NEW YORK — His former teammates wore white New York Knicks jerseys, but when Bill Bradley returned courtside Sunday at Madison Square Garden, he was wearing a gray flannel politician's uniform--set apart from the basketball legends who joined him at a $1.5-million fund-raiser for his uphill quest to become president.
The former Democratic senator from New Jersey, who had shied away from talking up his past as a basketball Hall of Famer, joined his 1970 championship Knicks teammates and two dozen National Basketball Assn. giants before 7,500 fans and political donors in a celebration designed to mimic the motion and theatrics of a basketball game.
The parade of former Bradley teammates such as Willis Reed and Walt "Clyde" Frazier and other basketball greats Bill Russell, Bob Cousy, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Julius "Dr. J" Erving was both calibrated and affectionate. The event managed to hog the airwaves on the Sunday political talk shows, raise cash and boost Bradley's national profile all at the same time.
Pacing at midcourt with a microphone, Bradley asked supporters to help him open a "world of new possibilities." He told the crowd he wants to be elected president to wield "the power to do good."
Despite his underdog position in the race against Vice President Al Gore, Bradley has built a well-honed fund-raising apparatus. Rick Wright, Bradley's former Princeton University basketball teammate and the senator's campaign director, expects the campaign to easily raise $45 million, the maximum amount that will be matched by federal funds.
Bradley press spokesman Eric Hauser said Sunday's event may bring in more than $1.5 million.
The donors were a typically tough New York crowd, lustily cheering the Knicks and booing their old foes. Many bought courtside seats that cost up to $1,000 a ticket, but hundreds opted for the nosebleed seats.
Bill Kwalwasser, a computer programmer from New Providence, N.J., brought his 10-year-old son, Sam, who expects to be the envy of his school this week.
Despite paying $3,000 for seats for his family and attending a reception featuring Bradley and his NBA rivals, Kwalwasser said he was of two minds about Bradley's political mining of his past.
"It definitely gets him noticed, and that's a good thing," Kwalwasser said. "But I hope he doesn't dwell on this too much. People have to remember what he's done in public service."
Bradley was not about to let that happen.
Re-creating a scene from the final game of the Knicks' 1970 championship, Frazier, Reed, Earl "the Pearl" Monroe, Jerry Lucas and Dave DeBusschere bounded onto the court in their team jerseys.
Bradley, in gray suit and red tie, jogged to the basket and tossed a ball to Reed, who stuffed it in. Bradley, as he had so often as a Knick, left the scoring to someone else.