One of, if not the, biggest drafting blunders in NBA history belongs to the Portland Trailblazers. They selected the 7’1 Sam Bowie out of Kentucky ahead of Michael Jordan. Ok, everyone knows that already. But do you know who exactly was responsible for making that pick? Or what that person’s criterion was for making such a horrendous error in judgment?
Meet Stu Inman
In 1984 Stu Inman was director of personnel and was in charge of scouting and drafting for the Portland Trailblazers. Inman was widely recognized around the league as a basketball genius, a savvy executive with a deep understanding of the game, especially evaluating players. Other teams would literally track Stu Inman’s scouting activities and use rumors about which players he was interested in to gain confidence in their own personnel decisions. With such high NBA prestige it’s clear why Portland left the future of the franchise in Inman’s hands. He was charged with ensuring the #2 pick in the ’84 draft was used to springboard the Trailblazers into long-term championship success.
Having lost the coin flip to Houston, Inman knew Olajuwon, the clear choice for the number one pick, would be going to the Rockets, but there was no clear choice on which player to take at number 2. Little did he know that, in retrospect, the choice was quite simple, and his decision would go down as arguably the greatest gaffe in NBA history. Not only that, but Inman’s well-respected career would be tarnished by one draft pick while the impact on the franchise would prove devastating.
So how did Stu Inman come to this earth-shattering and eventual pro basketball-changing decision?
Consider the reasons for choosing Bowie that actually made basketball sense for the Portland franchise in 1984.
- Redundancy: Portland already had very good depth at shooting guard. Led by Jim Paxson a 6’6 sharp shooter with just enough quickness to create his own shot. The previous season Paxson played 33.2mpg and averaged 21.3ppg on 51.4% from the field. In the 1983 draft the Trailblazers selected Clyde Drexler with the 14th pick. Although Drexler was still a work in progress, he was considered a slashing, high-flying 2-guard from his days playing for the “Phi Slama Jama” basketball fraternity at University of Houston. From a scouting perspective this was a very similar playing style to that of Jordan.
- Unpredictability: Nobody could have forecasted that Michael Jordan would become the famed “Air Jordan” and all the success and dominance that followed that nickname. Not even his college coach Dean Smith. Why? At UNC the offensive system was not conducive to individual showcase of talent. That is a large reason why Jordan only averaged 17.7ppg & 5rpg in college and only 16.5ppg in 10 NCAA tournament games. In that sense the “real” Michael Jordan was hidden from Inman’s keen scouting ability.
- Due diligence: As part of the evaluation process Sam Bowie was put through a rigorous physical. The doctors meticulously examined Bowie’s surgically repaired shin fracture that kept him out of two seasons at Kentucky. He was cleared. Therefore Inman and the Portland medical staff could not have known Bowie would quickly become the man made of glass. I am willing to bet Portland’s ownership and fans are praying daily Greg Oden doesn’t suffer the same fate.
- 1977 NBA Champions: Portland’s only NBA championship came in that 1977 season when they were led by “Big Red-Head” Bill Walton. Inman believed the only way the franchise would reach the promise land again was behind another dominating player in the middle.
- Formula for success: Very good-to-great big men win championships. History has shown this wasn’t just a philosophy but a requirement for winning a championship. Look at the previous 5 NBA championship team’s big man:
- 1983: Moses Malone
1982: Kareem Abdul-Jabbar
1981: Robert Parish & Kevin McHale
1980: Kareem Abdul-Jabbar
1979: Jack Sikma (7-time NBA All-Star)
Add the Russell/Chamberlain days to that short list of Hall of Fame centers (excluding Sikma) and that is more than enough to cloud anyone’s judgment.
The big question Stu Inman and the rest of his scouting staff couldn’t overcome was, “Where’s [Jordan] going to play?” It was clear Sam Bowie would anchor the middle on defense for Portland and provide the team with a decent scorer and excellent passer in Jack Ramsay’s intricate offensive system.
Maybe the deciding factor for choosing Sam Bowie was his performance against Houston and Olajuwon where Bowie grabbed 18 boards and scored 8 points while holding Hakeem to 14 points & 12 rebounds before he fouled out.
Convincing enough argument for you? No? Yeah, me either. But, those realities created a distorted view of Michael Jordan in Inman’s eyes when evaluating him as a player.
In hindsight the correct move for Inman and the Trailblazers was to sign & trade Jim Paxson and Clyde Drexler for a center rather than pass on the greatest player in the history of the NBA.
The sad part for the Portland franchise is that the 1984 NBA draft wasn’t the first major miscue on their part. In 1972, Portland with the #1 pick selected LaRue Martin (who?) ahead of number 2 pick Bob McAdoo and Philadelphia’s own Julius Erving picked 12th! But hey, that’s why there are no geniuses in basketball.
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Inspiration, quotes, excerpts & main source: Tip-Off: How the 1984 NBA Draft Changed Basketball Forever by Filip Bondy