For nearly 40 years, one question has come up repeatedly in NBA circles. Why did the Portland Trail Blazers choose oft-injured Kentucky center Sam Bowie over North Carolina National Player of the Year Michael Jordan in the 1984 NBA Draft? Bowie played 10 seasons, missing one whole campaign and parts of four others because he couldn’t keep his leg bones in one piece. Jordan won six titles, five MVPs, and so on. He’s on the shortlist of candidates as the greatest player in NBA history.
Yes, Portland general manager Stu Inman got it wrong. But it’s that Inman and the Trail Blazers were even in the position to make the mistake that often gets overlooked. How on earth did an ABA-NBA journeyman named Tom Owens contribute to one of the most significant NBA draft decisions in history? And why did the Indiana Pacers think Owens was worth a future first-round pick?
Who the heck is Tom Owens?
That’s the natural first question to come to mind. Tom Owens played 14 years of professional basketball, five in the ABA, seven in the NBA, and two in Italy, between 1971–85. The Bronx native became one of many New Yorkers recruited to play for legendary coach Frank McGuire at the University of South Carolina.
From there, he was a fourth-round pick by both the NBA’s San Diego Rockets and the Memphis Pros (the marketing department deserved their overtime pay for that name) of the ABA in 1971. He later played for the Carolina Cougars, Spirits of St. Louis, Memphis Sounds, Kentucky Colonels, Indiana Pacers, and San Antonio Spurs in the ABA. We did mention he was a journeyman.
When the ABA folded, and four of its teams entered the NBA in 1976, Owens didn’t come with the Spurs. Instead, he had signed a future contract with the Rockets that began in 1976–77. Traded to the Trail Blazers in 1977, he had his career year in 1978–79 when he averaged 18.5 points a game filling in at center for injured Bill Walton.
But a unique set of financial circumstances put Owens on a path to intersect with Michael Jordan, albeit indirectly.
The Indiana Pacers tasted their first NBA playoff berth in 1981
When the ABA got down to the four teams to enter the NBA in 1976, the Indiana Pacers were on the shakiest ground. While the franchise won three ABA titles, more than any other team in the nine-year run of the league, their stars had aged out. The last big star left in 1975 when George McGinnis jumped to the NBA.
When they got to the NBA, the Pacers were a losing team and stayed that way for four years. Finally, in 1980–81, new coach Jack McKinney coaxed Indiana to 45 wins.
But according to the Indianapolis Star, the Pacers were financially troubled. Center James Edwards was a free agent. The Cleveland Cavaliers offered him $3.2 million over four years. With Indiana ownership seeking a mere $12 million to get rid of the franchise, that was far too pricey.
So they let Edwards walk, and took a couple of second-round picks as compensation. Indiana sought a center in the trade market. Their target wound up being Owens, who they got from Portland for their 1984 1st-round pick. Michael Jordan had just graduated from high school and was enrolling at the University of North Carolina later that fall.
The Pacers weren’t sold until 1984. Indiana missed the playoffs in 1982 and 1983, but Owens was long gone by then. Indiana drafted Herb Williams in 1981. Owens was shipped to the Detroit Pistons for a second-round pick in 1984. By the time draft day rolled around in 1984, he had finished his first season in Italy.
Indiana was the worst team in NBA in 1983-84. But instead of a coin flip to see if they’d get Hakeem Olajuwon or Michael Jordan, the Pacers got nothing. No reports as to how much they liked it.
The 1984 NBA Draft went Olajuwon, Bowie, and Michael Jordan
We know how the 1984 NBA Draft started. The Houston Rockets won the coin flip and took Olajuwon. Portland went next and infamously chose Bowie. The Chicago Bulls got the most significant break in franchise history when Michael Jordan fell into their lap.
With Jordan, the Bulls won six championships and vaulted from mediocrity into one of the biggest brand names in the league.
As for the Pacers? They did draft Reggie Miller in 1987. They reached the 2000 NBA Finals (where they lost to the Lakers), and are still in search of their first NBA title.
Because sometimes you go to the draft and end up with Michael Jordan. Other times, you get Tom Owens for a single season. Fate can be fickle that way.
Statistics courtesy of Basketball Reference.