The shocking news coming to light on Wednesday that Shawn Bradley had been paralyzed in a recent bike accident near his house in St. George struck many who know him — and many who only know of him — hard.
It hit home with me, too.
The former short-time BYU and longtime NBA player is famous here in his home state and all around the country — for his physical dimensions, his basketball career those dimensions provided, and his personal warmth. Moreover, who can forget his role in that film for the ages, Space Jam?
The first time I met Bradley was in February, 1991.
He was a 7-foot-6, 18-year-old center on BYU’s basketball team. I was a 6-foot-1, 34-year-old sports writer for the Los Angeles Times.
When I walked into an office at BYU, there sat Bradley in a lounger that he made look like a child’s rocker. He stood up, his body, knees, hips, legs, arms, elbows ratcheting out of that chair like an extension ladder unfolding.
We shook hands, mine disappearing into his like a baseball into a catcher’s mitt.
From there, he told me his then-brief, but oh-so-tall tale.
He explained what it was like to grow up and up and up in rural Castle Dale, to be different than everyone else his age, to be something of a boy wonder, and how he reacted to being that. Bradley was 6-1 in the sixth grade, 6-8 in eighth grade, and by the time he was 16, he had jetted to 7 feet.
A principal at a high school in that small town begged his parents not to move away so that local school could win a fistful of state championships under Bradley’s wing.
“And that happened when I was in kindergarten,” Bradley said.
The extraordinarily tall kid grew into an extraordinarily tall man, and as expected, Bradley went on to win school titles and to play at BYU. When he signed with the Cougars, after having been recruited by Duke, UCLA, North Carolina, Syracuse, Arizona, Utah, among others, then-coach Roger Reid said he felt as though the entire BYU basketball program had been kicked up five notches from where it had been.
A lot of basketball experts agreed.
“I was in the office when he called to say he was coming,” Reid said. “I’ll tell you, this place was rattling. We were jumping up and down. As a coach, and I think I can speak for the assistant coaches, it was the happiest day of our lives.”
Some — everyone from Jerry Tarkanian to Al McGuire — predicted that if Bradley stayed at BYU for multiple years, the Cougars would win a national championship.
In that first season at BYU, Bradley averaged nearly six blocks per game. His teammates hated going up against him in practice. Said Jared Miller at that time: “No one can imagine what it’s like playing against someone that big. It’s so, so … different. No one can imagine that kind of height.”
One person could.
When the Cougars traveled to play LaSalle in December that season, Bradley wandered off to a Philadelphia 76ers practice, where he came face to face with, and went head to head against, 7-7 Sixers center Manute Bol. When Bradley walked into the gym, Philly’s practice came to a halt, everyone staring at the new kid.
Former Jazz guard Rickey Green put Bradley and Bol back to back, the whole team watching, to determine who was taller. Bol nipped Bradley by a quarter-inch.
For the first time Bradley could remember, he actually looked up to someone else.
As the story turned out, Bradley played at BYU just that first year, then went on a church mission, returned and immediately entered the NBA draft.
He was the second overall pick, notably enough taken by that same Sixers team, went on to an extended, if not exceptional pro career, mostly with Dallas, and later settled in Utah as an individual comfortable and confident in who he was and what he was. He even spent a short time doing a radio show on the station where I work. More on that in a minute.
But a few words all those years ago from Bradley’s father, Reiner, that at the time seemed a kind of throwaway quote about his son, in light of what’s happened now, stands out.
“He was always coordinated despite being tall,” Reiner said back then. “When he was 4 years old, we gave him a bike, and he was riding it around after about an hour. … He loved it.”
A collision on his bike with a motorist in January now leaves him paralyzed, rehabbing, and fighting to find new purpose in his life.
Think about that for a moment. A man who for the lion’s share of his existence stood so much taller than any other human, his view elevated to a height most people could never have imagined, no longer will have that line of sight, viewing the world now from a different angle.
Another bike story Bradley told a number of us at 1280 The Zone a number of years ago went like this: He had a customized bike built for him — he also was gifted a custom-sized motorcycle from his wife, one I subsequently sat on and couldn’t reach the handlebars — and, as it happened, it was stolen. But whoever stole it could neither ride it or pawn it off on anyone, so it was eventually recovered.
During those radio days, Bradley gave a shrug and a sigh when we met up again, he being aware that I had criticized him on occasion for his decision to turn pro before he was ready and for some of his subsequent performances. No big deal, we got along fine.
I like the man.
But Bradley’s accident saddened and flattened me for an additional reason.
In July, I too had been involved in a serious bike crash, one that easily could have resulted in major, permanent injuries. I cannot recall exactly what happened, not really waking up until paramedics were loading me from an ambulance into a hospital room. Somehow I came through that, with only a few pains lingering still.
But I felt for Shawn Bradley, still do — a strange mix of deep sadness for what happened to him and fortunate that I through no prowess of my own recovered.
It was encouraging to hear that he is in good spirits and looks forward to using his extended, intercontinental reach to educate others and emphasize to them the importance of bike safety.
As he does that, after everything else he’s achieved, he’ll stand tall once more, as tall as he ever has.
GORDON MONSON hosts “The Big Show” with Jake Scott weekdays from 2-7 p.m. on 97.5 FM and 1280 AM The Zone.