- The Washington Times - Sunday, June 24, 2007

Tanking for draft position?

Agonizing over which superstar to select to invigorate your franchise?

Attempting to appease or part ways with disgruntled superstars?

You can peel those themes right from this season’s NBA headlines.

But this year’s draft, with two seemingly sure-fire NBA stars topping every team’s talent board, is eerily reminiscent of the 1984 NBA Draft, which is the subject of Filip Bondy’s new book Tip-Off: How the 1984 NBA Draft Changed Basketball Forever” ($25, Da Capo Press, 281 pages).

The comparisons between the two seasons are startling:

c In 1984, teams such as the Houston Rockets and Portland Trail Blazers were losing at a furious pace, with basketball officials casting an especially wary eye at the Rockets. This past winter, as the Boston Celtics of Danny Ainge and Doc Rivers lost 12 of 16 games down the stretch, the “T” word was thrown around rather liberally as fans assumed the franchise was trying to improve its draft position.

c There were two clear stars in the 1984 talent pool: Houston center Akeem Olajuwon and North Carolina guard Michael Jordan. Both were underclassmen who had seemingly done it all at the college level, and talent evaluators across the board expected each to come in and contribute right away. This year, scouts are salivating once again over two underclassmen with somewhat shorter resumes: Ohio State center Greg Oden and Texas forward Kevin Durant.

c Some hard-headed veterans back in 1984 were making their general managers’ lives difficult. The Rockets already had soured on surly Ralph Sampson, the 7-foot-4 center who one year earlier was the top overall pick. Mark Aguirre was feuding with his coach in Dallas, which had the No. 4 overall selection. And Philadelphia had a successful, classy group of veterans who had just come off winning a championship; would they be ready for hard-headed, loud-mouthed rookie Charles Barkley?

Unfortunately for fans of the Minnesota Timberwolves and Los Angeles Lakers, those scenarios look rosy compared to their attempts to deal or placate their own All-Stars: Kevin Garnett and Kobe Bryant, respectively.

Bondy, who in 1984 was covering the New Jersey Nets for the New York Daily News, handles all of the stories with the touch of a thorough reporter; the only interview he didn’t get while researching this book was with Jordan, and even the late, great David Halberstam didn’t get that interview for his Jordan masterpiece, “Playing for Keeps.”

And who needs Jordan’s cliches when we can learn more about Sam Bowie, the Kentucky center Portland selected with the second pick — which allowed His Airness to land in Chicago with the Bulls and their third selection. We know how that story ended: Jordan went on to be proclaimed the game’s greatest player, with six championship rings and 10 scoring titles, while invigorating a flagging franchise in Chicago.

The Bowie selection, meanwhile, was doomed from the start. The Portland brass had convinced themselves that their team needed a center, so if they couldn’t land Olajuwon they’d settle on Bowie. Their reasoning: The fluid center seemed recovered from the injuries that slowed his college career, and he’d fit perfectly in coach Jack Ramsay’s up-tempo system. And they already had an athletic, high-scoring wing player in young Clyde Drexler. How could he and Jordan possibly mesh on the court?

It didn’t take long for folks to realize Portland had made a blunder of colossal proportions.

After a relatively productive rookie season, Bowie was hit hard in his second season when foot and shin injuries limited him to 38 games. He played a mere five games in the 1986-87 season and 20 more the following year before getting shipped to New Jersey — with a first-round pick — for Buck Williams, which gave the Trail Blazers all the toughness they never got from brittle Bowie.

The center landed on his feet — and they didn’t break — in New Jersey, and put together a 10-year career that peaked in 1992, when he averaged 15 points for a playoff team coached by Bill Fitch — the man who infamously guided the Rockets to consecutive No. 1 picks. Talk about a story coming full circle.

The chapters on the star-crossed 7-footer are some of Bondy’s best. It’s hard to imagine someone penning a Sam Bowie tome, but Bondy weaves enough of his hard-luck tale into his book to make it, to date, the definitive take on the center.

“Nobody likes to tell stories of mediocrity, but this is a tale about accomplishments in other ways,” Bondy said when interviewed this week. “He put together a workmanlike NBA career and came out of it with a refreshing attitude. He comes out looking pretty good.”

So does Bondy’s book, a must-read for NBA fans as they prepare for Thursday night’s annual NBA talent show.



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