A Sense of Where He’s Been

A Sense of Where He’s Been

portrait of Bill Bradley in a bluegreen sweater

Bill Bradley

Illustration by João Fazenda

It was twenty minutes before curtain on opening night for a production called “Rolling Along.” The audience clustered in the lobby of the Signature Theatre, on West Forty-second Street. One woman got out her iPad and cell phone. “I’m at an event you would love to be at,” is how she began a call, while scrolling the CNN Web site. She paused for exactly as long as it takes to say “What?”

“Bill Bradley doing a one-man show!”

All hundred and sixty attendees signed paperwork acknowledging that they might appear in a documentary that would be filming during the performance, the first in a four-night run. They filed into the theatre to find a name card on each seat, as though the show were a giant dinner party: Katrina vanden Heuvel, Charlie Rose, Bob Kerrey, Phil Murphy.

When the lights went down, the stage was empty except for a table and chair. Bradley appeared, dressed in slacks and a pale-blue V-neck sweater over a button-down shirt. He faced the audience with an odd, ambiguous expression that suggested an apology was coming. It’s possible that, as someone who had lived up to immense expectations for most of his life—who had, as John McPhee put it, in an article in this magazine, “a sense of where you are”—he was feeling a bit lost.

For the next hundred minutes, Bradley told the story of his life, organized around polished anecdotes. He began in Crystal City, Missouri, where he was the only child of a small-town bank president with a bad back, and moved quickly through his ascent as a high-school athlete, a college-basketball prodigy, an Oxford scholar, a faltering rookie with the Knicks, a star, and a two-time champion. And then a rookie senator from New Jersey, a three-term senator from New Jersey, and, in 2000, a Presidential candidate running in a primary against Al Gore, after which he became an investment banker—at last, “my father’s banker son.” And, now, performing in a one-man play.

There was anecdote after anecdote about life as a basketball star. The time he went to a Russian professor at Princeton before facing the Russians in the Olympics, in 1964, and learned a couple of Russian phrases, which he used to spook the Russians during the gold-medal game. How he was initially resented in the Knicks locker room because he was making more money than anyone else in the league, for reasons that seemed connected to his being white. How the fans booed him on the court that year, throwing coins at him.

In the lobby of the Signature a few days later, after the final performance, Bradley, who is seventy-eight, was fatigued but game; he runs cool, and had some energy in reserve. He said that the idea for the show had begun after a reception at Princeton, to which he donated his papers in 2017. The university’s library had compiled an oral history about him, talking to more than a hundred people. About seventy showed up for the reception. “I prepared a talk where I mentioned each person,” he said.

His friend Manny Azenberg, a theatre producer, was in attendance. “Manny, a friend of fifty years, has never given me a compliment,” Bradley said. “But after my talk he came up and said, ‘Sounds like Hal Holbrook. Why don’t you work something up?’ And then I just started doing it.” Bradley continued, “I would go around the country revising it. I would go to Salt Lake or Chicago, or Austin, Texas, or Marin County, to these little theatres.” As part of his research, he said, he looked at work by Holbrook, Billy Crystal, and Spalding Gray. Gray always performed his monologues with a script open in front of him, but Bradley memorized his.

“Discipline is discipline,” he said. “You need discipline to hit twenty-five in a row. And you have to have discipline to memorize something. There have probably been, in the past eighteen months, three to five days that I haven’t done this show, or some version of it.” After the onset of COVID, he rehearsed during long walks in Central Park.

When he was on the road with “Rolling Along,” he’d ask the audience for notes after each performance: “One guy in Salt Lake said, ‘You know, Senator, that’s interesting, but people want guts on the floor. Put some more guts on the floor.’ ” This could be seen as a valid critique of Bradley’s demeanor as a senator, and especially as a Presidential candidate. But his talent may be for coherence and a sense of proportion, of playing in space. Even in a one-man show, he was thinking about teamwork. “The key is finding the balance between candor and too much,” he said. “You want to say enough but leave enough room for people’s imagination.” ♦