Basketball Hall of Famer and former U.S. Senator Bill Bradley spoke with Solzy at the Movies about Rolling Along, which premiered at Tribeca.
Rolling Along, which is directed by Mike Tollin and executive produced by Spike Lee and Frank Oz, is a live theatrical recording of Senator Bradley’s December 2021 performances at the Signature Theatre in New York City. In the 90-minute oral history, Bradley discusses his Missouri childhood, attending Princeton, playing for the New York Knicks in the NBA, being a social activist, and then life as a U.S. Senator and later, a presidential candidate. Following his retirement from public office, Bradley became his father’s banker son.
Rolling Along premiered in the Spotlight Documentary section on June 16. The film will be available to watch through Tribeca at Home (June 19-July 2, 2023).
I’m one of those people who fall into the category of being a sports fan, politico, and cinephile so it’s a pleasure to be speaking with you today.
Bill Bradley: (Laughs) Well, thank you for doing it.
No problem. Back in the day, I was regularly covering the Kentucky Wildcats so you can imagine my surprise when I heard you mentioned Kentucky had once offered you a scholarship.
Bill Bradley: Yeah, right. Adolph Rupp. The story on that is he came to Crystal City, Missouri, to recruit me. The way we did it when I was in high school, they’d have dinner with my parents and me at our home. We went to a restaurant with him. He went to see my father, who was, as you know from the show, small town banker. My father didn’t know who he was and made him wait for an hour (Laughs). That story, when I told people that, What?!? You made the colonel or whatever the hell his name was wait for an hour?!?
Bill Bradley: That really happened.
How honored are you to be premiering Rolling Along during Tribeca?
Bill Bradley: Oh, I feel very honored to be premiering at Tribeca. I have a lot of respect for Jane and Bob and the whole effort they’ve made over the years to make this into a bit of significance. When they included me, I was really honored.
What was the genesis behind performing your oral history and recording it on film?
Bill Bradley: Well, the genesis was, I gave my political papers to Princeton and then Princeton did an oral history. They interviewed on 70 or 80 people. I invited all of them after the project had completed to a luncheon. About 50-60 of them showed so I told stories about each one of them. Afterwards, a guy that I’ve known for 50 years, Manny Azenberg, who produced 72 plays on Broadway, came up to me. Manny has never given me a compliment—wait a minute, he did once after the first championship, and he said, “Good going.” Right. He said, “This reminded me a little bit of Hal Holbrook’s Mark Twain. You’ve got to work something up.” That was the genesis.
It then took me six months. I did a first draft of the show. I then went to 20 cities around the country, various theaters, for their subscriber lists or special patrons or whatever. I’d do a reading and then I’d have a notepad and ask what do you think. They’d give me the reactions. I shaped it that way. I was pretty much ready to go in early 2020 and then COVID hits. The rest is history. All theaters were closed. This was supposed to be done in a theater. I thought towards the end, I kept working on it, talking to people. What I was going to do is I was going to do a performance for several nights at a theater in New York and film it and turn it into a film. That’s what happened.
Yeah. Were Frank Oz and Spike Lee on board from the get-go or did they come on board later during the process?
Bill Bradley: Oh, no, they came on board later on. With Spike, I ran into Spike at a luncheon at Walt Frazier’s restaurant. I’d known Spike over the years. He was supporting my presidential campaign in 2000 and a friend. I said, I’m doing this, I’d like to come do it for you. He said, come over to my office in Brooklyn. He called me, what do you need to do this? How about glass of water in a chair? He gives me a glass of water and a chair and I stand and do it for him. At the end, he’s very moved. He then makes a number of suggestions and, and gets on board. I said, Okay, well, so I have to memorize this. Everybody said, Yeah, you’ve gotta memorize. I would walk around Central Park, memorizing it.
I started doing it in the recreation room of my apartment building every afternoon at 3:30. If nobody came, I did it anyway. If five people came, I did it. Twenty people came, I did it. Not more than 20 ever came. One day, a guy shows up named Frank Oz. He had heard about it from somebody else. He saw it and he was positive and that’s how he got involved.
That’s how Spike and Frank got involved. Both of them have made significant contributions to the play. Of course, when I was doing these shows 20 times around the country, one of the places that I did was at the Warner Brothers lot in LA. One of the people in attendance was Mike Tollin. He came up afterward and said, you really ought to do something with this. There’s further confirmation along the road. He’s the one that directed the performances in the theater.
I had other people who helped along the way. I had a guy named Dan Sullivan, who when I was in Covid, I talked to over to over the phone. He’s a great director and playwright. I talked to a woman named Elena Rose at Princeton in the drama department, who also made a number of helpful observations. I had people help me along the way, that’s for sure.
Were the photos and videos a part of the original performance or were they added in for the film?
Bill Bradley: They’re added in for the film. The performance was what you saw of me walking out on stage and talking for an hour, 40 minutes or something like that. By the time I got finished, it was an hour and 45, and I realized that was too long. I had been cut it so I cut it to an hour and thirty. I killed some of my children in the process, a couple of stories.
In growing up in a small town outside of St. Louis, did it become culture shock when you relocated after being drafted by the New York Knicks?
Bill Bradley: Not really, because I had come from that small town. I went to Princeton, of course, which was not far away from New York. I was glad I was drafted by the Knicks. They exercised their territorial right. I loved coming to New York. It proved to be one of the greatest possible place I could have played.
I found it interesting when you were sharing the story about your college roommate, Dan Okimoto, and how he grew up in a internment camp, and that you had never learned about those in school.
Bill Bradley: No. That’s true. I didn’t know about that until I met Dan and he told me his story. He later wrote a book about it, as I pointed out, called American in Disguise. He’s been a friend all these years.
It kind of reminds me of these last few years how we’ve been getting these stories, either in film or documentaries, that I grew up never hearing about and it’s all of a sudden in the news.
Bill Bradley: Yeah. He did that book many years ago. I think in the 80s if I’m not mistaken. Obviously, I heard about it. Actually, one of his former students, Leslie Hatamiya, who will actually be at the opening, ran my office when she was 24 for a year or so. She was one of his students and her family had also had been in one of the internment camps.
I got a big laugh when you mentioned that you learned a little bit of Russian before the 1964 Summer Olympics.
Bill Bradley: Yeah. That’s a great story. It’s true. That’s where I thought, in retrospect, I was trying to be prepared so we have a few words in Russian in case we get in trouble out there. Of course, I did. I had him, I used them, and that probably helped.
You brought up your teammates’ experiences with racism when they were playing for the New York Knicks. What does it say about America when people are experiencing the very same issues today?
Bill Bradley: Well, I think we’ve made a tremendous amount of progress so let’s make sure we say that. We’ve made progress on multiple levels. I mean not only targets in terms of laws but progress in terms of a lot of people’s hearts as well. But is there still the situation I described with the Rodney King story? Yeah, absolutely. As I said in the show, when I gave that speech, I thought it would make a difference but those things still happen and that it only reminds us of that we still have a way to go before our ideals match our reality, our racial reality. That’s an important reminder. At the same time, if you look at the progress, it’s also a reason to hope.
You served two terms in the United States Senate. Did you consider running for reelection or were you focused on running for president in 2000?
Bill Bradley: No, I left the Senate in 1997. I taught at Stanford, Notre Dame, and University of Maryland for two years, and then I began to campaign running for president. I felt I really couldn’t do that in the Senate because it’s a full-time job and when you’re running for president, that’s a full-time job. Although people do it, I didn’t think I could do it and I was ready to move on and ready to engage the country, just New Jersey. A lot of times when I was in the Senate, a lot of things that I did, whether it was tax reform or certainly environmental legislation, education legislation, it affected everybody, not just my state. I felt very much as I described—when I was a senator, I’d go on these American Journey trips. The purpose was, as I say in the show, to get to know America like I once did seen through basketball, because I thought it made me a better senator and I think it did in addition to not just the knowledge, but the enrichment of other people’s humanity in places that I would not have encountered had not gone out and sought to experience them.
Being from Kentucky, I have to ask, do you have any special memories of working with Senator Wendell Ford?
Bill Bradley: Well, Wendell Ford was the chairman of the campaign committee when I I ran in 1978 so he was my first exposure to official Senate hierarchy. He was very encouraging to me. I remember I went down and campaigned for him, I think in 1980. I think he was up in 1980. I had been in the Senate for two years. My daughter was four years old, and he and Mrs. Ford gave me a rotten small rocking chair for my daughter. I still think we have it somewhere. He was a really good person. He was totally unpretentious and fought for things he believed in.
Of course, the other senator, Mitch McConnell, I once passed a law establishing an exchange program between Russia and the former republics of the Soviet Union and the United States, bringing high school students to live with American families for a year. Every year, the appropriations for that went through Mitch McConnell’s subcommittee so I’d pay my annual visit to Mitch and his office and (inaudible) the money to keep the program funding and he always came through. Until Putin ended the program a few years ago, we ended up with 25,000 Russian, Ukrainian, Kazakh, etc. kids experiencing America by living with American families. So yeah, Kentucky has kind of hit me on a number of levels.
I know I had to double check Wikipedia to look up when you had stepped down from the Senate because in 1998, Jim Bunning became another Hall of Famer elected to the Senate.
Bill Bradley: Yeah, yeah, that’s true. Yeah. different sports. Smaller ball.
Yeah. Speaking of sports growing up outside of St. Louis, did you grow up a Cardinals fan?
Bill Bradley: Absolutely. Yeah, as I say, my mother would drive my father and I my father and I to a St. Louis Cardinals game and we’d sit in the stands and drink bottle after bottle of Mountain Valley Water and root for my hero, Stan “The Man” Musial. That was a ritual every year that meant a lot to me and something that I shared with my father and given his disability, it was one of the few things that we really did share fully.
Are you still a Cardinals fan today?
Bill Bradley: No, I’m a Mets and Yankee fan. I like the Cardinals but you end up being for the place you are living, really. I mean, if Musial was playing, I’d be a Cardinals fan. He’s not. He’s not even managing, or running the club. But I think about what I hope about the show is that it will see this really about life. Yeah, I’ve played NBA basketball, US Senate, been a presidential candidate, but it’s also about relationships, growing up, forgiveness, perseverance, failure, triumph, and dealing with that, death, and about how we have to think about. I hope that people see it and feel—I mean, I share a common humanity with them and my hope is that I tried to be honest in this about my life. We live in such a polarized world. I really think the first step toward healing, first step toward reconciliation is being honest and that’s what I tried to do. That’s what one of my hopes is for peace.
Yeah, I enjoyed watching it. In fact, I think it was after I started writing my review and looking up when the show was performed, I learned that I was in New York that very same week and had no idea it was going on.
Bill Bradley: It wasn’t exactly highly publicized.
Yeah. Everyone was talking about seeing Hugh Jackman and Sutton Foster in The Music Man!
Bill Bradley: Which was worth seeing. Definitely, that was worth saying. Yeah. I thought he did a great job. I was very moved by that.
What advice would you give to someone if they told you that they were thinking of running for office?
Bill Bradley: I’d say go for it. Know yourself but then go for it. You really do want to put yourself out there. It’s a tremendous experience. I mean, if you love human beings, you’re going to see all kinds, and you’re going to accumulate all kinds of stories, some of which I talked about in show for me. It enriches your life experience. I also don’t agree with people who say—we are polarized. Our politics polarized, but I still think being a senator, it doesn’t have to be a polarizing experience.
I remember when Cory Booker became senator, he asked me what do I think you should do? I said make five Republican friends. He did and came to a very important vote in the Appropriations Committee about putting a third tunnel from New Jersey to New York. The deciding vote was Roger Wicker, one of the friends, a Republican from Mississippi, who voted with him because they got to know each other as human beings. That kind of relationship still takes place, I think, and it should give us reason to hope. I think this latest debt limit thing is an example of cooperation. I’m not one of those people who said it’s forever lost but I do think our politics itself is polarized and that needs to be healed.
My hope is that my story will have a healing effect, beginning with the honesty that I tried to show, but also with the hope that I try to bring about what we can do. I really do think the Knicks offered us clues on how things should go—take responsibility for yourself, respect your fellow human being, talk about them with—don’t double down on somebody you don’t understand. I mean, I think if we do those things—the underlying message is the one that I’ve said three times, don’t look down on people you don’t understand. To me, that’s the key to everything and that is another way of saying respect your fellow human being.
Thank you so much. It’s been a pleasure getting to chat with you this afternoon.
Bill Bradley: Great. What did you like about it?
I enjoyed watching it unfold. I thought the videos were a great enhancement, especially when you’re talking about the response to Rodney King.
Bill Bradley: Oh, yeah.
That’s probably one of the most powerful moments by far.
Bill Bradley: Yeah. Well, it’s certainly a powerful moment for me and I’m glad you felt it was, too.
Yeah. As a Kentucky fan, I am glad you chose Princeton over Duke at the last minute.
Bill Bradley: (Laughs) Yeah. I know. Vic Bubas wasn’t too happy down at Duke when I wrote him that letter after getting to Princeton at 11 PM on Sunday night before the Princeton class convened on the Monday morning. Vic Bubas was the Duke coach. I told him I wasn’t coming. Anyway, I was fortunate and lucky. People who loved me and the experiences I’ve had with friends and so I wanted to have a chance to share those with people hoping they’ll see themselves in the stories. I’m sure there are people in your own life where the issue of forgiveness like with Cathy Russell. I hope that you get a feel for moments around the (inaudible), trying to go a little deeper. Anyway, I thank you so much for being interested.
Bill Bradley: Okay.
Bill Bradley: Thanks then.
Rolling Along held its world premiere during the 2023 Tribeca Festival in the Spotlight Documentary section.
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