I have had many heroes--political figures and famous people of great achievement, but my true hero has always been my father, William Warren Bradley.
Most people wouldn't realize he was a hero. Even I didn't know how exceptional he was until I reached my twenties. To me, he had just been my dad, a constant source of loving support. Later, I recognized that he was a man of tremendous strength. I believe leaders should be modest, and generous and those are the qualities my father personified. He didn't draw attention to himself. He'd always say, "You don't have to be loud to be strong."
He was a small town banker in Crystal City, Missouri. His own father died around the time he turned nine. Later he was forced to go to work after just one year of high school. At 16, he started working on the Missouri & Illinois Railroad. At twenty-one, he took a job at the only bank in town, "shining pennies," as he used to say. By the time he was 40, he was the majority shareholder and president of that bank.
He used to say that his proudest accomplishment was that throughout the Great Depression he never foreclosed on a single home. That gives you the mark of the man. He loved lending people money and then seeing that money help them build a house, buy a car, improve their lives. He earned tremendous respect in town for his integrity and for the role he played. Every time I see the movie It's a Wonderful Life, I think of him. That's how everyone viewed my father, and I felt especially privileged being his son.
My father suffered from calcified arthritis of the lower spine by the age of forty. I never saw him throw a ball, drive a car, tie his shoes, or walk farther than four or five blocks. But he never complained. Even though he was forced to reassess his entire life, he showed a lot of grace and courage. He demonstrated that over a lifetime, as you age or illness sets in, you have to make adjustments. He showed me that just because your body is diminished, your spirit doesn't have to follow suit. He continued to be active in the community despite his disability. That, to me, is grace.
When I was afraid or unsure, I was completely comfortable sharing my feelings with my father. I could pour out all my fears, and he would reassure me. When I did make mistakes, he never dwelt on them. He trusted me to learn from my mistakes.
My father's physical ailments probably influenced my athleticism. I think his absence of physical ability ironically gave me free reign to develop my own. There was no competition between the father throwing the ball and the son catching it, no father as a giant figure who won at every game he played.
When my father did have an agenda or a preference among the choices I made, he operated quietly, behind the scenes. Toward the end of high school, I received 75 basketball scholarship offers. I chose Duke, which had one of the best basketball programs in the country. My mother was delighted. My father didn't question the decision but said, "I think you ought to go to Europe." I'd never been out of the country and neither had he, so this was a great surprise.
So I went to Europe on a tour. As part of the trip, my father suggested I visit Oxford. I did, and I fell in love with the place. When I returned home, I read about something called the Rhodes Scholarship that sent you to Oxford. I read that there were more Rhodes Scholars from Princeton University than any other university. The problem was that Princeton hadn't offered me a scholarship because, at that time, and to this day, Princeton remains a non-scholarship school.
A few days before freshman classes convened at Duke, I decided that I'd like to switch to Princeton. I had no idea what the future would hold. In my mind, I was choosing academics over basketball, and it was a tough decision. Only after all this did I realize that my father had always wanted me to go to Princeton. He'd never said so directly; instead, he sent me to Europe so I could find out for myself. He took a chance, but he took a chance because he trusted in me.
In basketball you get to an age when you can no longer play competitively. You're almost certainly looking at retirement by your late forties. The challenge becomes to look at life in a new and different way to make the most of the time you have. You dig deep and find your second wind. That's what my father did, and that's what I've tried to do.
My life turned out very differently from his. He was physically impaired, and I became an athlete. He was a Republican--until Nixon, when he became an independent--and I joined the Democratic Party. He didn't care which party I was in. He supported me, whichever party I joined. In giving me room, he expressed confidence that I could handle that room.
My father taught me values that inform my life every day. I think that my gentleness comes from my father. And I also think that my strength comes from him, my perspective. Taking the long view of life, never letting a single defeat end the quest to live fully and honorably, that comes from him.
I think he brought me to a launching point and bade me farewell. He gave me the confidence to believe in myself because he believed in me.
William Warren Bradley died in 1994 and my mother followed in 1995. I went to Crystal City, Missouri, and I went through all the things one has to deal with, and I gave myself a lot of time to cry.
I think the mark of a great father is when he's prepared the son to live in the world when he's not around. And I think that he did that with me. I miss him. Sometimes I'd like to hug him and tell him I love him. But when he went, he knew he'd done his job. I'm a very lucky man.