How a 23-year-old sales rep drafted Michael Jordan

A 23-year-old Illinois State grad represented the Bulls at the 1984 NBA Draft and made the pick of a lifetime.

Keith Brown, the Bulls Vice-President of Ticketing, is retiring with the end of this season after 37 years with the organization. Chicago owes Brown a great debt. Because, you see, the Rolling Meadows native selected Michael Jordan in the 1984 NBA draft.

"I always call the draft my Forrest Gump moment," says Brown with a laugh.

That's because every time you see the Michael Jordan story, as you will Sunday night on ESPN with the debut of the Last Dance documentary, there's the NBA draft scene with the young kid signaling a thumbs up and NBA commissioner David Stern announcing Michael Jordan with the No. 3 pick to the Chicago Bulls.

It was General Manager Rod Thorn back in Chicago with the coaches and managing partner Jonathan Kovler relaying the choice to New York.

To Keith Brown.

Keith Brown made a brief appearance on television as he called in the Bulls' selection of Michael Jordan.

"Rod had given him our selections and Jon told me we're going to take Michael Jordan from North Carolina," recalled Brown. "I filled out the paperwork for the league and gave it to a runner who took it to David Stern at the podium. He announced the Chicago Bulls pick and the rest, as they say, is history."

But what if the phones failed? After all, it was 1984 and they still were dialing. What if Keith Brown, the only member of about a 15-person Bulls staff to go to Madison Square Garden's Felt Forum representing the Bulls, couldn't get the word? The Bulls had five minutes.

"Rod Thorn didn't give me any advance notice about who we were going to pick or what players he liked," Brown admitted. "Most people assumed it would be Michael Jordan if he was available. But I didn't know for sure until Jonathan Kovler advised me on the telephone after it was our turn to pick. We never considered that possibility or any other emergency situations. If my phone line went dead, I probably would have advised an NBA official and asked for more time or another open line. If I was denied those accommodations and forced to make a pick, that would have been a lot of pressure. But I probably would have selected Michael Jordan, anyway, since he was widely considered the best player available."

Keith Brown, after 37 years with the Chicago Bulls organization, is retiring at the end of this season.

Though as difficult as it is to believe now, the Bulls season ticket holders—as few as there were—and a large number of fans didn't want the Bulls to draft Jordan, Brown said. Nothing personal against Michael. But it was not the era of guards.

"At the time, it was a center dominated league," recalled Brown, who was on the phones with those fans selling or trying to persuade them to stay on. "What we heard every single day in the office from season ticket holders and fans: ‘You've got to get a center.' There were a lot of people at the time who wanted Sam Perkins (picked fourth) or Mel Turpin (picked sixth). There was never anyone in the Bulls organization lobbing for anyone but Jordan. But certainly outside the organization they wanted us to draft a center."

It was the beginning of a remarkable journey for the northwest suburban kid who went to Illinois State and was a door to door cable TV salesman with his first job out of college. Not exactly the dream. Where was it?

"I answered a blind ad in the Chicago Tribune," recalled Brown. "It read, ‘Sports organization looking for part-time sales people' with just a post office box number. Joe O'Neil hired four of us and gave us a phone book and a phone and said, ‘Go at it.' It was unsalaried, 100 percent commission."

Brown had a knack for the sale. And the Bulls could use the help, averaging out 6,300 the season before Jordan was drafted. Brown impressed enough to be asked to return as an intern. Unpaid, of course, under the old Wirtz, Crown, Steinbrenner, et al regime. With barely more than a dozen employees in the entire organization, about the size of a coaching staff these days, Brown became one of the guys. Well, sort of.

"I'd fetch lunch for Rod Thorn almost every day," Brown remembered.

Michael Jordan during his rookie year.

So then came the franchise changing draft, not that anyone knew it at the time. Every team was angling for U. of Houston center Akeem (nee) Olajuwon. The tanking antics were so egregious the NBA instituted the draft lottery the next season. The Bulls great fortune was Portland with the No. 2 pick from a previous trade with Indiana, which certainly would have selected Jordan, had Clyde Drexler, regarded at least Jordan's equal at the time.

Thorn wanted to remain in Chicago in the so called war room, as did Kovler. The coaches demurred.

"Rod Thorn called me into his office and said we need someone to go and represent the Bulls at the draft," said Brown. "I was 23 at the time and thought it was a bit odd. ‘Why me?' But I was happy to go. I flew out the night before and took my seat with the Chicago Bulls logo at the table. Every single team was represented by an owner or GM or head coach or scout and for the Bulls it's me, a 23-year-old sales rep. It was an all day affair back then with 10 rounds during the day.

"It was televised live by the USA network," said Brown. "We had the open line to the draft room. I was communicating with Kovler and when it came to the third pick the network camera came to our table and the red light went on. Kovler was on the other end waiting to give me the pick. He said, ‘You're on TV. Give us a thumbs up.' I gave them a thumbs up. We went through all 10 rounds and in the 10th round we took the only Olympic gold medalist in that draft, Carl Lewis. It probably was for publicity. Most say Michael, but the Olympics hadn't happened yet."

Brown flew back to Chicago and back to the phones. So what did the Bulls really have?

"When I came back from the draft I had a conversation with Mike Thibault (now Washington Mystics coach), who was our only scout at the time," said Brown. "I asked Mike, ‘This Jordan kid; how good is he?' He said, ‘Within a year or two, he'll be a perennial all star.' Within a game or two he became a perennial all star.

"When camp started we were in the conference room having lunch the first or second day of practice at Angel Guardian gym," recalls Brown. "It's around noon and (coach) Kevin Loughery comes walking in. Rod Thorn looks down at his watch and asks him what he's doing there. He knows the team is practicing. Kevin says, ‘I had to cut practice short.' Rod says, ‘What do you mean?'

"Kevin Loughery says, ‘That kid Jordan, every single trip down the floor he steals the ball on defense. And every trip on offense he dunks the ball. He was demoralizing the team. So I had to cut practice short.'"

And so the legend began.

Keith Brown, far right, poses with the NBA championship trophies from the first three-peat

Brown got to witness it all, the climb past the Pistons to the championships, the new arena, the legendary wins and losses. And now it's a chance to lean back and enjoy. Brown was instrumental in the Bulls remarkable run of 631 straight sellouts. And perhaps even more amazing in the first decade of the 2000s when the Bulls were top two in attendance every year despite the worst record in the league.

"That demonstrated what a great sports market Chicago is and what a wonderful brand the Bulls have and a wonderful building," said Brown. "After 37 years, the time is right. I want to travel the world, enjoy some golf and family."

And his small part in the greatest basketball story ever told.