BY JEFF FALK
SOME PHOTOS COURTESY OF UK ATHLETICS AND THE PORTLAND TRAIL BLAZERS
It’s called ‘the circle of life’. Others might refer to it as ‘the human condition’.
We all have our shares of ups and downs. We all have our strengths and weaknesses. We are all products of our parents.
Sam Bowie’s existance these days isn’t all that different than your’s and mine. He has his good days and bad. He has his struggles and his triumphs.
He has respect for the past, hope for the future, but he always tries to live in the present.
“I’ve had some success athletically and I’ve enjoyed some financial gains, but what it all comes down to is happiness,” said Bowie. “You have to enjoy what you do. I’ve been blessed and I’m fortunate. I’m as happy and blessed as I’ve ever been in my life. I do say, ‘Why me?’ from time to time. Why was I chosen to have the life I have?
“The best compliment I can get today is from people I see who tell me I’m the same person they met years ago,” continued Bowie. “That’s huge. I don’t want to stroke myself, but I’ve always been a down-to-earth, an appreciative, a God-fearing person. I’ve taken a lot of pride in that fact. I’ve always represented Lebanon, Kentucky and the pro teams I played for in a very professional manner. I have no hidden agendas.”
From the late 1970s to the mid 1990s, Bowie was Lebanon’s number-one son. Now at the age of 57, he has been ‘retired’ for 23 years.
Yeah, he played college basketball at the highest level and enjoyed an underated 12-year NBA career. Although he seems financially set, that career has taken a toll on Bowie physically, and just a little bit mentally.
He is the only NBA player that Lebanon County has ever produced.
“Normally, in a lot of professions, you’re usually starting your career at 34,” said Bowie. “It (the transition from playing basketball to not) wasn’t difficult for me at all. I was looking forward to it. Because of the injuries, basketball wasn’t as much fun for me. But I was blessed. I could do all the parent-teacher conferences with the kids. It’s been all good. Just living the dream.
“The thing about it is, I didn’t come from a poverty-stricken family,” continued Bowie. “My mom and my dad were working-class people. Some players really struggle with retirement. You hear the horror stories about athletes going broke. I was blessed to surround myself with good financial people.”
“With a reasonable management of his money, he’s fine financially,” said Bowie’s basketball coach at Lebanon High, Chic Hess. “What his thoughts might be are, “I could’ve been one of the best who ever played the game’. ‘I was right there, and instead, I’m not.’ I’m sure it bothers him. ‘My wheels didn’t hold up’. ‘I was a shadow of what I could’ve been’. I feel for him. I wish it could’ve been him. I was his coach.”
A 1979 graduate of Lebanon, Bowie now resides in Lexington, Kentucky. He has for the last 30 years, and raised three now-grown children there.
Bowie visits Lebanon – where his mother and sister still live – whenever he get the opportunity, about three or four times a year.
“During my professional career, I knew this is where I was going to retire,” said Bowie. “I was blessed in the sense that I was able to be a full-time father. I was born and raised in Lebanon, Pennsylvania, and I’m very proud of that fact. But this is where I consider home. Lexington has been very good to me.
“I try to get back there quite a bit,” Bowie added. “It’s always nice to go back home. I catch myself driving by the high school, the junior high and the YMCA. That’s where it all started for me. This is universal, not a negative, but I think the world in general has changed. I’m from the old school where it takes a village to raise a kid. I don’t want to say it’s (Lebanon’s) more dangerous. It’s changed, but I don’t want to sound like it’s all negative. I remember elderly people saying, ‘When you get older, time goes faster’.”
“He was a typical kid,” said Hess of Bowie. “The problems he may have had ego-wise were natural. He was a likeable kid. You liked being around him. He couldn’t want to get out of Lebanon High School. Now that he’s grown up, he has fond memories of it.
“Today he’s mature,” Hess contiunued. “He’s a father. He’s responsible. He’s got a head on his shoulder. He just doesn’t have two legs that are serving him well. He adjusted to the big-time world. He grew up with blue-collar people who knew what it was like to work for a living. We’re all proud of him. He got what he could out of playing pro sports.”
So not unlike us, Bowie has mellowed over the years, and matured, and grown and learned from his mistakes. He is more of a man than he’s ever been, but not as much as he will be tomorrow.
And sometimes we don’t get to choose our lives, our lives choose us.
“When you’re 18 and told you’re the best in the United States and you have scholarship offers from every college in the country, there can be some cockiness and attitude,” said Bowie. “Coach Hess and the community helped raise me. And for that, I will always be grateful. I’m more appreciative than I used to be. I used to take for granted scoring 30 points a game. I’ve come a long way from being an 18-year-old kid.
“I’m 57,” Bowie added. “The last couple of years I started having some aches and pains related to some of the injuries and surgeries. But for me to sit around and complain, that wouldn’t be fair. I definitely feel some of the effects from my playing career.”
“Sam doesn’t keep in touch,” said Hess. “But when we meet, he’s always very appreciative. He says to me, ‘Everything you taught me at that point was right on’. That’s how it is with kids.”
At one point, after his playing days had ended, Bowie did olor commentary for University of Kentucky basketball broadcasts. He now does some public speaking and is also involved in harness racing as an owner.
“I want to give back to the community,” said Bowie. “I enjoy meeting the new kids at Kentucky. I don’t do anything physically with the kids on the court, it’s more just getting in their ears. I’m real flexible. I don’t have a concrete job. I’ve had opportunities, but I’ve been kind of content not committing to those positions. It’s nice to do as you please.
“A couple of years ago a teacher asked my son to stand up in class and tell what his father does for a living,” Bowie added. “And Marcus said, ‘Well my dad drops me off at school, he goes to watch the horses trainiung, he goes to watch ESPN and then he picks me up again.’ That’s what he thinks.”
“If Sam wasn’t a tall, potentially gifted basketball player, he would’ve been like me,” said Hess. “He wouldn’t have known where to go. Basketball was my salvation and it was his salvation.”
During his junior season of 1978, the 7-1 Bowie led the Cedars to the state championship game at Hersheypark Arena, where Lebanon was beaten 51-50 by Pittsburgh Schenley. That season and that game remain one of the most storied happenings in the history of Lebanon County sports.
“When I say this, I mean it with all my heart, from the Kentucky experience to all of my years in pro ball, when I reminsce I go back to my Lebanon Cedar days,” said Bowie. “I just wish we could’ve won that state championship game. Fifty-one to fifty, we were so close. When you get to this point of your life, all you have is memories. There’s no doubt when I think about basketball it’s about the Lebanon Cedars.
“The one thing that sticks out is the people,” Bowie continued. “The support I had, for those people to embrace me, my hometown was so proud of Sam Bowie and the Lebanon Cedars. It wasn’t a country club atmosphere. It was regular people, which is what I was.”
“He was unique,” said Hess. “I’m sure you could make some comparisons to any tall, lanky kid who had athletic skills. He got to be so tall, and he was blessed with great hands. He could catch the ball and he had a nice touch. I did the best I could for him. I protected him and looked after him. I thought it was my job.”
Bowie was the most sought-after high school player in the country during his senior season of 1979. He eventually decided on Kentucky, and nine months later Bowie became a member of the United States Olympic Team.
“The memories do come back, when I’m watching TV and see some old highlights,” said Bowie. “I developed friendships and relationships with a lot of those guys over the years. When you know someone on a personal basis it means more. Sometimes I wonder if I wouldn’t have gotten injured what my career would’ve been like. And sometimes when I’m sitting with 25,000 people in Rupp Arena I catch myself looking up and seeing my (retired) jersey hanging in the rafters.
“When I do reminsce, I appreciate the competition,” added Bowie. “It was great hearing (then NBA commissioner) David Stern say, ‘With the second overall pick in the NBA draft, the Portland Trailblazers select Sam Bowie’. But I’ll look back on the Lebanon Cedars before any of that.”
“Sam was getting so pumped up by everyone,” said Hess of Bowie’s college recruiting. “To me, he was another player I’d bring along. He was so celebrated, and it went to his head. I don’t blame him for that. He reacted like every other kid would have.”
Bowie was selected by Portland with the second overall pick in the 1984 NBA draft. He went on to enjoy a solid NBA career with the Trail Blazers, New Jersey Nets and Los Angeles Lakers, one in which he averaged 10.9 points per game, 7.5 rebounds and 1.8 blocks.
But nagging leg injuries plagued him and did not allow Bowie to reach his full potential as a player.
“I have one huge regret,” said Bowie. “I wish I would’ve been more patient and didn’t come back as quickly as I did the second year I fractured my leg. You feel like you disappointed Portland. You’re getting paid a lot of money and you can’t play. I don’t know if it’s guilt or regret. But I’ve never been one to say, ‘Why me?’.”
“I really do believe he could’ve been one of the top five big guys to ever play the game,” said Hess. “He could make moves and shoot the heck out of the ball. Sam could shoot from anywhere. He had such a good touch. He had a good basketball IQ. On the court, he only knew how to play as a team.”
So at this point of his life, Bowie is in a good place. He seems content and at peace.
Yet that life is about to enter a new phase. On April 28th, Bowie will marry for a second time, to another Lebanon native.
“I’m extremely happy,” said Bowie, who was been divorced for six years, after being married for 26. “It’s weird how fate works.
“It’s a new pahse of my life,” he added. “I’m very happy. I’m very much looking foward to it.”
Sam Bowie’s Personal Information
|Born||March 17, 1961 (age 57)
|Listed height||7 ft 1 in (2.16 m)|
|Listed weight||235 lb (107 kg)|
|High school||Lebanon (Lebanon, Pennsylvania)|
|NBA draft||1984 / Round: 1 / Pick: 1st overall|
|Selected by the Portland Trail Blazers|
|1984–1989||Portland Trail Blazers|
|1989–1993||New Jersey Nets|
|1993–1995||Los Angeles Lakers|
|Career highlights and awards|
|Career NBA statistics|
|Points||5,564 (10.9 ppg)|
|Rebounds||3,845 (7.5 rpg)|
|Blocks||909 (1.8 bpg)|
Sam Bowie’s Career Statistics at Kentucky
Sam Bowie’s NBA Career Statistics