In 1984, the prize of the NBA Draft was the University of Houston’s Hakeem Olajuwon, not North Carolina product Michael Jordan.
But when Jordan fell to the Bulls at No. 3, it was one heck of a consolation prize for then General Manager Rod Thorn.
The consensus was clear that Jordan would be a good NBA player, said Thorn, having been named the collegiate player of the year following his junior year. But it was the traditional center teams sought, and Olajuwon had the makings of a dominant one.
A coin flip between Houston and Portland determined the Rockets would pick first. The Trail Blazers had Clyde Drexler and Jim Paxson, and felt they didn’t need another wing player. Hence, Jordan was on the board when the Bulls were ready to select.
“I think most people today, given the choice of a quality big player or a quality 6-6 guy, usually you're going to take the quality big guy,” Thorn said in a phone interview from his New Jersey Nets office, where he is currently the team’s president. “But in those days, it was even more so, because virtually everybody who had ever won a championship had a big time center.
“Michael helped change some of that over the course of his career by winning as many championships as he and the Bulls did,” he added. “It kind of changed some of that thinking that you could have a great player who was not a center and still have a dominating team.”
So what was the scouting report on Jordan at the time?
“He was a tremendous athlete with a strong body that looked like it was going to get better,” said Thorn. “He was competitive, and a fair shooter. Good ball handler, though not a great one at that time, but a good one, and a good defensive player. His shooting was what we were concerned with. We didn’t know what kind of shooter he was going to turn out to be.”
As Thorn and the Bulls prepared for the draft, he relied on his relationship with North Carolina coaching legend Dean Smith for assistance in watching tape and acquiring scouting reports on not only his own players, but others in the Atlantic Coast Conference. Thorn made several trips to Smith’s Chapel Hill office as he narrowed his field of draft candidates.
“His feeling was that Michael was as good of an athlete as he had,” Thorn said of his conversations with Smith. “He was an extraordinary competitor, and his feeling was that he would get even better, and be a better pro than he even was a college player. He was very high on him, and felt he would turn out to be a really good pro.”
Smith was a coach who would urge his players to enter the draft if he felt strongly they would be a top-five selection. When it became clear Jordan would be taken off the board quickly, Coach Smith was all for him coming out, said Thorn.
But what if Portland had taken Jordan at No. 2? Or, what if Houston had made a trade with Portland to take Jordan? Portland’s desire for a big man was well-known, and Houston could have sent Ralph Sampson to the Blazers for the second pick. Think a tandem of Jordan and Olajuwon would have fared well?
For the Bulls, Plan B was Sam Perkins, Jordan’s North Carolina teammate. Thorn said they were concerned about Kentucky’s Sam Bowie’s leg, and felt Auburn’s Charles Barkley may have been undersized.
But Jordan, who never came in for a pre-draft workout with the Bulls, was there after Portland selected Bowie, and the rest is history.
That fall, on the first day of training camp, Thorn received a phone call from Bill Blair, one of the team’s assistant coaches at the time.
Thorn recalled the conversation, “He said to the effect, and I'm cleaning this up a little, 'Boy, you didn't make a mistake this year!'”
The next day, it was then Head Coach Kevin Loughery on the line.
“Coaches generally are leery of rookies and jumping to any kind of conclusion about what a guy is going to be, but he felt we had a good one in Michael,” Thorn recalled.
By the first exhibition game, Jordan was clearly the best player the Bulls had, and soon enough, he was drawing crowds. Besides his collegiate career, Jordan’s play with the Olympic team in Los Angeles under Bobby Knight that summer had garnered a lot of publicity, so he had a following.
“When he lived up to that following as he did in that exhibition season, he got even bigger,” Thorn said. “When the season started, in the first two or three weeks, he was phenomenal. Everybody saw that he was a player who had a chance to be special.”
Thorn remembers being particularly blown away when the Bulls and Bucks met in the third game of the 1984-85 season. In a game attended by 9,356 at the Chicago Stadium, Jordan single-handedly dismantled a solid Milwaukee defense. Sidney Moncrief spent the majority of the night on Jordan, and he had been named NBA Defensive Player of the Year the previous two seasons.
“They were double-teaming Michael every time he got the ball,” Thorn said. “In the fourth quarter, Michael had 15 or 16 points and I don’t care if they double or triple-teamed him or whatever they did, he still scored. We ended up beating them and it was like, 'Goodness gracious, I can't believe what I just saw out there.'”
Jordan saw countless double-teams throughout his career. But for an NBA rookie to regularly and consistently beat them, drive to the basket, and score while making it look easy was remarkable.
“He wasn't nearly as accomplished of a jump shooter at that time as he became,” Thorn recalled. “He would just recklessly go to the bucket. What people forget about Michael, I think, is how great of an athlete he was. He had the body control, the ability to take hits in the air and finish, and then obviously go to the foul line. Teams knew he was going to drive, and they couldn't stop him.”
Thorn is among those who believe Jordan is the best player that ever played, and feels his induction into basketball’s Hall of Fame is fitting.
“It is the ultimate honor for any player in any sport because it's the highest honor you can get,” he said. “I think it's very appropriate the first year he became eligible he’s in and obviously I'm sure it was unanimous. I'm looking forward to the evening and to be part of the gathering that welcomes Michael.”