By David G. Firestone
On June 5, 1981, a seemingly insignificant trade between the Indiana Pacers and the Portland Trailblazers took place. The trade of Tom Owens to the Pacers from the Blazers in exchange for a first-round draft pick a few years later would unintentionally set in to motion a moment of infamy that, 30 years later Blazer fans are still fuming over. When that draft pick in question came to pass, it shocked the sports world, and changed the NBA forever. This change would involve the Owens trade, a stand out center from Kentucky, two front office heads who would play critical roles in the beginning of the situation, and a point guard from UNC who would change the sports world forever.
Let’s look at the center of the trade first, Tom Owens played from 1971-1983 in the ABA and NBA for a number of teams. He had a rather unremarkable career, never playing in an all-star game, but he did end up winning a championship in 1977 for the Trailblazers. His season in 1981, prior to the trade was just as unremarkable. The Blazers traded Owens to the Indiana Pacers on June 5, four days prior to the 1981 NBA Draft. The Blazers got a pick in the 1984 NBA Draft, the Pacers got Tom Owens, who played one season, got traded to Detroit, and then retired.
During the 1980-81 Kentucky Wildcats season, a center had attracted a lot of attention, and was quickly added to the 1980 United States Olympic Basketball team, but the United States would boycott the Olympics, and he would never see Olympic competition. He would return for a second season, and he was still an impressive player for his sophomore season. What happened next would have a major impact on the events to come, and would help leave Blazer fans with terrible nightmares for decades to come. He began to suffer injuries to his shin bone, including a stress fracture. In total, he missed two seasons with this injury. He would come back for the 1983-84 season where his stats were somewhat less impressive, but he did earn a cover on Sports Illustrated. After that, he decided to turn pro, and enter the draft.
Two of the key players are General Managers for the two NBA teams that would make decisions that would make the legend, and destroy the franchise. The first GM, for the Chicago Bulls, was a former player who had been a stand-out rookie, and worked his way to GM by the histocial event. The second GM at the time was the Trailblazers not great in the draft. He was drafted by the Chicago Stags, but never played in the NBA. He helped bring the Trailblazers into existence, and helped draft players from the ABA after the league folded. He is not remembered for the right moves he made, but he is remembered for the move that we are discussing.
The final player in our cast of characters is a young point guard from UNC, who would change basketball and sports forever. He was a standout at UNC, a first-team All-American, who during the summer of 1984, went to the Olympics, and won a gold medal. His stats were amazing and he won numerous awards as well has having numerous accolades, and memorable moments in his college career.
With the cast of characters in place, the stage was set for one of the most infamous events in sports history, the date: June 19,1984, the location: Madison Square Garden in New York City, the event: The1984 NBA Draft. As a direct result of the Tom Owens trade 3 years prior, the Blazers had the 2nd pick in the draft, and the Bulls had the 3rd pick. The first selection went to the Atlanta Hawks, who selected Hakeem Olajuwon. The stage is now set for the event that would change basketball. The 2nd pick goes to Portland, where GM Stu Inman used this pick to select the Kentucky center who was plagued by injuries, Sam Bowie. The Chicago Bulls GM Rod Thorn had really wanted Bowie, and had to select a different player for the third pick. In a move that ensures that he never has to buy a drink in the city of Chicago again, Thorn selects the UNC standout and former Olympic Gold Medalist, Michael Jordan. The Blazers were thrilled with their pick, Sam Bowie who wound up being named the worst first-round draft pick in American sports history, and is really nothing more than the answer to a trivia question. Jordan is one of the greatest players in the history of the NBA, and has become a living legend.
But there is one more twist to this story…a twist that would make M. Night Shyamalan happy. Speaking to reporters after the draft, Rod Thorn, the Bulls GM made a comment that has been lost to history, but would prove a point that before the season started Bowie was still the coveted pick. Speaking to a group of reporters, Thorn said that “I only wish he were 7-1. The fans will enjoy watching him play and we expect we’ll have an easier time signing him than we have had in signing other draft choices. We would like to sign him as soon as possible. If we had received good offers for a trade we would have made it, but it would have taken an overpowering offer.”
The trade requests never materialized, and the Bulls had a dynasty, whereas the Trailblazers still to this day are bitter. And to think, it all began with a trade on June 5,1981 between the Trailblazers and the Pacers!