Sam Bowie seems to be one of those sports players that will only be remembered as the answer to some obscure trivia question.
Who let the ball dribble through his legs in Game 6 of the 1986 World Series?
Who hit 3 home runs for the Cubs on Opening Day 1994?
What two players were picked AHEAD of Michael Jordan in the 1984 NBA Draft?
The answer to the last one, of course, is Hakeem Olajuwon and Sam Bowie.
Now, the Houston Rockets can hardly be faulted for taking Olajuwon with the top pick in the draft. They were in desperate need of a center and Hakeem ended up leading the team to two championships and was eventually named one of the top 50 players in NBA history.
But SAM BOWIE!?!
Sam was a 7’1” center from the University of Kentucky who averaged 10.5 points and 9.2 rebounds in his senior year. He was a good defender, setting team records in blocks and rebounding. The main problem with Bowie was that he was very prone to seemingly random injuries and missed two full seasons due to a stress fracture in his shinbone. He was a solid player, but not a thrilling one, and certainly not the second-best player in that draft.
When draft time rolled around, everyone knew that Michael Jordan was an excellent player and a worthy addition to any team, but the Portland Trailblazers also badly needed a center. They also had future NBA Hall of Famer Clyde Drexler already playing at forward…so they didn’t need Jordan, right? I mean, how good could this guy be? Bobby Knight, who'd coached Jordan at the 1984 Olympic trials, urged Blazers GM Stu Inman (an old pal) to take Michael. Inman said, "But we need a center." Knight yelled back, "So play him at center!" Inman didn't listen, and the result was a jaw-dropping scene:
NBA commissioner David Stern walked to the podium and said, “With the second pick in the 1984 NBA Draft, Portland selects … Sam Bowie, University of Kentucky."
Of course, the Chicago Bulls took Michael Jordan with the third pick, and the rest is history. Jordan went on to take the Bulls to six championships and is considered to be the best basketball player of all time. Bowie ended up playing 10 unglamorous seasons in the NBA, always missing about 15-20 games a year due to injury. He ended up averaging 10.9 points and 7.9 rebounds a game over his career and was usually taunted with the nickname “Air Bowie” wherever he played. I admit that these are pretty solid numbers for a center, but because of his position in the draft, he is considered to be one of the biggest busts in NBA history.
Sam Bowie is currently a basketball analyst for the University of Kentucky Radio Network.
"What Sam Bowie does for us is give us rebounding and intimidation in the middle that we haven't had since Bill Walton. If we had to do it all over again, we'd still take Sam over Michael Jordan." - Jack Ramsay, Portland head coach, Nov. 1984.
Just as an extra slam on the Blazers, not only did they think that Sam Bowie was better than Michael Jordan, but they also picked him in the '84 draft instead of:
Hindsight is 20/20 and all that.