BY JEFF FALK
Character questions. Injuries. Physical, mental and emotional development. The world of professional sports scouting and management is a crap shoot.
But if you were an NBA general manager with the second overall pick in the draft, would you spend it on a player who would go on to average 11 points and eight rebounds a game over a ten-year career? A bird in the hand or two in the bush?
The NBA trials and tribulations of Lebanon native Sam Bowie has been well-documented over the years. But in truth, of all the basketball junkies and hopefuls around the world, how many can say they played ten years in the NBA?
But Bowie’s story seems to be one that just won’t go away. Nearly 30 years after being selected with the second selection of the 1984 NBA draft by the Portland Trailblazers – exactly one spot ahead of Michael Jordan, who some contend is the greatest player the game has ever seen – the subject of Bowie is somehow again relevant. Some have labeled Bowie the biggest draft bust in the history of professional sports.
Bowie will be the subject of an ESPN 30 for 30 documentary entitled ‘Going Big’ that will air on Friday, December 20 at 9 p.m. on ESPNU, channel 258 for comcast’s local subscribers. The hour-long program will chronicle Bowie’s adolescence in Lebanon, his college days at the University of Kentucky and his injury-plagued and well-traveled NBA career.
In the documentary, Bowie, a 1979 graduate of Lebanon High School, reveals that the 7-1 center misled Portland officials about the severity of the pain he was feeling in his left leg before the draft.
In the film, Bowie is quoted as saying: “I can still remember them taking a little mallet, and when they would hit me on my left tibia, and ‘I don’t feel anything’ I would tell ’em. But deep down inside, it was hurting. If what I did was lying and what I did was wrong, at the end of the day, when you have loved ones that have some needs, I did what any of us would have done.” “I’m very proud, don’t feel like I owe an apology to anyone. The bottom line is: Sam Bowie was drafted before Michael Jordan and you’re gonna have to accept that.”
Bowie’s injuries, believed to be stress fractures in both of his legs, may have began while playing for the Cedars and they surfaced in the form of a shinbone fracture while he was a star at Kentucky. In his second NBA season, Bowie suffered a break of his left tibia, and a year later, in 1986, he broke his right leg.
In his three seasons in Portland, Bowie appeared in 63 of the Blazers’ 328 contests.
Before retiring in 1995, Bowie also played, first, for the New Jersey Nets, and later, for the Los Angeles Lakers.
While his critics are quick to point out Bowie’s shortcomings in comparison to Jordan, they rarely mention Hakeem Olajuwon, who was the number-one overall pick in the 1984 draft by the Houston Rockets. Even though Olajuwon’s NBA career was more prolific than Bowie’s, it also paled in comparison to Jordan’s.
During his four-year career at Lebanon High, Bowie averaged 28 points and 18 rebounds for the Cedars. In his junior year, Bowie led Lebanon to the PIAA ‘big-school’ championship game, where the Cedars fell to Pittsburgh-Schenley by a point.
In his senior campaign of 1978-79, the highly-recruited Bowie was named the national scholastic player of the year and selected to the McDonald’s All-American and Parade All-American teams. It was said that Bowie could’ve attended any college in the country, but settled on tradition-rich Kentucky.
Bowie, now 51, has maintained a home in Lexington, Kentucky since his college days, and still resides there. An avid harness racing owner, at one point Bowie provided color commentary on Kentucky Wildcat radio broadcasts.
Over the years, some of Bowie’s childhood friendships have faded, and his visits to Lebanon have become less frequent. But Bowie’s mother and sister still live in Lebanon, and both were interviewed for the ESPN 30 for 30 documentary.