Why was Michael Jordan selected with the third pick?
The NBA draft is a high-stakes guessing game. General managers pored over scouting reports and countless clips from college basketball seasons, all searching for the next Michael Jordan. But Jordan himself was the third overall pick in the 1984 NBA draft.
It’s easy to blame the first two teams for giving up arguably the best basketball player ever seen. But with hindsight being 20/20, the draft order wasn’t as shocking as it seems now.
The Houston Rockets select seven-foot center Hakeem Olajuwon from the University of Houston. The choice is reasonable. Olajuwon dominated college, averaging 16.8 points, 13.5 rebounds, and 5.6 blocks as a junior. He led the Houston Cougars to the national championship game.
It’s a requirement for a championship team to have an elite big man in the low post. The Philadelphia 76ers have Moses Malone, and the Los Angeles Lakers have Kareem Abdul-Jabbar.
It makes sense for the Rockets to pick the best center in college. Not too many would argue that Jordan deserved No. 1 at the time.
Today, Olajuwon has selects into the Hall of Fame, is the NBA’s historical block leader, has been 12 times picked to the All-Star, and won the championship twice. He’s no Jordan, but it’s safe to say the Rockets made a good choice with their pick.
The debate starts and ends with the Portland Trail Blazers, who have the No. 2 pick. They selected center Sam Bowie from the University of Kentucky. Once again, the Blazers have followed the trend of choosing elite big men.
Bowie averaged 13.4 points and 3.8 rebounds during his three-year career at Kentucky. But the Trail Blazers couldn’t have foreseen the injury affecting his NBA career, and Portland eventually traded the oft-injured Bowie to the New Jersey Nets five years later.
Seventeen years after being drafted, Bowie revealed a shocking revelation: He had lied to the Trail Blazers about severe pain in his leg. In the documentary “Going Big,” Bowie recalled:
“I still remember them taking a gavel, and when they hit my left shin, I would tell them, ‘I can’t feel anything.’ But deep down, it hurt. If I did, I was lying, what I did was wrong, and at the end of the day, when your loved ones have something in need, I did what any of us would do.”
They might have passed it if the Blazers knew about Bowie’s still-damaged leg. After his rookie season, Bowie played 38, 5, 0, and 20 games over the next four years. Although even if they waive Bowie, they could still take a player with size like Sam Perkins or Charles Barkley.
At the time, the Blazers already had Clyde Drexler as their future shooting guard. Drexler just wrapped up his rookie season but showed promise. Now a Hall of Famer, Drexler spent 11.5 seasons with the Blazers, earning eight All-Star berths. There’s no need for Jordan when they already have Drexler and are looking for that elusive elite big man.
So Jordan lost to the Chicago Bulls at No. 3. After six championships and five MVPs, we can’t help but wonder how exactly the Blazers passed him on.
But it was not an easy decision at the time. Jordan played well at the University of North Carolina but could have been better in college basketball. On draft day, no one can predict who will enter the record books and who will become a historic underdog.
During Michael Jordan’s draft, both teams dropped his presence. The Trail Blazers waived Kevin Durant again in 2007 over undrafted Greg Oden. Five teams missed Stephen Curry in 2009 (the Minnesota Timberwolves even missed him twice). Fourteen teams missed Antetokounmpo in 2013.
Behind every pick, there is hope and excitement. But when we look back, it’s easy to blame and criticize teams for missing superstars. It has yet to be determined when the next Michael Jordan will appear. The draft is just a high-stakes guessing game, and the winner is approaching.
One can only hope that Jordan is chosen over Bowie next time.
NBA column by mark
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