When Kevin Bradshaw became an assistant basketball coach at Point Loma Nazarene University in San Diego in 2008, he realized he was the answer to a trivia question:
Whatever happened to Kevin Bradshaw?
“When I started [at PLNU] and we would go around to different places and the head coach would introduce me, people would say, ‘Hey, I always wondered what happened to you,’” he said. Some people told him they thought he “just fell off the face of the earth.”
And, in a basketball sense, he had.
Bradshaw, after all, is the most prolific scorer in Division I college basketball over the past 35 years.
In the 1990-91 season, he averaged 37.6 points per game for the now-defunct program at U.S. International University in San Diego, the highest single-season average since Portland State’s Freeman Williams put up 38.8 to lead the nation in 1976-77.
In the years since, no one’s come close. Not the likes of Jimmer Fredette, Adam Morrison or Stephen Curry. Only two players, Purdue’s Glenn Robinson (30.3 in 1993-94) and Long Island’s Charles Jones (30.1 in 1996-97) have even gone over 30 points.
And, on Jan. 5, 1991, Bradshaw shot his way into the record books by scoring 72 points against Loyola Marymount. It broke the NCAA single-game record for points in a game against a Division I team, set 21 years earlier by LSU’s Pete Maravich when he put up 69 versus Alabama.
Twenty-one years later, no one has come within 10 points of it.
Clearly, Bradshaw, a 6-foot-4 guard (listed generously at 6-5 at the time, he says) was a legitimate scorer who could slash to the basket or rain 3-pointers. Five times he had more than 50 points in a game and, with 2,804 points, ranks 15th all-time in NCAA Division I career scoring.
Growing up in Gainesville, Fla., Bradshaw had been a teammate of future NBA guard Vernon Maxwell at Buchholz High, and the debates had raged about who was better.
Just days after Bradshaw’s record night, Maxwell told The New York Times that his former teammate could “fill it up with the best.”
“It’s incredible,” Maxwell, then with the Houston Rockets, said at the time. “Yeah, 72 points. You can’t find people up here with us on a good night who can do that. That record will stand for a long time.”
Yet when that 1990-91 season came to an end, Bradshaw disappeared as quickly as he had appeared for USIU the season before, when he was second in the nation in scoring (31.3).
He didn’t go on to the NBA. He wasn’t drafted, and he never got a tryout. He didn’t play in the CBA, or sign with a high-profile team in Italy or Spain, and he didn’t go into coaching.
He went to Israel, and didn’t come back for 16 years.
He might not have dropped off the face of the earth, but he had certainly dropped off the basketball map.
* * *
By the time Bradshaw got to USIU in 1989, he already had taken a roundabout route.
He averaged 30.2 points per game as a high school senior and was named by one publication the Florida Player of the Year. He was recruited by several SEC schools out of high school, including the University of Florida, but chose to play at Bethune-Cookman in part because he felt more comfortable there and because an assistant coach at his high school had taken an assistant’s job at the school.
He played two seasons at Bethune-Cookman, averaging 12.9 points his freshman season, then 19.0 points his sophomore season in 1984-85.
But Bradshaw was wrestling with a lot of personal problems at the time, and decided the best thing he could do was join the Navy. He says he was immature and hung with the wrong crowd. Plus, as he said when he was at USIU, he needed an income when he married his pregnant girlfriend.
“Before I went into the military, I had so much going on,” said Bradshaw, now 47 and a high school teacher and coach in San Diego. “Alcohol, drugs, women. I was just a different person. At that time, the Navy allowed me to clean myself out.”
The Navy also gave him a second chance at the game he loved.
He began playing again and eventually was selected for the all-Navy team, playing alongside former Naval Academy star David Robinson. He also was selected to the All-Armed Forces team, playing with Robinson and former Army standout Kevin Houston, who had led the nation in scoring at West Point in 1986-87.
A few college recruiters who discovered the Navy kid still had two years of eligibility left started talking to him about playing for them when he ended his commitment, but he also caught the eye of USIU coach Gary Zarecky.
When the two connected, Bradshaw -- who had been stationed in San Diego and wanted to stay there -- was sold on USIU, and committed to play for the school.
After nearly four years away from the college game, he was back, on the opposite coast, clean, healthy and confident from his time playing with Robinson and Houston.
“It was an awesome, awesome squad,” Bradshaw said of the All-Armed Forces team. “This is why I came out of the military with such confidence, because I played with all these guys. These guys convinced me: ‘Hey, you need to go back to school. No way you should not go back to school.’”
Bradshaw was a perfect fit in Zarecky’s system, which was a fast-paced, high-scoring offense dedicated to just one thing: scoring the most points possible.
Because USIU was a small, independent school, Zarecky figured his only chance to attract attention and talent would be with an entertaining style. Bradshaw began scoring points in bunches, and so did the Gulls his first season.
Zarecky, now teaching at Foothill College in Los Altos Hills, Calif., says the goal was to get a shot off in seven seconds every time down the floor. The system: Be in top shape, beat defenders back and get the ball to the best shooters in their spots. So what if you give up 100 points if you score 105?
“Along with leading the nation in scoring, you’re the worst defensive team,” Zarecky said of his plans at the time. “But what I figured out was, nobody prints that. What they print is you’re averaging 100 points a game. Every newspaper in the country, it says, ‘USIU, 100 points a game.’ To me that was a recruiting tool.”
In Bradshaw’s first season, the Gulls went 12-16, played games against Oklahoma, Arkansas and UNLV and lost a 181-150 shootout to a Loyola Marymount team coached by Paul Westhead, who shared Zarecky’s vision for breakneck basketball -- but had All-Americans Bo Kimble and Hank Gathers. Bradshaw scored 54 points that night.
The next season, however, USIU hit the wall. The school filed for bankruptcy, players left and the Gulls eventually finished 2-26, with just seven players in uniform by the end of the season.
Bradshaw was one of them, however, and he was a scoring machine. He could drive and draw fouls, says Zarecky, and have the strength to make his shots. And, says the coach, he had a way of shooting -- holding the ball high above his head and releasing at the top of his jump -- that made him difficult to defend.
“Maybe one of the best shooters I ever saw,” he said.
In USIU’s rematch with Loyola Marymount in ’91, Bradshaw put up 59 shots and made 23, including seven 3-pointers, and hit 19 of 23 free throws in scoring his record 72 points, almost a point a minute, in a 186-140 loss. LMU put up 124 shots, USIU 121.
Bradshaw had 48 points by halftime, and Zarecky wanted Bradshaw to go after the record -- after all, it would be good publicity for the school. Bradshaw, meanwhile, didn’t know about either the record or Maravich.
Bradshaw says his coach didn’t tell him about his chance to set the record until there were about four minutes left in the game.
“There was a timeout and that’s when Coach Zarecky alluded to the fact that we were about to make history if you score a couple more points,” he recalled. He had been aware Loyola was doing everything it could to stop him -- sometimes sending two and three defenders at him -- but had no idea it had anything to do with a record.
Then, with 1:27 to go, he made two free throws to surpass Pistol Pete’s 69.
Instead of garnering positive attention, though, Bradshaw and USIU were largely dismissed. Bradshaw recalls hearing that he was no Pistol Pete and that the Gulls were just an outmanned, helter-skelter group.
“I just think it has to do more with what type of machine you have behind you,” Bradshaw said of the critics then. “I think had we had the technology then that we have now [with the Internet, video and highlight shows], it’d be a little different. But we didn’t, and due to the fact that our athletic program had folded so there was not really anyone speaking up, so it was easy for someone to say this is unreal to score this many points. He’s not doing anything.
“And then I think there was a little hate, because of Pistol Pete, I guess. People really loved him.”
* * *
Today, Bradshaw isn’t surprised that his single-game record has held up and that no one has come close to his scoring average.
Over the past 21 years, college basketball has changed, he says. Coaches milk the clock on offense and dictate every play. Defense is emphasized more than ever, and there are few coaches such as Zarecky and Westhead who want their players to run and gun.
“It’s a totally different game,” Bradshaw said. “You can see guys walking up the court, the coach calling the plays. I mean, you do need plays, but at the end of the day, you have to let the players play a little bit.”
When his senior season ended, Bradshaw, already 25, hoped the NBA was in his future. When no one even offered a tryout, he said he was done with the game, a little bit bitter. He stayed at USIU and finished his degree.
A year later his agent called to say a team in Israel would pay him to play a season.
“I thought I’d make a little money, go for a couple of months and come back and work on my master’s. But it ended up being 16 years,” he said, laughing.
He played 12 seasons there and set a national pro single-game scoring record of 101 points for Givat Shmuel in 1993. He also married an Israeli woman (he had gotten a divorce in college) and stayed even after his playing career, becoming the first African-American coach in Israel’s pro league.
In 2008, he and his wife and son moved back to the U.S., settling in San Diego. He coaches and teaches at King-Chavez High (he had to give up coaching at PLNU because of time constraints), and runs shooting clinics across the country.
Just as fans, former teammates and coaches lost track of him during those pre- and early Internet years overseas, so did even close friends and family.
When a former high school teammate named Greg Kappy reconnected with him a couple of years ago, he had no idea what Bradshaw had been up to. In fact, he says, he hadn’t even realized his friend had broken the Maravich scoring record until years later.
“It’s funny, it’s actually a trivia question on this ESPN calendar that I had a couple of years ago, ‘Who has the record for the most point in a Division I game,’” said Kappy, a filmmaker. “Kevin, he became more of a trivia question than an actual piece of history to a lot of people.”
Once Kappy heard his friend’s life story -- of a few wrong turns, some difficult times and his return to the states and a happy life -- it sounded like something out of a movie. And, in fact, it now is -- a documentary about Bradshaw’s life made by Kappy called “Shooting for Home,” which won the audience choice award at a film festival in Los Angeles this year and will play at the Milan Film Festival in early December.
Its tagline: “Kevin Bradshaw is the greatest basketball player never known.”
To Kappy, his old teammate has changed a lot.
“He’s a different guy than he was when we were kids, I can tell you that,” he said.
But one thing never changed.
With a basketball in his hands, Kevin Bradshaw could score.
“You couldn’t really put your finger on why he was so good,” Kappy said. “It was just sort of like Coach [Zarecky] said, the box score would come in at the end and he’d have 30 points. Five different people have five different reasons. Nobody can put their finger on it. He was just a great player.”