The Association of American Rhodes Scholars

How Abstract Expressionism makes for great basketball

Ryan Sachetta
San Antonio Current
January 25, 2012

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In 1962, pivoting on a tip from his father, the narrative journalist John McPhee returned to his alma-mater Princeton to witness a dynamic freshman basketball player named Bill Bradley. Typically, freshman games were sparsely attended, but Bradley’s ballyhooed arrival on the Princeton hardwood resulted in a sell out. McPhee was immediately smitten with Bradley’s seemingly perfect repertoire, the way his offensive precision wedded his unending defense. Bradley’s unmistakable range as a basketball player was only topped by his smarts, which eventually earned him a Rhodes Scholarship.

“It seemed to me that I had been watching all the possibilities of the game that I had ever imagined, and then some,” McPhee wrote. By 1964, the 21-year-old soon-to-be U.S. Olympian agreed to cooperate for McPhee’s New Yorker profile, “A Sense of Where You Are.” At one point in the profile-turned-book McPhee describes Princeton coach Butch van Breda Kolff as an “Abstract Expressionist of basketball” because he refused to implement a set offense, electing free-flowing spontaneity instead with Bradley at the helm. The cover of the current edition of the book offers a centered red circle reminiscent of a painting by noteworthy Abstract Expressionist Adolph Gottlieb.

Bradley’s art wasn’t built on flash as he refused to embellish his game. Nor was it predicated on ego demonstrated in his tireless commitment to finding the open man nearest the basket. (Tim Duncan, anyone?) The artistry of Bill Bradley was encapsulated in his loyalty to process. He understood the athlete, like the artist, needed muscle memory — a byproduct of hours upon months upon years of practice, sweat, and sleepless nights. Bradley said it best: “When you have played basketball for a while, you don’t need to look at the basket when you are in close like this,” he said, throwing a ball over his shoulder and right through the hoop. “You develop a sense of where you are.”

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