The `biggest political fund-raiser in history' lifts Bradley

LUMINARIES FROM the world of professional basketball converged on New York's Madison Square Garden yesterday to support one of their own and wallow in purposeful nostalgia for a bygone age in the hope of making a mark on America's future. The event, "Back to the Garden" was a rally and celebration for Bill Bradley, the Democratic presidential contender and former basketball star whose strong showing in early campaigning has given Vice-President Al Gore the scare of his career.

One of the biggest - perhaps the biggest - political fund-raisers ever held, raising $1m-$2m (pounds 600,000-pounds 1.2m) for Mr Bradley's election war chest, it was also a far cry from the black-tie dinners where politicians commonly raise money. Dress informally and wear trainers were the instructions to Bradley backers, who had paid up to $1,000 apiece to stand on the court where Bill Bradley once played and where his number, 24, still hangs. The biggest contributors were invited to "shoot hoops" with the stars - present and past. So were selected local schoolchildren, who had entered a campaign-sponsored competition to say what they would do if they ever became president.

Many of Mr Bradley's former teammates in the Knicks, the New York team he played for from 1967 to 1977, returned to the Garden to support "Dollar Bill", as he was then called because of his legendary earnings. But they were also joined by many former opponents, including arch-rivals from the Boston Celtics, Bill Russell and John Havlicek. "Remember," said Mr Bradley's spokesman, Eric Hauser, "that a lot of these guys actually played against him." The new face of the sport was also represented with the presence of several leading female players.

In the Bradley campaign, the event was seen as crucial test to gauge whether their candidate could break out beyond his natural constituency - white men of a certain age, sports fans, and north-eastern liberals. "We're hoping for a little boost of energy," said Mr Hauser with feigned modesty.

The decision to trade on his basketball stardom also marked a departure for Mr Bradley, who consigned his sports career quite deliberately to the past when he entered the Senate in 1978. "I didn't talk about basketball because I wanted to make it on Senate terms," he says of those days. Now, basketball is one of the aspects of an illustrious career that, he says, gives him an edge on Mr Gore in terms of life experience.

Yesterday morning, in something of a coup for the Bradley campaign, the sports stars blitzed the Sunday television talk shows to explain why they supported the former basketball hero. Willis Reed told ABC that Mr Bradley had been "the biggest example of racial togetherness" during the Sixties when the civil rights movement was at its zenith and race riots scarred America's cities.

Phil Jackson, another former team mate who is now manager of the Los Angeles Lakers, said that how professional sportsmen behaved under pressure was a good indicator of how they would handle crises in later life. Bill Russell said: "He's bright, intelligent, a very strong person. He's a fierce competitor, in a very quiet way."

Yesterday's rally is followed this week by the release of the Bradley campaign's first television advertisements, commissioned - to the surprise of many in the political world - from a commercial agency with a reputation for an off-beat style rather than from a company that specialises in political campaigns. The pay-off line, reflecting Mr Bradley's outsider status, is: "It can happen."

While losing his marginal lead over Mr Gore in the key primary state of New Hampshire, according to a poll last week, Mr Bradley has more than halved the Vice-President's lead nationwide in the past two months, reducing it from 38 to 17 points.

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