In the new documentary ‘Rolling Along,’ Bradley charts his progress, from college hoops to pro courts to Congress to the stage
Yes, Bill Bradley decided that the new world he wanted to conquer, after a distinguished career as a New York Knick and a US Senator, was a storyteller on the stage, like Mark Twain. And that’s how “Rolling Along” came to be, and why Bradley made mumbled loops around the park, the way he used to spend hours alone practicing layups. Only now was he rehearsing his lines.
“Rolling Along” is the show he had written over the last several years about his extraordinary life, dating back to his days as a lanky basketball wunderkind from Missouri, on his way to Princeton and the Olympics. Before the coronavirus pandemic began, he recited it, script in front of him, to a small audience in 20 cities. Last December, he did it again, but this time from memory, for four nights at a theater on West 42nd Street. There, in the room with an audience and five cameras, documentarian Michael Tollin (“The Last Dance,” “Hank Aaron: Chasing the Dream”) put it on film.
“Rolling Along” premiered on June 16 at Tribeca Film Festival — a 90-minute film as unvarnished as a weathered front porch on the Mississippi, the river that inspired the film’s title. It’s just Bradley on stage with a chair, a table and a glass of water, openly talking about his biography, a guy who seems comfortable and eager to explore this new terrain as a public figure. In an interview, he admits as much about why he did the show: part of a lifelong quest, he says, to “belong.”
“It’s me as an only child,” Bradley declares, “who wants to give myself to a larger family.”
All politicians are artists of one kind or another, the lucky ones by virtue of natural gifts. Others lean heavily on the skills of speechwriters. Still others just seem to be (too) in love with the sound of their own voices. You can see in “Rolling Along” that Bradley falls into a different, rarer category, one defined by a need to pull off the pedestal, to express his feelings in lyrical musings, to reveal a vulnerability that lies reason for his achievements.
“My hope was that people will feel a connection because of the humanity of the play, and in elements of it, people will see their own lives,” Bradley says in an interview.
One person who felt a connection was filmmaker Spike Lee, a rabid Knicks fan who has been friends with Bradley for years. When Bradley ran into each other before the pandemic at Clyde Frazier’s Wine and Dine, the now-shuttered Manhattan restaurant of another ex-Knick, Walt Frazier, Bradley told Lee, “I want to do this thing for you to get your point. ” Lee invited him to his office in Brooklyn, where Bradley read “Rolling Along” to him.
“By the end, he has tears in his eyes,” Bradley says. “And I think, ‘Oh, whoa, that’s sure confirmation of something’.”
Lee also remembers the waterworks. “A few scenes, my eyes welled up,” he says in a phone interview. “Those are my guys, ’69-’70,” he adds of the NBA championship Bradley and Frazier were both a part of. Lee was so impressed with Bradley’s performance that he signed on as executive producer of the documentary, which is still looking for a distributor.
Bradley, who turns 80 in July, has always had intellectual attitudes (although in “Rolling Along” he claims to have struggled academically when he entered Princeton). He has written six books and enjoys a wide circle of culturally informed friends, including Emanuel “Manny” Azenberg, longtime producer of Neil Simon’s Broadway plays.
It was Azenberg who first encouraged Bradley to try his hand at the stage after hearing Bradley tell anecdotes at a reception. Azenberg even gave Bradley the name of a stage director, Daniel J. Sullivan (most recently Broadway’s “Summer, 1976” with Laura Linney and Jessica Hecht), who offered the former New Jersey senator some tips over the phone.
As “Rolling Along” clearly registers, Bradley was not born to be an actor: His movements stop, and his voice is entirely in his head, rather than from his chest. But it doesn’t matter. In fact, it’s a kind of charm – a warmth enhanced by his honesty and sincerity. It is surprising, for example, to learn that as a young man he was a devout evangelical Christian, a faith that kept him exotic at an Ivy League college. (He became estranged from religion, he reports, while at Oxford on a Rhodes scholarship.)
The memory feeds a theme Bradley returns to again and again about never quite feeling like he fit in — the boos that sometimes greeted him at Madison Square Garden in 1967, his rookie season with the Knicks, still sting. (Soon after, any disappointment with his on-court performance faded, and New York fans embraced “Dollar Bill” Bradley—a nickname bestowed upon him because of his perceived frugality by team center Willis Reed.) No doubt, too, as a white athlete, who had witnessed discrimination against black teammates from his playing days at Missouri, a sensitivity to the marginalization of others was instilled.
So perhaps it’s not surprising that Bradley wanted to revisit acceptance on a different stage. “I like when the crowd is with you. You know, when I was running for president,” he says of his failed Democratic primary in 2000, “there was this phenomenon of walking into a room of 90 people in Iowa or New Hampshire or wherever, and your job was to convince 90 people that you’re the guy.
“And what I wanted to do, I tried to connect to the eyes of people in the audience. Connecting to the eyes was part of the performance in politics in small settings. You couldn’t connect to the eyes in Madison Square Garden. But you could connect to the eyes in this kind of intimate campaign for less than 100 people in a room in Iowa, New Hampshire, South Carolina.”
This desire for bonding also attracted Tollin, the film’s director. In 2019, he was invited by a television producer friend to Los Angeles to hear Bradley read his play in, of all places, the commissary at Warner Bros. studies. “There’s Bill Bradley at a table with a stack of papers,” Tollin marvels, noting that his previous encounter with Bradley was when he appeared in an episode of “Arliss” directed by Tollin. (The HBO series was about a sports agent played by Robert Wuhl.)
Tollin told Bradley afterward that “to me, this is a play that would work really well in regional theaters,” and after sending him “four pages of notes,” the director found himself in Bradley’s office at Allen & Co., New York. investment firm he joined in 2001. “Then covid killed it and we pivoted” to film, Tollin added.
“Rolling Along” briefly deals with the end of Bradley’s long marriage to Ernestine Schlant, a college professor, who produced a daughter, Theresa Anne. But some of the work’s most moving passages have to do with the lessons Bradley learned during his childhood in Crystal City, Mo., a town of a few thousand people outside St. Louis, where his father was the local banker and his mother drove him. and several black teammates for their Little League baseball games.
He repeats a central anecdote from the monodrama and tells me about the time they drove to a tournament in Joplin and many of the hamburger joints and local hotels wouldn’t allow the black players. So they all stayed in a fleabag hotel. “The guy who ran the team didn’t move the white players to a better place,” Bradley says. “He said, ‘We’ll stay together as a team.'”
That streak of decency is embodied by “Rolling Along”. It feels so against the American grain at the moment, and surely, an outrage in the halls of the body where he represented New Jersey for 18 years, that one wonders what his Senate colleagues would make of the conciliatory nature of his one-man show . .
“I actually think there are a lot of senators who believe in the same things that I believed in when I was a senator. Who are workhorses, who master stuff, who respect each other,” he says. “I mean, that isn’t a hated place, is it? When Cory Booker walked into the Senate, in my seat, he asked me, ‘Well, what am I going to do?’
“I said, ‘Get five Republican friends, real friends, so you start to see who they are. And at some point they’re going to help you,'” Bradley says. “And what happened was he had an amendment that would put a third [train] tunnel between New Jersey and New York, and the deciding vote was a Republican senator from Mississippi, Roger Wicker.”
That’s the kind of result Bradley’s hour on stage was meant to inspire.
“I want this to be a healing experience for people, to see a deeper level,” Bradley explains. “If you see someone as a cardboard cutout—you know, left-wing Democrat or evangelical Christian—well, that’s all you see. You don’t see the humanity that you share with them. And that’s what I was trying to do in this piece , to reach that humanity.”