In the 1984 NBA draft, the Houston Rockets had the first pick, the Portland Trail Blazers the second, and the Chicago Bulls the third. League rumor has it that, in the days before the NBA changed the rules of the draft lottery to discourage a team from deliberately losing to get an advantage, the Rockets gave up on the 1983 season from mid-way onwards so as to get hometown favorite Hakeem Olajuwon. The choice for the Trail Blazers was to select from Sam Bowie, the talented though oft-injured center, and Michael Jordan, then a North Carolina junior with tremendous talent. Stu Inman, the general manager of the Trail Blazers opted for the conventional league wisdom of big men over guards and selected Bowie. The rest is history.
The Chicago Bulls selected Jordan, who led his team to six titles, while Bowie played a few listless years with the Trail Blazers and finished his disappointing career elsewhere. Filip Bondy, a sports columnist for the New York Daily News, uses this as the launch point for a fascinating in-depth look at the way the pivotal draft evolved. That the draft also featured stalwarts such as Charles Barkley and John Stockton only adds to the generally agreed upon opinion that the 1984 draft was the best of them all and, more importantly, ushered in the NBA as we know it today.
Preceding the June draft was the selection for the U.S. Olympic team. Bob Knight, the combustible Indiana University coach, headed the Olympic team and was determined to show the world and the Soviets that his team was the best. His selection was quixotic (Steve Alford over John Stockton?) and his tryouts were almost Darwinian. Charles Barkley, an overweight center/forward from Auburn University, had no desire to go through the travails of playing for Knight but astutely sensed that the tryouts themselves were a great way to improve his draft position. There is a classic line in the book when Terry Porter, Stockton, and Barkley find themselves sharing a taxi from Bloomington after being cut by Knight, and Stockton remarks that “he would love for one chance for the players in the van to challenge the players who made the team.”
Bondy’s talent is in drawing out candid responses from those featured in the draft. Inman, the general manager, rationalizes his decision in picking Bowie over Jordan by explaining the presence of Clyde Drexler, also a shooting guard like Jordan, and by the fact that Bowie passed every medical test that was given to him. Rod Thorn, then the general manager of the Chicago Bulls, explains frankly that the Bulls were not above contemplating a trade for Jordan, and it was only when these initiatives did not pan out that they picked and kept Jordan.
The book delves deeply into the nuances of the draft yet keeps a firm eye on the historical perspective of the NBA. By having the key players open up, Bondy gives us a ringside view of this singular moment in sports history.