Down by five points with 17 seconds left in the game, the New York Knicks staged one of the most amazing comebacks in basketball history.
On that historic Nov. 28, 1969 night, the Knicks, with small forward "Dollar Bill" Bradley, scored six straight points, stunning the Cincinnati Royals, 106-105, and set an NBA record for most consecutive victories in a season.
Now, more than 30 years later, Bradley faces a similar fourth-quarter dilemma, albeit in a different rough-and-tumble game: presidential politics. With only three weeks left until Super Tuesday, the 56-year-old Hall of Famer faces elimination from the Democratic presidential nomination unless he scores big in several Democratic primaries (including the crucial delegate-rich contests in California and New York) in order to remain in the race against Vice President Al Gore.
"There’s 10 minutes to go in the fourth, and he has to score a lot and play defense and offense, without anybody coming off the bench," said New York University political scientist Mitchell Moss of the former three-term senator from New Jersey.
Bradley was on a cell phone taking a break from campaigning in California last week when he talked to The Jewish Week about a range of international and domestic issues.
Sounding relaxed despite polls showing him trailing Gore by double digits, Bradley was asked about the controversy over Austria’s new coalition government, which includes the right-wing Freedom Party of Joerg Haider.
"Anybody that’s soft on Hitler and an anti-Semite and anti-immigrant is somebody that’s noxious from my standpoint," Bradley said of Haider.
Some, including the European Union, advocate isolating Austria, while others are calling for more dialogue. The Clinton administration has recalled its ambassador for consultation.
Bradley said the United States must stand with the EU "as one common voice."
"He’s not a leader that the United States should convey any legitimacy to. The important thing for us is to be there with our European allies, who have downgraded their relationship with Austria," Bradley said. "I would argue we should downgrade as well indefinitely."
Regarding Israel, he hedged on giving detailed answers regarding the peace process, insisting that the Israelis must make the decisions.
"I think it is a mistake for the U.S. to try to push Israel to make any agreement the Israeli leader believes is not in the interest of his country," Bradley said. "It’s clear [Israel Prime Minister Ehud] Barak has a clear idea how he wants to proceed. It’s wrong trying to dictate any outcome."
Bradley refrained from criticizing the Clinton administration’s handling of the stalled two-track peace talks with Syria and the Palestinians.
Asked whether U.S. aid to Syria or the Palestinians should be tied to the elimination of anti-Israel rhetoric, Bradley said: "I think that would be an issue you would want to discuss with Israel, whether that is their chief concern."
On domestic issues, Bradley cautioned about expanding charitable choice: government funding of religious institutions to provide social services.
"I personally am reluctant to see the third sector [faith-based charities] get into replacing delivery of social services," he said. "I do think they have roles to play in certain policy areas. I don’t think they should be the replacement for government service. They don’t have the infrastructure to be able to handle that in the nonprofit sector."
Bradley said he supports nonprofits involved in preschool education and afterschool programs, as well as projects that recruit senior citizens to mentor teens. "But in all these instances the provider has to be open to the entire community and abide by federal laws and regulations including civil rights," he said.
Bradley was asked whether his two meetings with the Rev. Al Sharpton risks support from those in the Jewish community who refuse to deal with Sharpton because of his past comments about Crown Heights and a deadly fire at a Jewish-owned business in Harlem. He recently named Sharpton’s former campaign manager, Jacques DeGraff, as his New York campaign chief.
"I don’t agree with Al Sharpton on everything, for sure," Bradley explained, "but you have to give some respect. Ultimately I think someone over time can grow, and I think that appears to be what’s happening to him."
Bradley cited Sharpton’s quick condemnation of anti-Semitic remark made at an event with Hillary Rodham Clinton several weeks ago. "That tells me that there’s movement there," he said.
Gore met privately with Sharpton last week.
Regarding the latest flap over putting the Ten Commandments into public schools, as advocated last week by Mayor Rudolph Giuliani, Bradley reiterated his strong opposition to the idea.
"I oppose posting the Ten Commandments, or a cross, in classrooms. I similarly oppose efforts to place these types of religious icons elsewhere on public property or government-owned buildings," he said.
Asked why the issue continues to crop up despite the Supreme Court ruling such postings unconstitutional, Bradley believes it is connected to those who feel something is missing in their lives.
"It’s a personal and deeper problem," said the candidate, who has refused to discuss his own religious beliefs during the campaign. But he added, "There’s nothing that prevents any child from reciting [the Ten Commandments] to themselves anywhere, in school or at home."
Bradley, who advocates campaign finance reform, dismissed the notion that reform would hurt the Jewish community’s influence in the political process. Jews make political contributions in percentages well beyond their numbers.
"I don’t buy the argument that people are committed to Israel because of campaign finance," he contended. "I think people committed to Israel share many of our values and are committed because of the whole history of the Jewish people. To argue that [politicians] are committed because of political contributions ignores the power of the commitment that I hold toward Israel, and certainly other people do.
"I think campaign finance reform makes the whole process more credible because if you look, the big money comes from corporations, people who want something specific from government who don’t have a moral cause and history as Israel does."
On a lighter note, Bradley was asked whether he would appoint his German-born wife, Ernestine Schlant, a professor of German comparative literature and author of a recent book on the Holocaust, to the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Council, which operates the Holocaust Museum.
"Listen, she’d be great," Bradley said, laughing. "If I had that appointment, I’d make it in a second."
And, as Bradley knows, seconds count.