Samuel Paul (Sam) Bowie, by any traditional measure, was an elite basketball player who made it further in the sport than nearly anyone who has ever picked up a ball and dared to dream. Standing at 7'1", he enjoyed a decade-long career in the NBA where he posted career averages of 10.9 points, 7.5 rebounds, and 1.8 blocks per game.
However—fairly or not—Bowie will forever be widely associated with disappointment and failure. He will be described as, and become synonymous with, a mistake. So what made his selection by the Portland Trail Blazers as the number two overall pick in the 1984 NBA Draft so terrible? The answer is quite obvious—"His Airness" Michael Jordan was selected with the very next pick.
Of course, Jordan would go on to become one of the greatest players of all time, if not the GOAT. Bowie would have to "settle" for much less—holding down a secure job, while making millions of dollars, in the sport's most talented league. A fellow can do much worse.
While Bowie has had to battle the stigma of being the man chosen before Jordan, just how much of a mistake was it at the time?
During his sophomore season at Kentucky in 1980-81, Bowie averaged 17.4 points and 9.1 rebounds as part of a Wildcats team that finished 8th in the final AP Poll. It must be noted that Bowie suffered a fractured tibia which would cost him his junior season as well as requiring a medical redshirt for one more year of eligibility.
Still, Bowie would remain healthy during that 1983-84 season, helping Kentucky reach the Final Four, where they would lose to top-ranked Georgetown. He was also named to the AP All-America team. Going into the draft, Bowie was viewed as one of the best big men, and overall players for that matter, available.
University of Houston center Hakeem Olajuwon was the consensus best player in the draft, and the Rockets chose him with the number one overall pick. Therefore, in actuality, two players were selected before MJ, who would go third. But with Olajuwon being such a dominant player on both ends of the court during his long Hall of Fame career, the Rockets—rightfully so—get a pass. Portland (and by proxy, Bowie himself) has not been afforded the same leniency.... or even forgiveness.
But the Trail Blazers didn't feel they needed another 6'6" shooting guard in Jordan, since they had just drafted a 6'7" shooting guard in the first round the year before. That player—Hall of Famer Clyde "The Glide" Drexler—would fill the position quite nicely.
So with Olajuwon off the board, and Drexler already in tow, the Trail Blazers made what they believed to be the smart pick of Bowie at second overall. Coming off a full final season at Kentucky, Bowie would play 76 games in his rookie season, thus putting his injury further in the rear-view mirror, while being named to the NBA All-Rookie First Team.
Portland's selection of Bowie looked to be even better when, as many people forget, it was actually Jordan who suffered an injury first, resulting in him starting only seven games during the 1985-86 season. Unfortunately, Bowie's injury, again to the tibia, wouldn't be far behind. It was to be the start of several injury-riddled seasons, and it eventually led to the end of his time in Portland.
Bowie would suit up for the Trail Blazers 38 times in 1985-86, play just five games during the 1986-87 season, then miss all of the 1987-88 campaign. Returning in 1988-89, he played just 20 games (without once being in the starting lineup) to finish up his stint with the team that drafted him just five years prior.
After being traded to the Nets, Bowie would have moderate success in New Jersey, staying relatively healthy over his solid four-year run there. He averaged 14.7 points and 10.1 rebounds per game in 1989-90 and 15.0 points and 8.1 boards in 1991-92. Bowie would finish out the last two seasons of his NBA career with the Los Angeles Lakers.
Bowie's tale is one of what could have been. He certainly didn't have anywhere near as impactful of a career as Jordan or Olajuwon, or for that matter Drexler. But Bowie was also crippled by injuries far more than any of the others.... and perhaps all three combined. Would Bowie have been as dominant as Jordan or Olajuwon? That's very unlikely, but learning just how good he may have become—and if he himself could have joined the others in the Hall of Fame—just never came to be.
Through it all, Bowie persevered while continuing to come back from injury after injury. A lesser man may have thrown in the towel much sooner, but Bowie's hard work and determination kept him in the NBA from 1984 through 1995. In the end, he carved out some respectable numbers while also being a shot-blocking threat and good passing big man.
It just wasn't nearly enough for the player who was drafted right before Michael Jordan.
© 2021 Ralphie Del