The Bulls Can Thank a Single Coin Toss for Getting Michael Jordan

One of the most influential NBA drafts in history happened in 1984. It was loaded with talent, and at the top of the list was Michael Jordan. His Airness had just completed a great run at the University of North Carolina, but his best was yet to come.

Jordan became the greatest player in basketball history. But two players were selected before him in the draft. What gave the Bulls the tremendous luck they needed to land MJ? Believe it or not, it all came down to a coin toss. 

The details of the 1984 NBA Draft

The top three picks in the 1984 NBA Draft went as follows: 

  1. Houston Rockets
  2. Portland Trail Blazers
  3. Chicago Bulls

The Rockets finished 14-68 the year before, easily serving as the worst team in the NBA. They picked a good year to be that team, as the 1984 draft class was legendary. Some of the big names eligible in the ’84 Draft included Hakeem Olajuwon, Michael Jordan, Charles Barkley, John Stockton, Otis Thorpe, Michael Cage, and Kevin Willis.

The Basketball Hall of Fame selected four of those players. This meant the Rockets, Blazers, and Bulls were all almost guaranteed to end up with a great player no matter who they picked. Or were they? 

Why Portland and Houston drafted the way they did

With the No. 1 overall pick, the Rockets chose Olajuwon. The team planned to pair him with fellow big man Ralph Sampson. Olajuwon was a seemingly can’t-miss prospect who starred for the University of Houston’s “Phi Slamma Jamma” squad. The Trail Blazers took Sam Bowie, a University of Kentucky center.

According to then-Blazers coach Dr. Jack Ramsey, the Blazers never seriously considered taking Jordan. They needed a big man who could rebound and defend: “It made the most sense for us to select Sam Bowie. It was almost a no-brainer.” 

Portland had Clyde Drexler at shooting guard without the need for Jordan. This cleared the way for Jordan to go to Chicago. Unfortunately for the Blazers, Bowie never lived up to his potential. He battled injury problems for most of his career and Portland dealt him in 1989.

The coin toss that changed it all for the Bulls

Michael Jordan, forward for the Chicago Bulls, in the locker room
Michael Jordan, forward for the Chicago Bulls, in the locker room | Bettmann/Contributor

The Bulls selecting Jordan turned out to be one of the best NBA draft Day decisions of all time. But a coin toss precipitated that and changed the course of three franchises. It also paved the way for the Bulls to select Jordan. 

Portland and Houston held a coin flip to determine who would pick first. The Rockets won the flip, enabling them to take Olajuwon. With the Blazers taking Bowie, Jordan was the no-brainer pick for Chicago in the No. 3 spot. The rest was history. 

What if the coin had flipped differently? Had Portland won the first overall pick, they would’ve taken Olajuwon. The Blazers, with Drexler firmly ensconced in the starting lineup, felt they had no need for a player like Jordan. If Houston had selected second, they likely would’ve taken Jordan. 

It’s hard to knock the Rockets for taking Olajuwon. He became a legend in his own right. Olajuwon retired as one of the greatest centers in NBA history, winning two championships. 

Portland may have been better off with Jordan over Drexler, but their thinking is defensible. After all, Drexler did have a Hall of Fame career. But had the coin toss not went Houston’s way, the NBA may have turned out differently. It didn’t though. Six championships later, Jordan and the Bulls became one of the most iconic pairings in NBA history.

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