Michael Jordan Hall of Fame | Prequel -- The Early Years
The conventional wisdom in 1984 was clear: You needed a center to win. Jordan was great; twice named the college player of the year. But, he wasn’t a center.
Prior to his UNC arrival, Jordan still was not regarded as a big time prospect, and the talk back home in Wilmington was that no one from there ever made the jump to big time Division I ball and Jordan probably would be a bench warmer for his career there.
(UNC Athletic Communications)
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Look, let’s get this out there first. The Bulls didn’t want Michael Jordan in 1984. Oh, sure, they’d like to have had him then. But they really wanted Hakeem (then Akeem) Olajuwon. Just like everyone else. And they all wanted the University of Houston center so badly that the NBA had to change the draft rules to make a lottery because of the seemingly obvious throwing of games the Bulls and Rockets, among others, were doing to get a chance to draft Olajuwon.
The conventional wisdom then was clear: You needed a center to win.
The Celtics won with Russell and then Cowens and then with Bird, though they also had Parish. The 76ers won with Wilt and then Moses. The Lakers had won with Mikan and then next won with Wilt. They had Magic, but they needed Kareem. The best guards ever were Jerry West and Oscar Robertson. West never won until he finally was paired with Wilt. Oscar never won until he was paired with Kareem.
Though mocked by some later when he would try professional baseball, Jordan was an awfully good baseball player as a kid and named one baseball association’s North Carolina Mr. Baseball as a 12-year-old.
(Walter Iooss Jr./NBAE/Getty Images)
Jordan was great; twice named the college player of the year. But, he wasn’t a center.
“He isn’t going to turn a franchise around,” I remember Bulls GM Rod Thorn saying at the time. “He’s a very good offensive player, but not an overpowering offensive player.”
So the Rockets, who drafted Ralph Sampson No. 1 in 1983, were going for the double, the so-called twin towers of centers with Sampson and Hakeem.
The rules then were the teams with the poorest record in each conference flipped a coin for the right to pick No. 1. The Bulls had famously lost that flip in 1979 for Magic and selected David Greenwood. So here they came, dumping down the stretch.
Houston lost 14 of its last 17, mysteriously resting Sampson late in games. The Bulls lost 14 of their last 15, an impressive closing backward kick. But they missed by one game of catching the Pacers, who had previously traded the rights to their pick to Portland.
Michael Jordan in Indianapolis? It could have been.
It should have been in Portland.
After all, it was Portland-based Nike which combined with Jordan to make the marketing phenomenon. Portland lost the coin flip and everyone knows the story: Sam Bowie instead of Jordan, though Olajuwon in his autobiography said he’d heard talk that the Rockets would trade Sampson to the Trail Blazers for the No. 2 pick and select he and Jordan.
What kind of dynasty would that have been?
I’ve asked around about that, most recently of Bill Fitch, then Houston coach, and he denies there ever was serious interest. He said the team was committed to the dual center strategy, and the Rockets did go to the NBA Finals in the second season with Sampson and Olajuwon. It seemed to be working.
So Portland with Clyde Drexler, who did become a Hall of Famer, passed on Jordan, who was the Bulls second choice. There’s long been talk the Bulls wanted Bowie, but even back then I heard they had Jordan rated second. The 76ers had North Carolina’s Billy Cunningham then and the Clippers’ pick. The 76ers were the team that most believed in Jordan’s potential at the time and were desperate for him. But the Clippers won four of their last nine to put the 76ers fifth. The 76ers offered the Bulls their pick, which they used for Charles Barkley, All-Star guard Andrew Toney and a big man for the rights to Jordan. The Bulls, with some hesitation as the story goes, refused.
Though they weren’t quite doing cartwheels yet...