Flip of a coin helped Bulls land Jordan

Heads or tails? At some point, most of us have taken part in a coin flip for one reason or another.

The outcome is fifty-fifty. Completely arbitrary. Subject to chance. And as the Chicago Bulls know, franchise altering.

For with a different outcome of a few coin flips dating back 35 years ago, Michael Jordan may have never played for the Bulls.

The story of Jordan landing in Chicago would almost certainly not have been possible had Chicago won its coin toss with the Los Angeles Lakers in 1979. With the top pick in the draft, Los Angeles selected Magic Johnson, while Chicago took David Greenwood at No. 2.

“Nothing against Greenwood, who was a good player and a good guy,” said Irwin Mandel, a senior vice president for the Bulls in his 42nd season with the team. “But with Magic, we never would have had a bad enough record to draft Jordan five seasons later.”

With “THE84DRAFT" set to premiere on Monday, June 9 at 8 p.m. CT on NBA TV and look back on that historic class that featured four Hall of Famers – top selection Hakeem Olajuwon, Charles Barkley and John Stockton in addition to Jordan – it brings to mind a few words once spoken by the Dalai Lama:

Former Bulls GM Rod Thorn meets the media

“Remember that sometimes not getting what you want is a wonderful stroke of luck.”

The Bulls closed out the 1983-84 season with a mark of 27-55, third worst in the league and one game behind the Dallas Mavericks. But that almost wasn’t the case.

Mandel recalls a controversial finish to a game that year in which Caldwell Jones of the Houston Rockets connected on a desperation three-pointer with the game tied as time expired. The shot counted and the Rockets won. Mandel and the Bulls filed a formal protest with the league, arguing that there was not enough time for the sequence of plays to have been allowed and that there was a misinterpretation of the rules.

To this day, Mandel believes his case was a compelling one. The NBA disagreed and would not overturn the officials’ ruling. If Chicago had instead been granted another victory, it would have been tied with Dallas and a coin toss would have ensued for the third pick. Given then Dallas general manager Rick Sund, a friend of Mandel’s, attempted to trade up a spot to select Jordan, there is little doubt as to who the Mavericks would have taken at No. 3.

While that coin toss wasn’t necessary, one was required to determine who would select first in the 1984 NBA Draft. The consensus prize was Hakeem Olajuwon, known for his illustrious career at University of Houston.

Shortly after the flip took place, Mandel spoke to former Bulls general manager Rod Thorn.

“He told me, ‘Good news, Irwin. Houston won and they’ll take Olajuwon. Portland, I’m pretty darn sure is taking Sam Bowie,’” said Mandel. “I think that very few other teams would have taken Bowie over Jordan. But Portland did it given they already had Clyde Drexler and Jim Paxson on their team.

“We lucked out in that we lost the protest,” Mandel added. “At the same time, we were lucky that Houston won the coin toss with Portland. If Portland had won, they take Olajuwon and Houston takes Jordan. We absolutely lucked out on a few levels.

“Though it was believed Jordan could be a star, Olajuwon was considered to be a better pro prospect,” Mandel added. “Plus, people thought a player like Olajuwon could have a greater effect on winning.”

Though Thorn was cautiously optimistic Jordan would be there for the Bulls, it was no certainty. So he prepared for the draft with other players such as Sam Perkins and Mel Turpin under consideration, but Jordan was his clear cut favorite.

As for the draft itself, Thorn opted to stay in Chicago with his coaching staff and scout rather than being at Madison Square Garden’s Felt Forum for the proceedings. So he asked Keith Brown, a 23-year old sales representative in his second year with the Bulls, to go on behalf of the team.

“I was very excited for the opportunity and it was actually the very first time in my life I had been on an airplane,” recalled Brown, now vice president of ticketing and premium seating after 31 years.

After checking in and receiving an explanation from the league staff about what to expect, Brown phoned Thorn and managing partner Jonathan Kovler. It was a call that would not end until the 10-round draft concluded, as Brown would provide the group in Chicago with pick-by-pick updates throughout.

“When we got to the third pick, it was live on television,” said Brown. “I was on the phone with Jonathan who was with Rod. As I was waiting for him to advise me of our pick, the red light of the camera came on. He said, ‘Hey, you’re on TV. Give us a thumbs up.’”

Keith Brown at the 1984 NBA Draft

Brown obliged as his 15 minutes of fame took full effect. Then, he made formal a selection that would mark the official beginnings of one of sport’s greatest dynasties: The Bulls were drafting Michael Jordan of North Carolina.

Brown completed the necessary paperwork and handed it to a league runner, who promptly delivered it to David Stern, overseeing his first draft as commissioner, for the announcement.

“Everyone was very excited about the pick,” recalled Brown. “But Mike Thibault, our scout at the time, said he felt Michael was the best player in the draft. While I don’t think Mike could have forecasted he’d be the greatest player ever, he was certain that within a season, Jordan would be a perennial All-Star. So I think Mike had a real sense of how good Jordan was going to be and I suspect that Rod shared that opinion.”

“Mike felt extremely strongly that the Bulls should draft Jordan,” Mandel concurred. “I think Thibault was an influence on Thorn, but either way, Rod was going to take Jordan. Thibault just reinforced that taking him was the right move to make.”

Jordan was on his way to Chicago. And while it’s easy to overlook the details which fell in place along the way to make that happen, none of it would have been possible had heads turned out to be tails instead, or vice versa.

“History would have been rewritten,” said Mandel. “Instead of thinking about the championships, we would look back with regret on how close we came to getting the great Michael Jordan. We’re unbelievably lucky that things turned out the way they did.”