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A dream deferred

“The best thing about Charlie Bradley is he has been able to maintain that balance and be Charlie Bradley the basketball star and Charlie Bradley the normal guy. Sometimes, people don’t let you do that.” Tony Grier – former USF men’s basketball player and teammate of Bradley

Charlie Bradley leans down to pick up a child no bigger than his forearm.

He has to lean down a long way to pick up this 4-year-old, because, after all, he is 6 feet, 6 inches tall.

Bradley puts the child in a single-file line of his classmates, then they all march toward the door of the Wayne C. Papy Athletic Center in north Tampa.

He walks behind them, watching over and guarding them from above.

As they head into the building excitedly, Bradley leans down so as not to hit his head on the doorframe and enters the center.

For an hour, Bradley watches as a group of about 10 kids with learning disabilities figure out how to interact more appropriately with their peers.

This is now the life of the USF basketball program’s all-time leading scorer.

Hoop dreams

It wasn’t supposed to be like this. After 2,319 points, two NIT appearances, numerous accolades and awards and publicized articles, after all the national attention and records, and even after the jersey with his retired number (No. 30) was raised in the Sun Dome, everything was supposed to be different.

“In my mind, I had nothing but going to the NBA on my mind,” said Bradley, now 43. “I got talked out of coming out my sophomore year by (coaching legend) Al McGuire because, sure, I could play offensively, but not defensively.

“I made the right decision not coming out.”

Bradley was a starter for four years, during which he averaged nearly 20 points per game in 118 games. Even so, due to the youth of USF’s basketball program, Bradley still wasn’t a high draft pick – let alone a high-profile star – coming out of college.

However, Bradley had more prominent programs recruiting him out of high school.

“For him to turn down some place like Memphis, who was really recruiting him, is something special,” said Tommy Tonelli, who was his teammate and travel roommate for three seasons. “For him to stay local in 1981, to try to help put USF on the national map – what he did for South Florida basketball was unbelievable.”

Despite what he was doing for a fledgling program, the NBA was the line of sight for Bradley.

“He always thought he was good enough to play in the NBA,” said Mike Lewis, who was a graduate assistant when Bradley played. “That’s what he wanted to do: play professional basketball.”

Bradley was still drafted after his senior season. However, the Tampa native was selected by the Sacramento Kings in the third round, which doesn’t even exist in today’s draft. Bradley was later released by the Kings and spent more than 10 years playing basketball in leagues in Spain, Argentina and Venezuela. His last year of playing competitive basketball was in 1994.

“His hope was to get drafted in the NBA and to graduate from college,” said former coach Lee Rose, who coached Bradley for his four years and was the main reason he came to USF to play. “I didn’t see much beyond that.”

Rose wishes things had been different 20 years ago. Rose, whose first season at USF was the same as Bradley’s, now works with the NBA’s developmental league. The so-called minor-league system for the NBA is in its second year of existence and consists of 12 teams of about 10 players each. It’s specifically for those players who are marginally short of NBA caliber, Rose said, and it teaches them about the NBA level.

“I’m sure it (was frustrating),” Rose said. “He thought he had a good chance as anyone in the NBA.

“I wish (the developmental league) had been around when Charlie came out (of college), because he would have much more of idea of what (the NBA) was looking for.”

A modest existence

These days, Charlie Bradley is a bus driver. Sometimes it’s a large white van with the logo for the City Recreation Department, for which he works, and sometimes it’s a small yellow bus.

A taxi driver, a chauffeur – call it what you want, though one thing stays the same.

“The (kids and mentally challenged adults) wait for you,” Bradley said. “They know you’re coming – it’s part of their routine now. They love to swim or exercise, and sure enough, they’ll be waiting for me to arrive with the bus.

“When I do, they get excited, and that’s very satisfying. They get happy, I make them happy, and that’s just great, you know? To help them do something, to get out, that’s really all I want to do: help out.”

Bradley also picks up handicapped adults from the MacDonald Training Center, which helps them to learn and interact with society on a daily basis.

Bradley said he usually takes them swimming. On Wednesdays, he works with autistic teens and adults.

All of this doesn’t surprise anyone who knows him.

“He wants to give, to help,” said Max Risler, who works with Bradley at the Papy Athletic Center and has known him since high school. “He just always wants to help kids.

“Sure, he’s gotten older, but he’s the same person he’s always been.”

Lewis, who is now the executive director of the USF Bulls Club, agreed: “No, (it’s) not (a surprise) one bit. Even when he was playing (at USF), he was always around kids, so it doesn’t surprise me at all (that he’s working for the community).”

Rose remembers Bradley working with kids when Bradley was younger.

“Charlie loves kids, and he worked well with them (when he was a player),” Rose said. “I know he’s very comfortable with kids, and I know it’s how he gives back.”

Former teammate Tony Grier, who played a year with Bradley, admires his selfless profession.

“One thing I have always admired about Charlie Bradley is that he has never taken advantage of his celebrity (status),” Grier said. “He modestly existed in Tampa. I’m very proud of him because it’s very tough to be a football, basketball star and then move onto something else.

“With any sport, it can serve as a launching pad to greater things. And Charlie represents greater things in the community.”

Hometown hero

Records tell only half the tale. Scoring as many points and setting as many records as Bradley did was all well and good, but Bradley’s stamp on USF goes deeper.

“I look at Charlie as a pioneer,” Lewis said. “He came here in maybe the second year of the Sun Dome. He really got here at the beginning of the program, even though they had been playing for a while before he got (to USF).

“He helped lead this team to (two) NITs, which really helped make the leaps that got us in the conference we are in now.”

Bradley also proves hometown heroes do exist.

“Charlie was really the first big-time recruit that was highly publicized that decided to stay home and play in his community,” Rose said. “He really jump started the idea that players can stay home and be successful.”

Bradley had his own motives, though.

“Charlie wanted to play for coach Rose,” Lewis said. “Plus he didn’t want to leave town, and he was loyal to this area, to USF.

“He helped put USF basketball’s name out there.”

A tale of two Charlies

Times have changed for Bradley. He had elite status. He was recognized and revered in his time, and he enjoyed the spotlight. That’s a light anyone misses when its warmth is shut off.

“I miss (playing) basketball a lot,”Bradley said. “I watch the NBA or college and see those guys doing things I used to do, so I’m going to miss it – I try to stay with it, but I’m always going to miss it.”

Grier knows all too well the feeling of going back the normal life after being a college basketball star.

“I know exactly what it feels like,” Grier said. “For any athlete who was a star in high school and a star in college in the same town, the toughest thing to do is move beyond that legacy.

“The best thing about Charlie Bradley is he has been able to maintain that balance and be Charlie Bradley the basketball star and Charlie Bradley the normal guy. Sometimes, people don’t let you do that.”

Bradley admits he’s had some humbling experiences when he attends a men’s basketball game. One time, he went to the Sun Dome window to pick up some tickets. When he told the employees who he was and it didn’t register, Bradley said he was taken aback.

But even with those experiences, Bradley embraces his “normal” and “laid-back” life because the people who do remember him remember Bradley in a “clean light.”

“Of course I reminisce sometimes,” Bradley said. “Just the other day I found an old game tape against Florida (in 1982). I didn’t have a VHS, so I had to use my daughter’s that was a combo.

“Watching that, I just said, ‘Dang, where did the time go?’ It just flies by.”

‘A completely different feeling’

The hour is up, but Charlie Bradley doesn’t turn to leave.

Instead, he helps a 5-year-old boy, more energetic than his counterparts, jump down off a springboard meant for gymnastics.

The boy lands with a loud thump and scrambles to sit Indian-style with his classmates. Bradley has to hold back a large grin. He digs his hands into his pockets and watches over the kids again as the instructor tells them to get their coats and line up by the door.

“Charlie was always an easygoing, outgoing guy, and then he was good with kids,” Tonelli said. “He was never flamboyant or anything like that. I just always remember him being really good with kids.

“I think he naturally identifies with kids and relates with them.”

As Bradley puts it, while leaning down to load the kids back into the white van, he gets a different feeling than he got when he’d score a double-double.

“It’s a completely different feeling (than doing well in basketball),” Bradley said. “These kids – whoever I help – don’t know that I was a college player at USF, that I did whatever I did in college. I like it that way. It doesn’t matter to them, and it lets me lead my normal life.”

A normal life that consists of pulling away from the Papy Athletic Center, going through his routine of giving back the community that has given him so much.

Next week, whether he still works for Recreation Department or joins politics like Grier thinks he will one day do, Bradley will pick up the kids.

And they’ll still be waiting.

“To me, he’ll always be Charlie or C.B.,” said Tonelli, who watched USF’s 69-63 upset of then-No. 21 Notre Dame on Feb. 3, sitting next to Bradley. “He hasn’t changed a bit to me. … Whenever (we talk), it’s as though we’ve never missed a beat.

“He’s the same Charlie.”