Film: Sam Bowie Insists NBA Career Wasn’t A Bust

“Bowie over Jordan.” Those three words are part of pro basketball lore, and still a source of pain for many fans of the NBA’s Portland Trail Blazers.

In 1984, Portland chose Sam Bowie, a 7’1″ center from the University of Kentucky, with the second pick in the college draft. The Chicago Bulls then took Michael Jordan.

Bowie’s tenure in Portland was marred by leg injuries; Jordan became a legend. ESPN recounts it all in a documentary about Bowie Thursday night.

Moments after he was drafted on June 19, 1984, Bowie did his first TV interview as a Trail Blazer. He thanked his mom for her support, and he said he was ready to go after missing two seasons at Kentucky with a stress fracture in his left shinbone.

“I went up to Portland,” Bowie says, “They gave me about a seven-hour physical, they didn’t let anything out, so as far as I’m concerned, I’m 100 percent sound.”

But now, Bowie himself calls into question just how “100 percent sound” he was.

In ESPN’s documentary, Going Big, Bowie recounts his pre-draft examination by Trail Blazer team doctors: “I can still remember them taking a little mallet and when they would hit me on my left tibia, ‘I don’t feel anything’, I would tell ‘em. But deep down inside, it was hurtin’. If what I did was lyin’, if what I did was wrong, at the end of day when you have loved ones that have some needs, I did what any of us would’ve done.”

“I gotta say, um, I’m pissed off. Can I say that? I am,” says Kelly Aucoin, 45, who’s been a Blazer fan since 1975.

“He couldn’t have asked for a more forgiving, protective fan base, and then to find out that you were protecting a guy who lied to the people who were making an evaluation, it’s a little hard to swallow,” Aucoin says.

Other Blazers fans think Bowie’s words are being blown out of proportion. As does Bowie, who’s 51 and lives in Lexington, Kentucky.

“The thing that people fail to realize is after they gave me that thorough physical, I played in 76 of the 82 games which obviously indicates that the bone was strong, that there was no trickin’ of the medical personnel,” Bowie says.

The troubles, Bowie says, started in season 2 when a teammate fell on Bowie’s leg. Orthopedic surgeon Bob Cook was the Blazer team doctor who examined Bowie’s tibia pre-draft. Cook calls Bowie a man of integrity, someone who didn’t lie, but instead did what most elite athletes do when talking about injuries.

“For him to say, ‘Oh that doesn’t really hurt’, is certainly no indictment of his character,” Cook says. “All athletes downplay their status to remain competitive and participate in their sport.”

Cook says Bowie was checked so thoroughly that an admission of pain wouldn’t have prompted Portland to rethink its draft strategy. Which, according to Dr. Jack Ramsay, Portland’s head coach in 1984, never focused on Michael Jordan. The Blazers, Ramsay says, were well-stocked at Jordan’s position. What the team needed was a center who could pass, block shots and run the floor like the willowy kid from Kentucky.

“It made the most sense for us to select Sam Bowie. It was almost a no-brainer,” Ramsay says.

Jordan was considered an outstanding player. But the best ever? Who knew? Drafting is an inexact science like the balky physiology of a 7′ basketball player.

Bowie was traded by Portland in 1989. He ended up playing 10 years and making good money. Certainly not a Michael Jordan career, but Bowie says with conviction, certainly not a bust.

Copyright 2012 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.