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Friday, July 12, 2002
Updated: May 31, 2:13 PM ET
Let's go to the tape

By Bill Simmons
Page 2 columnist

Last month, NBA.com TV replayed each NBA draft telecast since 1981. Most sports fans stumble across draft marathons and say, "Who watches this stuff?" I pop in an eight-hour tape.

Michael Jordan, 1984
Everybody -- including, strangely enough, the Blazers -- knew Michael Jordan was going to be something special.
A huge number of screwups are on that tape, including one of sports' watershed blunders: Portland taking Sam Bowie over Michael Jordan in 1984. You know the setup: Akeem (pre-Hakeem) Olajuwon is the clear No. 1 because Can't-Miss Centers top Can't-Miss Anything Elses. Drafting second, Portland knew Jordan was a sure thing -- we all did-but they had Clyde Drexler at shooting guard.

Bobby Knight, who'd coached MJ at the '84 Olympic trials, urged Blazers GM Stu Inman (an old pal) to take Jordan. Inman said, "But we need a center." Knight yelled back, "So play him at center!" Inman didn't listen, and the result is a jaw-dropping scene.

During the intro of the telecast, USA Network's Al Albert intones, "The course of many lives, basketball business successes and fans' devotions will be determined today." You can say that again, Al.

After Houston snags Akeem, the cameras pan to Portland's table. Two employees, one looking like he dreads the call, await word from the War Room. Soon enough, David Stern, sporting a cheesy mustache, announces: "Portland selects & Sam Bowie, University of Kentucky."

  Right after the cameras show everyone at the Bulls table grinning, Al Albert says of MJ looming at No. 3: "Mmm, everyone's excited about that one." Lou Carnesecca says, "He captures the imagination." 
  

As the big guy strides to the stage, Albert narrates, "Sam Bowie, the young man who came back from a stress fracture injury of the shin bone. He was out two seasons, redshirted, and he's come back strong." Lou Carnesecca, Albert's sidekick, adds, "Jack Ramsay likes to use the center as a passer, a blocker, a post man. I think he'll work very well." Lou neglects to say, "Sam also works well in street clothes and a leg cast."

Meanwhile, USA's graphics show Bowie averaged 10.5 points and 9.2 rebounds as a senior. (At best, Bowie was a poor man's Bill Walton -- right down to the stress fractures.) During the post-pick interview, Sam claims, "As far as I'm concerned, I'm 100 percent sound." He plays 76 games in his rookie campaign, then just 63 games over the next three seasons combined before getting traded to New Jersey (for Buck Williams and three leg operations to be named later).

Here's where it gets good. Right after the cameras show everyone at the Bulls table grinning, Albert says of MJ looming at No. 3: "Mmm, everyone's excited about that one." Carnesecca says, "He captures the imagination."

Cut to Stern at the podium: "The Chicago Bulls pick Michael Jordan." The New York crowd erupts. Even then, everyone loved MJ. USA's montage includes three alley-oops, one dunk in traffic, one follow-up dunk, two layups in traffic and one block in which he jumps about 12 feet above the rim. He's somewhere between David Thompson and God.

Sam Bowie, 1985
Sam Bowie felt sound at the 1984 draft, but his body didn't listen much after that.
Carnesecca's analysis: "He's a great, great creator, in the mold of a Dr. J; not as big but he's in that class. I think he's gonna make a great, great pro. He's what you call the people's player: People love to see this young man perform."

As if Blazers fans weren't yet ready to end it all, Albert chimes in, "And there is no question that Michael Jordan will step right in. He is star material. There were many teams trying to pry that third pick and Michael Jordan from Chicago."

None of them did ... and the rest is history. And that's what's so great about channels like NBA.com TV and ESPN Classic. We can't watch replays of Nixon OKing the Watergate break-in, or Neville Chamberlain rubber-stamping the Munich Pact with Hitler or even David Caruso telling his agent, "If I leave 'NYPD Blue' today, I'll be making 10 mil per movie tomorrow." But we can watch just about every juicy sports moment of the past 40 years. And "Bowie over Jordan" is the NBA's equivalent of the Rodney King video.

Now if you'll excuse me, I'm off to watch 12 teams pass up Karl Malone.

Bill Simmons is a columnist for Page 2 and ESPN The Magazine. This column also appears in the July 22 issue of ESPN The Magazine.