forget there are a lot of other good examples. You all remember Patrick Ewing? How long did it take him? As great as Shaquille O’Neal was, and I think we can agree that he had a great year last year, his team didn’t even make the playoffs.”

In fact, the addition of even the best big men often doesn’t result in instant NBA success. The New York Knicks actually lost one more game in 1985-86 with Ewing than they did in 1984-85 without him. The Philadelphia Warriors never won a championship with their prized Chamberlain. Only Bill Russell among the great centers led his team to a championship in his rookie year.

So Bradley knows his dream is for the long haul, something his mission has taught him to handle. Despite knocking on doors up to eight hours a day, it took him 10 months in Australia to perform his first Mormon conversion. He talked to drug addicts, abused women, Aborigines and the destitute. “My mission brethren said to me, ‘Now that you’ve lived in Sydney, you can live anywhere and be happy,’ ” says Bradley.

Philadelphia is bound to be more like Sydney than Castle Dale. The Mormon community, for instance, is small in Philadelphia, perhaps 4,500 people out of 5 million in the metropolitan area. But it found Shawn, and he revels in it. A young Mormon family from the Philadelphia suburbs, the Engelbretsens, wrote to Shawn while he was in Australia and offered him their spare bedroom. After three weeks in a hotel, he readily accepted and became “Uncle Shawn” to their four daughters. He attends their church on almost a daily basis, and one evening in July he met a few of their young Mormon friends. One was 5-foot-3 Annette Evertson, who became Bradley’s wife on Sept. 25.

The 76ers, and basketball marketers from Australia to Zanzibar who wait impatiently for the chance to sell Shawn Bradley T-shirts and Shawn Bradley 7-foot-6 tape measures, will be watching the rookie center very closely. With Larry Bird retired, there’s an unspoken anticipation of a new white star to hype. The NBA salivates at the thought of a long Russell-Chamberlainesque rivalry between O’Neal and Bradley.

“Am I capable of what everyone wants from me? I don’t know,” says Bradley with the shy smile that lights up his huge face. “I sit back and think where I’m from, where I grew up, what I’ve seen on the mission, my family and friends and say, ‘Wow! It’s kind of crazy!’ But that’s the way it is, and I might as well have fun with it. I don’t go out looking for attention, but it’s always there.

“Hey, I’ve been happy so far.”


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