RUBINO: Sam Bowie survived NBA draft bust label; can Michael Jordan?
Published: Saturday, June 22, 2013 at 7:32 p.m.
Last Modified: Saturday, June 22, 2013 at 7:32 p.m.
For years and years, Michael Jordan had the last laugh as Sam Bowie was the punch line to an unkind joke disguised as a trivia question.
In the 1984 NBA draft, when future Hall of Famer Hakeem Olajuwon was selected first overall by the Houston Rockets, who was picked second, one ahead of Jordan?
Yeah, LOL, it was Bowie, drafted by the Portland Trail Blazers and often referred to by NBA pundits and fans as one of the biggest busts of all time.
In 1992, after leading the Bulls past the Blazers (who by that time had traded Bowie) for their second of six NBA championships during his career, Jordan spoke at a victory rally.
Famously motivated by personal slights both real and imagined, Jordan told throngs of adoring fans: “To the city of Chicago, thank God you drafted me instead of Portland!”
But now, with another draft coming up on Thursday, maybe it's Bowie having a laugh at Jordan's expense, if you consider the following unkind joke disguised as a trivia question.
In the 2013 NBA draft, what former No. 3 pick, who will be choosing fourth overall, is desperate to reverse the overwhelming impression that he's been a colossal failure in his two attempts to run franchises since 2000?
You guessed it, His Airness himself, Michael Jordan, perhaps the greatest basketball player ever, and probably the worst executive/owner in league history.
First with the Washington Wizards, for whom he drafted Kwame Brown first overall, and now the Charlotte Bobcats (a year past setting a record for the lowest winning percentage), Jordan has distinguished himself by combining horrible and uninspired decisions with rotten luck to produce a non-playing resume that makes Isiah Thomas' look like Jerry West's.
Meanwhile, Sam Bowie has found peace. And success in another sport — horse racing.
“I'm not a bust,” Bowie says in the 2012 ESPN Films documentary “Going Big,” directed by Jon Fish and Tom Friend. “I'll fight that word till I leave this world.”
If you're an NBA fan who digs the league's history and are drawn to smart, insightful sports films, too, you should see “Going Big.” It's available to watch instantly through Netflix. It will give you an up-close and personal view of Bowie, revealing him to be not a punch line but a sensitive, introspective, frank (“No one had a bigger ego than myself”) and proud man who happened to average 10.9 points and 7.5 rebounds over 10 NBA seasons that included two devastating injuries — breaking his left tibia (which he had broken once before, at the University of Kentucky) and his right tibia. And it will give you pause when you're tempted to label Bowie as a bust.
Former Blazers teammate Mychal Thompson says of Bowie in “Going Big”: “He showed everybody his all-around skills ... this guy was legit ... a complete player.”
Another former teammate, Kiki Vandeweghe, says: “You could see the talent.”
And the redoubtable Charles Barkley, a contemporary who was drafted three spots after Bowie: “There have been some big busts in all sports. But those guys ... couldn't play or squandered their talent. Sam Bowie just got hurt.”
Bowie unapologetically admits that he knew going into the NBA that he hadn't fully recovered from the broken leg he suffered in college, but kept insisting he was fine.
“I wasn't the player I wanted to be from my first day in the NBA,” Bowie says in “Going Big.”
“If what I did was lying, if what I did was wrong, at the end of the day, when you have loved ones who have some needs, I did what any of us would have done.”
He spent the last two seasons of his NBA career with the Lakers, for whom, according to James Worthy, Bowie was “still effective.” But he turned down a contract extension, returned to Kentucky and became a race horse owner, having particular success with a thoroughbred named Before He Cheats, whom Bowie describes as having “legs a lot like his owner's, scars and war marks. That horse resembles what his owner has been all about.”
Of course the point of all this isn't to fly the flag of revisionist history. But the fact of the matter is that on Thursday, Michael Jordan, as owner of a stagnant, laughingstock franchise, will be back at the NBA draft, trying to succeed where he has only failed, miserably and spectacularly, in the past.
Sam Bowie, meanwhile, says, “I live better than when I was living in the NBA. No one has been luckier. ... I'm very proud. I don't feel like I owe an apology to anyone.
“Sam Bowie was drafted before Michael Jordan, and you'll have to accept that.”
Robert Rubino can be reached at RobertoRubino@comcast.net.