To be so tall and never stumble? That is asking too much. And so Shawn Bradley seems to accept the trips as part of his journey. He is high as a window and narrow as a fax, and wherever he goes he gets stares and questions and hoots and laughs and none of it is new. What could be new? He was walking when he was 1 year old, and even then, instead of marveling at his skill, people mistook him for a preschooler and said, “He doesn’t talk. Is he retarded?”
What could be new?
Only the money. They bark about money now because he is no longer in the eye-bugging business, he is in the entertainment business. You buys your ticket, you wants results. When Shawn Bradley left college, finished his Mormon mission at age 21 and jumped straight from the churches of Australia into the NBA draft, he was giving up the only leverage he had against a world that expected miracles.
His right to say, “I’m not getting paid.”
“I don’t like it, to be honest,” he says of the fact that “$44 million contract” now follows his name in the thousands of articles written about him. “I wish they wouldn’t put that. But it’s part of life.
“Maybe not part of life for everyone else. But for me.”
He pulls off his shirt to reveal a long, pale torso that suggests a red-headed boy ready to jump in the fishing hole. A country kid in a city game. A Mormon in a sabbath-busting business. A 7-foot, 6-inch novice who is better paid than 90 percent of NBA veterans.
What could be new? Not bad, but . . .
“Have you ever met everyone’s expectations?” I ask Bradley.
He thinks before he answers — which separates him from half the league — and then, as if watching a movie of his life, says, “I had a coach once who said he saw something new from me every day.”
That’s pretty much the only way, isn’t it? Something new every day? When you have that height, that dexterity, you score 50, they expect 60, you block a dozen, they say “tomorrow two dozen.”
So in some ways, Bradley’s entire life has been a prep course for the rough period he’s enduring now, the boos from Philly fans, the snickers from opponents, the attempts to thicken him with a 7,000-calorie-per day diet and the growls about “a return on investment.” After all, Bradley was the No. 2 selection in the draft a year ago. The No. 1 selection, Chris Webber, won Rookie of the Year. The No. 3 selection, Anfernee Hardaway, was the runner-up.
Bradley, meanwhile, got banged like a time clock, then injured his knee and missed the second half of the season.
What did they expect? He hadn’t played in 2 1/2 years — and he looked it. After a recent vicious dunk by Shaquille O’Neal — which nearly took Bradley’s head off — Orlando’s Nick Anderson said, “That was child abuse.”
What could be new? Learn while you earn
With all this, you expect Bradley to be gun-shy, cynical. There is none of that. He proudly says he never slouched as a child, never tried to make himself shorter. “I had a family who loved me and told me to be proud of who I was.”
And in a storm you wouldn’t wish on your worst neighbor — even if he was making $44 million — Bradley keeps that attitude.
On Tuesday night, against the Pistons, he came off the bench — he doesn’t start because of habitual foul trouble — and wasn’t in for two minutes before the whistle blew. Foul No. 1. Then Mark West stole the ball from him, ran down, dunked, and Bradley swiped at the shot, missed like a cat trying to catch a fly and whacked West’s head instead. Tweet! Foul No. 2.
He went to the bench.
It went this way all night. Come in, foul, sit down — he looked lost — until the final seconds, when he grabbed some boards and banked in his first basket. Still, the 76ers lost again, and somewhere in the streets of Philadelphia, the groans continued. Last season, Fred Carter, then the coach, said, “Shawn needs three seasons.”
Carter was fired at the end of the year. He didn’t finish the sentence: Three seasons is an eternity.
And yet, like a mountain climber looking up, the NBA has never been able to resist height. Reed-like giants such as Manute Bol, Chuck Nevitt, Swen Nater, Tom Burleson were always given chances because, hey, what if they found the horizontal to go with that vertical? The difference is, none of those men were paid franchise money. None had to live in the world’s largest petri dish.
“I wouldn’t do anything differently,” says Bradley, who remains unfailingly polite, calm, drug- and alcohol-free. You wonder if he’ll ever have the meanness to challenge O’Neal or Patrick Ewing. You wonder if his frame will ever hold the beef it needs.
Bradley might wonder, too. He doesn’t show it. He keeps learning, patiently, and when he stumbles, he gets up. What could be new? He is married, with a baby daughter, Cheyenne, a name befitting a place where the only thing watching you is a great big sky. I ask if his next child were a boy, would he prefer him to be 7-foot-6 or 5-foot-11?
He thinks again. “What’s the difference?”
And I believe he means it.