Soon after Bill Bradley takes the stage in Rolling Along: An American Story, there’s a realization that this is not a traditional political documentary of talking heads, archival clips and fleeting reflections.
The project instead is a “performative autobiography,” as Bradley, the former NBA champion, U.S. senator and presidential candidate, calls it.
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During the 90-minute, one-man show, Bradley talks, in poetic terms at times, about reaching the heights of fame and suffering stinging losses. He recounts a life growing up in Crystal City, MO, becoming a star athlete in high school, attending Princeton and then playing the New York Knicks. He speaks of how the teamwork skills helped open his eyes to the world and led to his political career, culminating in his 2000 bid for the presidency. He was defeated by then-Vice President Al Gore in his quest for the Democratic nomination. “I went from thinking of myself as the most powerful person in the world to being unemployed,” he says in one of a number of candid moments in the documentary.
In an interview with Deadline, Bradley said that the project had its origins in a reception he had to mark a Princeton oral history project on his career. At the event, he told stories about all of those who participated. One was Broadway producer Manny Azenberg who told him, “You sound a little like Hal Holbrook doing Mark Twain. You want to work something up?”
Bradley did, taking a year to write the project, and then workshopping in in 20 cites around the country.
One place he read was the commissary on the Warner Bros. lot, where director-producer Michael Tollin told him, “This could be a film.” Bradley memorized the material during long walks in Central Park, and the idea intrigued him. He said that when he performed for his friend, Spike Lee, the director “had tears in his eyes at the end, so I realized, “Maybe I have got something here.” Bradley rehearsed in the rec room of his apartment building, and people started showing up. One was Frank Oz, who offered editing notes and other help.
The movie opened at the Tribeca Film Festival, with friend Steven Van Zandt recommending Summer at Signal Hill for the music, ultimately secured via agreement with Sony. Tollin directed Rolling Along and Lee and Oz are executive producers.
“It’s not easy to do, and yet, it’s tremendous fulfillment when you do it, because you’ve kind of put your life in order,” Bradley said of the experience. “You tell the truth about who you are. You have said before people with nothing but your life, and hopefully they see their lives in your life.”
Among other things, Bradley talks about breaking with evangelical Christianity, his realizations about race, and one story he had never gone public with before. When he was playing for the New York Knicks, a woman he was dating became pregnant. She opted for an abortion, which was then illegal. As he was trying to find someone who could help, he couldn’t reach her, and later found out she had flown from Los Angeles to Kansas City where she had the procedure done. “When I finally reached her she was back in L.A. in a hospital recuperating from a badly botched abortion,” he says in the documentary.
Bradley, 80, spoke to Deadline about Rolling Along, why he wants it to inspire others, and why he’s optimistic, even as his friend President Joe Biden faces another tough race against Donald Trump. The documentary is now on Max.
DEADLINE: What was driving you to do this?
BRADLEY: What I wanted to do in a divided country was provide a healing experience for people, and I hoped that the film would have that effect. I also hope that it inspires other people to tell their stories because the totality of our stories is the American story, and then once you get into it you have to be honest about it. That’s why I was so candid. The accumulation of all of our stories is the American story.
DEADLINE: In developing it, did it surprise you how candid you ultimately got?
BRADLEY: Yes and no. I wasn’t surprised because it was very intentional. I believed, and still do, that if you’re going to be taken as a credible voice asking people to share their lives, you have to share your life. And if you’re going to do that, you’re going to give people some resonance.
DEADLINE: One thing that one of the stories that stood out to me was what what you were saying about your Aunt Bub. You recounted hearing her make racist remarks, and yet at her funeral, an African American friend sang during the service.
BRADLEY: Race is a very complicated subject in America. What it says is I was going to love my aunt, no matter what, and that she surprised me in the end by not being exactly what I thought she was. She couldn’t have a best friend who was African American, the wife of a local doctor. And it only underlines the fact that race in America is never simple, it’s always complex, and they’re always multiple, multiple levels of experience and understanding.
DEADLINE: You quote this several times as something you were taught: Never look down on people you don’t understand.
BRADLEY: It’s fairly fundamental for me in my life. I’ve always had curiosity about everybody. And I think to the extent that we can have that curiosity, to the extent that we can never slip into looking down on somebody that we don’t understand, then we’re gonna be better off. At the end, I posit, ‘We’re living in these divided times.’ Maybe what made the Knick team successful so many years ago [is] relevant. Take responsibility for yourself. Respect your fellow human being. Disagree with them openly, honestly, civilly. Enjoy their humanity. And then never look down on people you don’t understand. That that that sentence right there is the key in the movie.
DEADLINE: Has that been a problem for the Democrats, because they often get labeled as elitist.
BRADLEY: I think for some probably, but you can’t grow up in Crystal City, Missouri and in the kind of society I grew up in, and not respect all people. I can’t grow up in the family I had and not respect all people.
I want to broaden people’s horizons. If they don’t think of it, hopefully when they hear this they will think of it and then they’ll see the truth of it. We all have our own lives and our own experiences, and they’re all legitimate, and they’re all human in a deeper sense. And we have so much more commonality among us than what divides us and we just have to focus on that.
DEADLINE: We’re in an election year now. Both sides are casting it as kind of an existential moment once again.
BRADLEY: As you said, again. I think that this is an important election, no question about it. And my hope is that people will vote. That’s the key thing. You got to go out and vote.
DEADLINE: You mentioned you do say we are so divided in our country today. But it strikes me that was being said even in the 90s when you left the Senate.
BRADLEY: Well, not as much as now because it’s personified by Trump. The divisions of the past were kind of more generic. And now they’re personified in one person who every day reveals why it is important that Joe Biden get elected. And I look at this and I say we have a unique opportunity here, and there’s a lot of stake in this election. And I wanted to give people hope and give people a sense of maybe what it will take in terms of their own personal commitments. [Growing up] the reality is that you learn… you congratulate the winner. You do that in school elections or you do that in sports. And people know that they should act out of out of honor not out of grievance. And that if you are humble, and you work hard, that you can achieve excellence, and achieving excellence is how you provide for your family. And as a society as a whole, it is how we advance. And I look at that and I think I’m optimistic about the country, and about our prospects, about the kinds of things we do.
DEADLINE: You are almost the same age as Joe Biden.
BRADLEY: I’ve known Joe for a long time. As a matter of fact, he was the delegation leader on the first foreign trip that I made as a U.S. senator. In the summer of my first year he led a delegation to the then Soviet Union. And I remember we were in the Kremlin meeting with [premier] Alexei Kosygin. Just to give you an idea of that irrepressible Joe Biden: Going back and forth discussing issues. Kosygin said something that was a little … I don’t know what it was. Anyway, Biden leaned across the big felt green table between us, and said ‘Come on Alexei, don’t shit a shitter.’ Afterwards, I asked the interpreter, ‘How did you interpret that little exchange?’ He said, ‘Not literally.’
DEADLINE: Many families get into these arguments over Trump —- things like ‘how could you possibly support him?’ How do you still respect those Trump supporters, even though they’re supporting someone that a lot of people find just totally abhorrent?
BRADLEY: Everybody’s gonna make their own decision. Some people obviously will vote for Trump. But the way I look at it, they’re still human beings, right? And so not losing respect for people and their human qualities is really important to keep the country knitted together. You can disagree with them profoundly in politics, and state it. Remember I said, ‘Disagree with your opponent openly and civilly.’ Play to that side of the voter who thinks they’re going vote for Trump, play to them on the things that are important to them —- their family, their kids education, chance to have a good job, chance to send their kids to college and have good health care. All of the things that you relate to people in the context of their daily lives and show how you have not only have a real interest, but ideas about how to improve them. Then I think everything’s going be fine. Trump is activated by grievance and anger, not honor.
DEADLINE: Current polls show that one of the major misgivings people have with Joe Biden is his age. How does he counter that, and how do you think he’s done so far?
BRADLEY: Everybody keeps saying he’s too old. I mean, his mind is absolutely great. … We know more about Joe Biden’s health than we do about Donald Trump’s. Who the hell knows? [Trump is] three years younger. He could have an episode whatever, any time. When you have that kind of personality, you are in greater danger of bad health because of everything you keep so tight inside you, that eats away at you. … He’s full of grievance and anger and and animus and narcissism. So what can I say?
DEADLINE: One other moment that really stood out was when you were talking about abortion. Was that difficult to share?
BRADLEY: Very difficult time. Only time I’ve ever done it. And I thought it was in the context of, ‘I have to open up and be honest with people if I want them to open up and tell their stories, and by telling their stories, it’s the common human story.’ And so yeah, it was it was difficult but I thought I had to do it.
DEADLINE: It’s also such a big issue in the past couple of elections since the overturning of Roe vs. Wade.
BRADLEY: It’s always it’s always been a big issue. New Jersey was 40% Catholic, right. And I respect people’s moral conviction if they’re opposed, but I’ve always been a pro-choice person, and in the back of my mind, it was always this particular story.
DEADLINE: Another moment was when you were talking about after the Rodney King beating and going to the Senate floor and hitting the podium [56 times in 81 seconds.] What do you what do you think of what is happening now? There has been this kind of reckoning after the killing of George Floyd. But now we seem to be in this this kind of counter to so called ‘woke-ism.’
BRADLEY: I think that the main thing is there has been real progress and advancements since I was a kid or even since I was in college, and we just have to keep moving forward. I saw the distrust in the faces of my African American teammates. You gotta be humble. You gotta realize how much you’ll never know about what it is to be Black in America because you’re white. You got to understand that limitation. You also have to see that we still have a way to go in order to live up to the ideals of our country when it comes to race in America. But we continue to make the progress. And that means giving people the benefit of the doubt. I love my aunt, even though she said racist things. But that wasn’t going to destroy the love. So the key thing is to be able to understand what the situation is, articulate it. One of the reasons I gave that speech was I thought it would change things, but it didn’t. These things still happen. And we have to be constantly vigilant and move things forward.
DEADLINE: I was also really struck how adrift you felt after your loss in 2000.
BRADLEY: It was kind of the end of a long journey of a whole life on one level. While I never as a kid said I wanted to be president United States, it was always the background music. And you stand before people as a candidate, and you take it seriously, think about what you would do as president. And you feel them trusting you, and you feel their connection with them. And then you lose badly and it’s over. People had been telling me, ‘You should be president’ since I was a freshman in college, and so that’s over, and now life goes on. And to me, that’s the important thing. That it does go on.
DEADLINE: Did you ever talk to Al Gore [his primary rival in 2000] about about that. He went on to face a crushing loss as well.
BRADLEY: I’ve never really had a long conversation with him. I think I called him after he lost, after that long ordeal of November and December, and I think he sensed it. But I didn’t say, ‘Gee, Al you lost just like me.’ That would I thought have been inappropriate.
DEADLINE: After your loss, you talk about finding a rich inner life and being able to relate to people more spontaneously. Do you think you can even do that in politics?
BRADLEY: Yes, I think you can. It’s the rare politician that can do that, but I do think it’s possible. And I think that that is the most profound communication. My former wife used to say ‘Don’t give him a script, lead, just talk.’ And I’ll always found I was better when I was just talking.
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