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ESPN recently spent five consecutive Sunday nights reminding us that Michael Jordan was one of the best athletes in the history of U.S. team sports. What The Last Dance documentary neglected to mention is that Jordan wasn’t remotely close to the best athlete that the Chicago Bulls drafted in 1984.

That honor belongs to a man drafted in two sports that year who went on to play neither: Carl Lewis.

Carl Lewis was a bigger star than Michael Jordan in 1984

Mom and grandpa have probably mentioned to you that times were different in 1984. Ronald Reagan was leading the country out of a recession, baseball was still the sport of choice for many athletes and fans, and the first Apple Macintosh hit store shelves.

That year also marked the return of the Summer Olympics to the United States for the first time since 1932. It was going to be a big deal for American athletes who could not compete in the 1980 Olympics in Moscow because of a boycott called by then-president Jimmy Carter in response to the Soviet Union’s invasion of Afghanistan.

Mary Lou Retton would become the darling of the two-week spectacle for her performance in the gymnastic competition, and college stars Michael Jordan and Patrick Ewing helped the men’s basketball team coached by Bobby Knight win a gold medal.

But the most publicized individual heading into the Los Angeles Olympics was track and field star Carl Lewis, coming off a trio of gold medals the previous summer in the inaugural World Championships in Helsinki. Lewis’ goal in Los Angeles was to match the performance of Jesse Owens at the 1936 Berlin Games by winning four gold medals.

The Chicago Bulls and Dallas Cowboys drafted Carl Lewis

Carl Lewis won four gold medals at the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics. | David Madison/Getty Images
Carl Lewis won four gold medals at the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics. | David Madison/Getty Images

The hype surrounding track and field star Carl Lewis leading up to the Los Angeles Olympics was immense. His victories in the 100 meters, long jump, and 400 relay at age 22 the previous year in Helsinki made Lewis one of the best-known sports figures in the world.

”He`s going to be bigger than Michael Jackson,” manager Joe Douglas bragged.  Two events seven weeks apart did nothing to dispel the notion.

Returning to the premise that things were different in 1984, the way that the NBA and NFL conducted their drafts then is nothing like how the events are handled now. The NFL draft lasted a dozen rounds compared to the current seven, and the NBA draft dragged on for 10 rounds instead of the current two.

On May 2, 1984, the Dallas Cowboys wrapped up their draft by selecting wide receiver Carl Lewis out of the University of Houston in the 12th round. On June 19, the Chicago Bulls selected guard Carl Lewis in the 10th round.

Two things should be noted:

  • Lewis competed in neither sport in college and may not have even played either beyond recreational leagues in high school in New Jersey.
  • The Chicago Bulls fared quite a bit better with their first-round pick (Michael Jordan) than the Dallas Cowboys did with theirs (linebacker Billy Cannon Jr.).

A stellar track and field career

As expected, Carl Lewis did pull off his grand slam in the Los Angeles Olympics in August 1984, winning the 100- and 200-meter dashes, the long jump, and the 400 relay. He was subjected to criticism for passing on his last four attempts in the long jump rather than trying to eclipse Bob Beamon’s long-standing record, but Lewis had other events remaining and did not want to risk injury.

That was not the end of Lewis’ medal haul.

Aided by Ben Johnson’s disqualification for drug use, Lewis won the 100 and long jump in Seoul in 1988. He would win twice more in Barcelona in 1992, then add his fourth straight long jump title – and ninth gold medal overall – at Atlanta in 1996.