Under the Carpetbag

Under the Carpetbag

When Bill was at Oxford, studying P.P.E. (Politics, Philosophy, and Economics) as a Rhodes Scholar, he not only played basketball for the university but also flew to Italy to play professionally for a Milanese meatpacker called Simmenthal. In his second Oxford year, he wrote to me asking that I go to Trenton and buy from the state government a book titled “New Jersey Civil Practice Laws and Rules.” I sent it to Oxford. Widely predicted to be a future governor of Missouri, Bill was weaving the first threads of a carpetbag.

The Knicks had drafted him, and after he returned from Oxford, in 1967, he had his first tryout with the team, at the Knicks’ training center, in Farmingdale, on Long Island. Red Holzman, the coach, studied Bill in the company of the team’s best players, among them Dick Barnett, Walt Frazier, and Willis Reed. Willis, six-ten, was the Knickerbockers’ franchise player, the team captain, its leading scorer. Like planets, the others orbited around him. And off they went in full-court scrimmage in Farmingdale. Bill was an exceptional passer, a pinpoint passer, but his first pass to Willis connected with nothing and bounced away, hitting the base of the empty stands. A minute or two later, after Willis set a pick, as he had before, Bill ran his defender into the pick, again expecting Willis to roll suddenly away from his defender, coming open for a bounce pass, in this classic set piece of basketball. Again, the pass went bouncing off on its own. Holzman blew his whistle and stepped onto the court to tell Bill, “Willis doesn’t roll.”

This flat statement made a deep entry into the comic wit of Robert Bingham, the New Yorker fact editor to whom Mr. Shawn assigned me after my first two Profiles. Bingham was my editor for sixteen years, before he died, in his fifties. He dragged my confidence past numerous barriers, and he treated my manuscripts as if they were mine, looking up now and again from some hot-dog line I’d written and saying, “Willis doesn’t roll.”

Bill, meanwhile, got off to a slow, discouraging start with the Knicks, not getting much game time, and even being booed in Madison Square Garden because of irrationally high expectations, not to mention a widespread skepticism prompted by the size of his signing bonus, for which he had been given the nickname Dollar Bill. I had admired him and what I heard about him since he was a freshman in college, and he would become a friend forever, but there would be no era in which I thought more highly of him than when he was struggling to make it with the Knicks, playing three minutes a game, or something of the kind, and surely feeling the threat of a depression the like of which he’d never experienced.

After basketball games in the Garden, he would go to dinner and the basketball did not go with him. His best asset, I had long thought, was his ability to compartmentalize the factors in his life, and never let his concentration on one thing spill over into others. When he went to dinner, with a variety of people, he dwelt on subjects that had nothing to do with his job. He was like that then, and he is like that now.

By February, 1969, he was faring better. When the Knicks showed up in Milwaukee to play the Bucks, I happened to be nearby, spending a week as a writer-in-residence at Lake Forest Academy, in Illinois. I went to the game. The Knicks won. Bill had a standout game, and was confronted afterward by a man with a microphone asking for his pithiest analysis of the contest. Stepping into this cliché encounter, Bill took the microphone and analyzed the action, then reanalyzed the action, and gave a third and a fourth analysis, and was not about to give back the microphone. Changing the subject, he talked on, and on, and on, until the TV control room threw a switch.

On Christmas Eve that year, in a New York movie theatre where continuous screenings ran far into the night, Bill stayed up late with me, watching Robert Redford in “Downhill Racer.” Since early summer, my wife and I had been separated, and therefore came Christmas without my daughters. Apart from a family death, if there is a lower moment in a physically healthy life I can’t imagine it.

The Knicks’ season was in full flow. They beat the Detroit Pistons 112–111 that Christmas Day and lost to the Lakers the following night. They would see more of the Lakers and the Lakers would see more of them. The Lakers were Wilt Chamberlain. The Knicks were Dave DeBusschere, Bradley, Barnett, Frazier, and Captain Willis Reed. They were on a roll (but not that one). In June, they beat the Lakers in the N.B.A. finals. It was the Knicks’ first championship. They won their second, also against the Lakers, in 1973, and at this writing the Knicks have yet to win another.

His political ruminations notwithstanding, Bill thought about other futures, other professions, and one of these was photography. He bought a Nikon with multiple lenses and went at the challenge with the same dedication he had given to no-look passes and peripheral vision. One of his first artistic themes was life on the road, life on the run, the quotidian experience of a professional athlete, forever in airplanes, in unfamiliar cities, checking into and out of hotels. One example of this genre is on display in a fishing cabin owned by me and my family on the upper Delaware River. Made in Los Angeles, the picture is a point-blank view of a hotel under construction, shot from a room in a neighboring hotel so close that the picture shows no roofline or other defining edges, just twenty half-finished hotel rooms, full of building materials, and looking like a grotesque checkerboard, the itinerant athlete’s total view. DeBusschere, Bill’s roommate on the road, slept through most of that.

Fifty-eight years ago, I took an outdoor picture of Bill with our garage in the background. He was twenty-two. In more recent years, he has used that photograph in two of his books and in a long video he describes as “a performative autobiography.” In professional compensation, I have yet to see one red cent, let alone a dollar bill.

Bill had been a Knick for seven years when West Germany and the Netherlands reached the finals of the World Cup, in Munich. Bill was married now, and his wife—as smart a person as I have ever met, apart from nuclear scientists and geophysicists—had grown up Ernestine Misslbeck, in Ingolstadt, Bavaria, fifty miles from Munich. The Misslbecks wanted to attend the Cup final, a tough ticket if ever there was one. The match would occur on the seventh of July. Could Bill do something for his in-laws? He called the Milanese meatpacker he had played for when he was at Oxford. The company said it would obtain the tickets if Bill would fly to Italy and play one exhibition game for the meatpacker. He went.

He was elected a U.S. senator from New Jersey in 1978. His home was in Denville then, in Morris County. Earlier, when he had first planned to run for office in the state, I had sought and found a carpetbag, filled it up with New Jersey road maps, and given it to him. It hung on a peg high inside his front door for twenty years. It is now in the possession of Ernestine and Bill’s daughter, Theresa Anne. She is my goddaughter. When Bill was in his early Senate days and had not yet bought a house in Washington, he borrowed the apartment of Carl Bernstein and Nora Ephron, who were somewhere else at the time. For a week or so, I was in Washington working on my geology project at the Smithsonian and at the U.S. Geological Survey, nearby in Virginia. I stayed with Bill. Coming through the door, you faced a curvilinear wall with an Italian bicycle hanging on it like a work of art, which it was. It was worth more than a car. And it was not the most arresting sight there. The apartment was filled with Pat and Dick Nixon figurines, a Pat salt shaker with a Dick pepper shaker, Pat and Dick ceramics of every ilk, five years after Deep Throat and Woodward and Bernstein’s reportage on Watergate.

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