He had a band booming funky music. He had a hand-clapping crowd. He had glitterati -- movie producer Spike Lee, actor Samuel Jackson, author Cornel West, ex-Dallas Cowboys star Calvin Hill.
Yep, Dollar Bill was getting down.
Snubbed by the Black Caucus soiree where 2000 rival Al Gore was appearing, Bill Bradley threw his own party a block away. "We're going to move forward if it's the last thing I do as president of the United States," Bradley told his cheering claque. What's going on? Bradley always had good hands as an NBA defender. Could he steal the African-American vote, that traditional Democratic base, from Gore?
More broadly: Is Bradley's long-shot run against Gore for the 2000 Democratic nomination an overhyped chimera? Or does he have a chance to trip Gore's coronation?
Yes, Bradley's for real. Odds are heavy Gore will survive Dem jitters to become the nervous party's nominee. But Bradley vs. Gore will be a long struggle -- not so dramatic as those Ali-Frazier slugfests, but as uncertain.
Face it, Bradley's early impetus comes from Clinton fatigue. When George Bush broke the vice president's curse in 1988, the unspoken message was that he was claiming Ronald Reagan's third term. No Gore admirer gushes that he's running for Bubba's third term. When Gore appears on the tube, he morphs into Clinton. Bad enough that he suffers a charisma deficiency. But Gore has more baggage than Louis Vuitton.
Bradley has made a slick switch -- he's moved to Gore's left. Still gauzy about specifics, he's for registering guns, allowing gays to serve openly in the military, wiping out child poverty, helping uninsured workers. By juking left, Bradley is picking off independent voters, some blacks, the gay bloc and old-line Democrats disenchanted by Clinton's centrist stodginess. The move has stunned Gore's camp in early polls -- Bradley's in a dead heat in New Hampshire and New York.
"We're facing establishment power and tremendous resources," Bradley said in a news conference. "Our takeoff point should be March 7 when 50 percent of the delegates will be picked."
Not enough for Bradley to be the un-Gore. From covering him in Senate debates, I can testify that Bradley is no blood-pumping orator. Republican chairman Bill Nicholson's sarcasm was on target when he called Gore and Bradley "Tweedledull and Tweedleduller."
But Bradley will get a gift -- media hype. With networks, magazines and news outfits spending millions on campaign coverage, they lust for conflict and a story line. They can't count on the GOP, which George W. Bush has turned into a yawner. So Bradley inherits the crusader's cape. With Bradley's publicity bonanza will come trouble.
First, Bradley will face higher expectations, pressure and nastier questions. If he fades badly in the New Hampshire primary, the glory ride's over.
Second, Bradley's Senate career offers a fat target for Gore and his hirelings. His every vote, from tax cuts to school vouchers to missile defense, will be chewed up by Gore's Cuisinart.
Third, the speeded-up 2000 process tilts against Bradley. If he's rocked early, Tennessean Gore should recover on Super Tuesday. The South plus super delegates -- the party honchos -- should seal the 2,168 delegates for Gore.
The wild card could save Bradley's quest: Democratic panic. If Gore's poll numbers -- nationally Bush wallops him 2-to-1 -- keep tumbling so Dems are terrified of a landslide, they may turn to a savior who's fresh, authentic and untainted by Clinton aroma.
Dollar Bill's ready. He insists he won't take No. 2 on a ticket. "I wouldn't be in this if I didn't see a way to 270 electoral votes and the presidency," he says.
With the Knicks, Dollar Bill was at his best in big playoffs. I think Gore should win. But it will be a battle, not a coronation.