"A Sense Of Where You Are," 50 Years Later

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Last weekend, as March Madness inevitably turned into April Ennui, The New Yorker liberated one of the greatest pieces of sportswriting of all time from behind its paywall.

If you have never read “A Sense of Where You Are" by John McPhee, you should probably do so right now. It is better than this, and I can wait. First published in the January 23, 1965 issue of the magazine, and later expanded into a slim but memorable volume later that year, “A Sense of Where You Are” is a love letter of sorts to Bill Bradley, written at the beginning of his careers in basketball and as a public figure. At the time of its writing, Bradley was a superstar scorer who would more or less singlehandedly carry Princeton to the Final Four. He was also obviously on his way somewhere.

It’s clear in the story that Bradley was going to be famous for the rest of his life, although it was hard to discern for what. While the Knicks used Bradley’s territorial draft rights as a bargaining chip during the Syracuse Nats’ move to Philadelphia, it was uncertain whether Bradley would ever play in the NBA, let alone do so at the Hall of Fame level that seemed nothing less than his destiny during Princeton’s run. Bradley wound up playing in the NBA for a dozen seasons, but McPhee, in the story, seems resigned to the prospect that he is watching the end of Bradley’s basketball career. The sense that This Is It, at least in a basketball sense, casts a melancholy shadow on the piece.

My generation would later know Bill Bradley as the three-term Senator from New Jersey—Princeton basketball coach Butch van Breda Kolff envisioned Bradley as the Governor of Missouri, which was at least close. Bradley was a respected politician, if not necessarily an inspiring one—a jowly policy wonk who might have been President, or lost to George W. Bush, had Al Gore not been nominated in 2000. It was not it, at all.

***

McPhee was one of several New Jersey writers who revolutionized storytelling in the 1960’s, the Central Jersey equal to Ocean City’s Gay Talese or Newark’s Philip Roth. To read McPhee is to be amazed, repeatedly, by how he can make the Pine Barrens, the first U.S. Open men’s tennis final, or freaking oranges—the fruit, not the cluster of Union County suburbs—into a concentrated dose of fact and narrative. A Sense of Where You Are was my gateway to McPhee, the original article making the first John McPhee Reader a must-buy at my local used book store.

Both profile and book have aged somewhat, as anything pushing fifty would, although that only adds to the piece’s character. In the book’s opening chapter, which precedes the original profile, McPhee admits that basketball had already gotten away from him before encountering Bradley, what with all the scoring and prestidigitation; he was not writing as a fan. The access McPhee gets is helped by his connections—his father spent most of his entire career as an athletic doctor at Princeton, while John graduated from the school over a decade before Bradley, and was incidentally a housemate of Bradley’s childhood hero, the Heisman Trophy winner Dick Kazmaier. The author does all the heavy lifting, while Bradley dominates the Ivy League with apparent ease.

McPhee paints a portrait of someone who is exquisitely self-aware on the court and off, a less dark-sided Gatsby figure who is self-groomed for success and dedicated to practicing his way towards achievement. The very title of the piece comes from a conversation McPhee has with Bradley while the latter makes a shot from over his shoulder. That is pretty much the extent of “flamboyance” in Bradley’s game, and McPhee admits there is not much innovation there, either. Many aspects of Bill Bradley’s game were learned from watching others, such as mentor and NBA star Ed Macauley; all of them were honed relentlessly, until all jagged edges were level.

This is the middle of the 1960’s, an era without a three-point line or a shot clock in college basketball, and one suspended evolutionally between running and dunking. In much the same way, Bradley is in transition: the son of a banker becoming his own man, and bridging the difference between a conservative upbringing and a liberal adulthood. Bradley in the mid-60’s, however, was still more square than most: a speed-reader who pores over a term paper on Harry Truman’s 1940 Senatorial run, and who pumps himself up before game time by listening to that most electrifying of showtunes, “Climb Every Mountain,” from The Sound Of Music.

***

It’s often hard to drum up excitement for the inevitable. It’s why the NCAA has not had a third place game for its men’s Division I tournament since 1981. It’s why everyone had twenty Kentucky/Duke tweets primed for Monday night, and fifteen for when John Calipari’s Wildcats vacated the title. That those tweets will never be sent—and that the inevitable wasn’t quite as much so as it seemed—is why we bother watching.

It is also why McPhee’s treatment of Princeton’s consolation game in the book is a revelation. A rivalry of sorts developed between Bradley and Michigan’s Cazzie Russell, who would later be his teammate on the Knicks. Michigan defeats Princeton during a holiday tournament at the old Madison Square Garden, and later in the Final Four. The sting of Princeton going down to Michigan in the national semi-finals is mentioned in the second paragraph of the chapter in question, but the real story is in the consolation game against Wichita State.

Which is not to say that it was much of a game. Princeton had its foot on the Shockers’ neck from the jump and never let up, allowing Bradley to kick harder, more often. I was on the verge of tears upon first reading this account ten years ago, and they were still near as McPhee describes the sheer joy of Bill Bradley being set free in his final college game. He wound up scoring 58 points in a game that had meaning breathed into it by his performance and the Portland crowd.

Bill Bradley has written several books of his own, including the NBA diary Life On The Run and the political memoir Time Present, Time Past. From what I’ve read of these, they are fine books, and not in the same universe as A Sense of Where You Are. This is a different thing, and has endured because the subject’s potential is so palpable and unmistakable. Bill Bradley will never be President of the United States, but he has lived a full and varied life, one borne of some privilege but still something like the self-willed stuff of the American dream. As America’s memories of Olympian/Basketball Hall Of Famer/Rhodes Scholar/Senator Bill Bradley fade, his story will still endure, in no small part to the New Yorker article which introduced him to the world fifty years ago.

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