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Shawn Bradley: A big man on campus

Published February 7, 2007 12:44 am

After a 12-year NBA career, former BYU star is now happy being a leader for teenagers
This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2007, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

It is high noon at West Ridge Academy.

Lunchtime.

Students dressed in blue sport shirts with their names embroidered over the pocket stand in line before being allowed to enter the cafeteria.

Once inside, they gather around a dozen small tables and chatter while awaiting permission to form the food line.

Once everyone is back in their chairs, heads are bowed, hands are folded, a prayer is offered and lunch begins.

On this snowy winter day, Shawn Bradley joins the students, who gawk and giggle and chatter excitedly as the 7-foot-6 former NBA player and newest member of the faculty ducks through the doorway and sits down among them.

"Shawn has a great presence - due to his size - and has immediate credibility with the kids," said Ken Allen, the executive director at West Ridge. "His instant credibility when he's talking to kids make him an incredible mentor.

"He is a great example of someone who has worked hard and been very successful. Being so tall wasn't always easy for him. He knows about being the 'odd kid' and dealing with that."

Since Bradley arrived a few weeks ago and started work as the school's jack-of-all-trades - vice principal, counselor, coach and friend - Allen has answered one question many times.

"A lot of kids have been asking, 'What's Shawn Bradley doing here?' '' he said. "But it's easy for me to tell them, 'He's here because he cares about you.' . . . Shawn has a great heart. His heart is in the right place. He wants to give back to the community and influence kids' lives."

Dave Ballard is the director of business management at West Ridge.

"Everybody around here is still in awe at how tall Shawn is," he said. "But it's been absolutely wonderful having him here. It only takes a few minutes to recognize that he's not your stereotypical celebrity - your stereotypical NBA player."

Just as there is nothing stereotypical about West Ridge Academy, a non-profit school with 140 students - 110 boys and 30 girls. And every kid is here for a reason.

"Parents find us because their sons and daughters are unable to be successful in their current situation," Allen said. According to Allen, the goal of those who work at West Ridge "is to see a change of heart and have these kids see some of their thinking errors. We want to help them go forward with their lives."

It is a time-consuming, emotionally taxing task - one not normally embraced by a former professional athlete like Bradley.

"We call it getting bit by the bug," said Ballard. "Shawn got bit by the bug because of the kind of person he is."

Said Bradley: "These kids, some of them are really kicking against the cactus."

Translation: West Ridge students need help, from people like Allen, Ballard and Bradley.

"It's a chance to put kids on the path to be productive, not destructive," Bradley said. "Some of these kids come here with a lot of hate and a lot of anger."

THE PLAYING DAYS: Bradley's road to West Ridge was less bumpy than the one taken by its students.

Already a 7-footer when he started playing basketball at Emery High School, Bradley remains the most heavily recruited athlete in state history.

Duke, North Carolina, Arizona, UCLA, Syracuse. High-profile coaches from the biggest schools in the country wanted Bradley to play for them.

Eventually, he picked close-to-home BYU over far-away Syracuse.

"Back then," Bradley said, "I didn't even like driving to Salt Lake."

After one season at BYU and a two-year LDS Church mission to Australia, Bradley jumped to the NBA. He was the No. 2 pick in the 1993 draft, sandwiched between Michigan All-American Chris Webber and Memphis All-American Anfernee Hardaway.

During his pro career, Bradley played in Philadelphia, New Jersey and - most happily - Dallas.

"I loved playing for the Mavs," he said. "I grew up in south central Utah - very rural, very country. And Texas is the epitome of rural and country. It felt a lot like home."

After the 2004-05 season, however, Bradley retired.

"I had a 12-year career and loved every minute of it," he said. "But I always said when my kids needed to turn on the TV to see their dad, then it was time to reconsider what I was doing. And it was getting to that point."

Still, it wasn't an easy decision.

Bradley was only 33. He was healthy, he had $14.5 million remaining on his contract. He wavered, especially when the Mavs hired young Avery Johnson as their new head coach. But after long talks with his wife and some Utah-connected athletes like Dale Murphy, Steve Young and Danny Ainge, Bradley walked away.

"I just felt like it was the right thing to do," he said. "It wasn't a knee-jerk decision. It was a process. A lot of thought and due diligence went into it - by me and my wife. A lot of effort and prayer went into it."

NEW HORIZON: Gradually, retirement in Dallas grew a little tedious for Bradley, his wife and their six children, who range in age from 12 to toddler.

"I'd ride my bike, take the kids to school and then look at my darling wife and say, 'What do you need me to do today?' '' he said, laughing. "In her loving, endearing way, she'd say, 'Get out of the house.' ''

Bradley got the hint.

It was time to start looking around for new opportunities.

Unexpectedly, one surfaced at West Ridge, during a tour of the facility Bradley took while searching for a good environment for a nephew.

"I was talking to Dave [Ballard] and said, 'I could use a job,' " Bradley said. "He said, 'Well, we could put you to work here.' "

Ballard remembers the conversation.

"I just started throwing some darts and, obviously, one landed," he said. "I said, 'You're retired now. You need something to do. Why don't you come work with us?' I didn't think another thing about it until he called and wanted to talk more" about the possibility.

Why did Ballard even broach the subject?

"When you think of Karl Malone, John Stockton, Shawn Bradley - any celebrity - you're not sure how they're going to react to something like that," he said. "But as soon as I took Shawn on his tour and saw him interact with the kids, I could tell he was very genuine and caring and good with them."

A few weeks after the tour, Bradley was driving down I-15 when he telephoned Ballard.

"I asked Dave, 'How serious were you about putting me to work?' '' he said. "Two days later, we sat down and there was a piece of paper on the table in front of me saying, 'Here's what we want you to do.' And that list was about as tall as I am."

That night, Bradley discussed the offer with his wife.

"We looked at each other and said, 'There is an opportunity to do some good here,' '' said Bradley, who knew another reason to start a new job.

"For two years, basically, my kids saw me hanging around the house all day. I thought it was time they needed to see me go to work. They needed that kind of role model."

Hello, West Ridge Academy.

THE NEW DOOR: Sitting in his still-unfinished office just off West Ridge's main lobby, Bradley picks up two plastic bags containing nuts and bolts that had come in the cardboard shipping box containing his new desk chair.

He laughs, shakes his head, jokes about his handyman skills and wonders aloud why there are so many leftover parts to a chair which seems to be solidly assembled and is holding his oversized frame.

No matter.

These days, Shawn Bradley's biggest concern isn't putting together office furniture.

It's putting together young lives.

luhm@sltrib.com