ESPN made a short documentary about Bowie titled Going Big in 2012. Bowie himself was interviewed for the doc and made several incriminating claims. Questions followed: did Sam Bowie lie his way into the NBA? The answer is still unclear.
On the one hand, Sam Bowie openly admits to hiding some leg pain from team doctors during his physicals. On the other hand, NBA players do stuff like that all the time. Bowie may have spun the truth on the tip of his finger, but the truth was spun in innocence. At least, that’s what Bowie claims.
Others claim Sam Bowie (no relation to David, RIP) hid the extent of his leg injuries suffered at the University of Kentucky to enrich himself and his family. Had he not hid his pain, they argue, doctors would have foreseen Bowie was destined to break his leg three more times. You know, doctor stuff.
Sam Bowie’s story is the tale of a big man falling hard. Big frames can bend and snap. Not every behemoth can survive the physical storm that is an NBA career. Bowie broke down, again and again, under the weight of his 7-foot-1 body.
Meet Sam Bowie: No. 2 overall pick of the 1984 NBA Draft.
A young shooting guard from North Carolina named Michael Jordan was the No. 3 pick that year. Sam Bowie still hasn’t lived it down.
Early Life & College Career
Sam Bowie is from Lebanon, Pennsylvania, just outside of Harrisburg. Bowie led Lebanon to state championships while becoming a McDonald’s All-American. After his high school senior year, he was the subject of a Sports Illustrated article with Ralph Sampson about the best centers in the country.
Bowie soon left Lebanon, Pennsylvania for Lexington, Kentucky. He joined the University of Kentucky Wildcats and led them to three NCAA Tournament appearances.
Stress fractures in his left tibia kept Bowie from his junior season. He returned triumphant his senior year to take the Wildcats to the Final Four. They would fall to the eventual champions: Patrick Ewing and the Georgetown Hoyas.
Bowie was sure to be a first-round pick, no matter his injuries, in the 1984 NBA Draft. Most GMs considered the big man to be a safe bet with a high upside.
Of course, Bowie wasn’t even the 1984 Draft’s Top Prize. Everyone thought Hakeem Olajuwon was the best player available. NBA execs thought Bowie a big consolation prize and possibly an even better scorer than Olajuwon.
1984 NBA Draft & Beyond
With the No. 2 draft pick, the Portland Trail Blazers picked Sam Bowie over Michael Jordan. They had secured the position through a trade with the Indiana Pacers after Houston won the coin-toss.
They wanted Olajuwon, but since the Houston Rockets had already won the lottery, Portland chose the next best available big. If Bowie wasn’t available, they would’ve picked Barkley.
The Trail Blazers didn’t even consider MJ. They didn’t need some young shooting guard out of North Carolina. The Blazers had just drafted Clyde Drexler the year before. Bowie made Big Sense. Portland took Bowie, the Chicago Bulls took Jordan, and the rest is basketball history.
The thing about history is that it takes time to unfold. Initially, Bowie appeared a smart pick over His Airness. Jordan suffered an injury before Bowie did and Bowie even made the All-Rookie team. The center averaged 10 points or more over his first three seasons, despite recurring injuries.
Bowie broke his left tibia against the Milwaukee Bucks in his second season. Bowie recovered, returned, and re-injured his leg in 1986 against the Dallas Mavericks. Bowie rehabbed again. The following season, he re-injured his leg in warm-ups against the Cleveland Cavaliers.
By that time, both his left and right tibias were busted.
Sam Bowie was determined if anything. He left Portland and ’89 to join the New Jersey Nets. He finished his career with more leg injuries and the Los Angeles Lakers in ’95. Bowie hasn’t slammed a dunk since.
Jordan was unretiring (the first time) as Bowie retired for good.
With the man picked before him gone, MJ had more playoff games against the Utah Jazz to win, more All-Star games to attend, and more Space to Jam before he retired… again (and then again).
But comparing anyone to Michael Jordan is unfair. Welcome to Bowie’s World.
Sam Bowie Now
Sam Bowie still thrives on competition.
The big man spends his days harness racing in Lexington, Kentucky, where he attended college. He owns a horse that’s won hundreds of thousands of dollars.
Bowie was inducted into the Kentucky Basketball Hall of Fame in 2005, a decade after his NBA retirement. It was a small consolation for his injury-derailed MVP potential.
The former 7-foot-1 NBA center never liked the attention he received for being picked before Jordan and has dodged the spotlight as a result. Then came Going Big in 2012.
The documentary brought with it questions of Bowie’s integrity. Bowie has defended his words but has dodged the spotlight even more since the documentary premiered.
His selection over Jordan continues to be a curse Bowie can’t escape. And it’s not even the only curse he’s associated with.
Historical Context: The Portland Curse
Was Sam Bowie destined to fall to injury, or was he playing his role in a grander drama he couldn’t possibly understand? Bowie had injury problems in college, to be sure; but what he didn’t realize was that when he stepped into Portland, he stepped into The Twilight Zone.
You see, Stumptown is cursed with stress-fractured stumps. Sam Bowie was just the latest cursed center. Let’s look at the evidence:
- Bill Walton – 1978 – stress fracture ends career with Portland.
- Sam Bowie – 1986 – first of Bowie’s NBA leg injuries.
- Greg Oden – 2007 – picked over Kevin Durant, Bowie’s second coming.
- Brandon Roy – 2011 – not a center, but still injury forced into early retirement.
- Jusuf Nurkic – 2019 – Nurkic still hasn’t fully recovered from his fracture.
Was Sam Bowie another victim of The Portland Curse or just a tall man in the wrong place at the wrong time? The answer, most likely, is yes.