What would Bill Bradley have said if told on May 10, 1973, that the NBA title the Knicks secured that night would be their last for at least 50 years?
“I probably wouldn’t have believed it,” he told Newsday, with a chuckle. “What can I say?”
Bradley scored 20 points in the 102-93 victory over the Lakers that ended the NBA Finals — the Knicks’ second championship in four seasons — which certainly was a career and life highlight for him.
But if that were all there was to it, he would not have had enough material for a one-man show about his life and times that runs 90 minutes.
Not to worry.
Bradley, who turns 80 next month, has a lot to say on a lot of subjects in “Rolling Along,” a filmed version of his show that premieres at the Tribeca Film Festival in Manhattan on June 16.
Even for an Olympic gold medalist, Final Four Most Outstanding Player, Rhodes Scholar, two-time NBA champion, three-term U.S. Senator and U.S. Presidential candidate in 2000, he could not be sure initially that people would care enough to listen.
“It occurred to me: They want to hear about my life?” he said. “But I took the leap and I felt there were themes that were universal, that if I did it well enough, people would identify with it.
“Everybody has parents who die, everyone succeeds and fails at some point in their life. It might not be an NBA championship or losing an election, but how you deal with those are universal experiences for people.”
Bradley’s life covers a variety of American bases, from growing up along the Mississippi River in Crystal City, Missouri, to an Ivy League campus in New Jersey to Madison Square Garden to the halls of Congress.
He felt out of place as a banker’s son in a factory town, then as an Evangelical Christian at Princeton, and finally as a struggling Knicks rookie before he found kinship with his teammates and respect from fans in New York.
All that leads to natural storytelling opportunities, but Bradley’s messages run deeper, touching frequently on issues of race and racism and later toxic politics.
The idea for “Rolling Along” began in 2018, when Bradley spoke at a reception after donating his political papers to Princeton.
Theater producer Manny Azenberg was there and told Bradley his presentation reminded him of one-man shows such as Hal Holbrook’s take on Mark Twain.
Bradley soon began turning his story into theatrical form and in 2019 took it on the road, giving performances around the country, always adding, subtracting and honing material.
The plan was to make it a polished theatrical presentation. Then the pandemic struck. So instead Bradley decided to make a film out of it.
He rented a theater on 42nd Street and over four performances late in 2021, the show turned into a movie, directed by Mike Tollin (“The Last Dance”).
How did Bradley commit it all to memory? Over many, many months, including talking to himself on long walks in Central Park.
“I kept doing it, kept doing it, kept doing it, until I grooved it, not unlike a jump shot,” he said. “Every day you wake up saying the lines. It becomes part of who you are.”
As with many films at Tribeca and other festivals, “Rolling Along” is aiming for a distribution deal that will deliver it to a much bigger audience.
But for now, three theater shows on a weekend in mid-June is milestone enough for what had been a mostly lonely project.
“It’s the end of four years and nine months of work,” Bradley said. “I started this thing at Princeton in September of 2018. Now this thing is done in June of 2023.
“So it definitely represents a closing. Hopefully, people will enjoy it and they’ll see it . . . It means a lot to me.”
Through it all, basketball was and remains a central part of Bradley’s story. He lives in Manhattan and follows the NBA in general and Knicks in particular.
He still is close to his old teammates, several of whom will be at the premiere. He was part of a group that attended the funeral of Willis Reed in Louisiana in April.
“We wouldn’t have missed paying our respect to the Captain, because he gave it all for us,” Bradley said.
In the film, he says, “It was during those years (in the early ‘70s) I thought I was part of the greatest team in the greatest sport in the greatest city in the world . . . All I know for sure is for a few short years in my life, I felt at one with my world.”
As Bradley talks about the glory days, the screen fills with a picture of the locker room celebration in 1970, then a picture at a reunion.
“When I morph that into the picture of us 40 years later, to me I always get a lump (in my throat) when I go from one picture to the other picture,” he said.
Bradley is bullish on the current Knicks.
“I wanted them to win, but they didn’t,” he said. “One thing in pro basketball: There’s always next year. It’s been 50 years saying that, so hopefully we’ll get it sometime.”