Marcus Bowie, the 12-year-old son of Sam, recently Googled his father. The name Michael Jordan came up. The name Greg Oden came up. The word "bust" exploded up.
He asked his father what it all meant. So Sam Bowie launched into the story that never ends, the story that came full circle in 2007, the story that the Internet has only half right.
In the past, Sam would have let this all go, would have never felt the need to explain himself. He has always ignored the argument that he's the worst draft pick in NBA history, has always been comfortable in his 7-foot-1 skin. But his kids are getting older now and his name still trends on Twitter and the bloggers won't let Bowie-over-Jordan go. So it was time. When I arrived in Lexington, Ky., with my co-director, Jon Fish, to shoot an ESPN Films documentary on Bowie's journey, Sam told us what he told Marcus:
Dad played 10 years in the NBA on two broken legs.
Anyone else would've quit.
Dad is not a bust.
The title of the film is "Going Big," and the Portland Trail Blazers not only went big in 1984 but went down in history. Way down.
No team has had more rotten luck, self-inflicted or not, than a Blazers franchise that could have drafted Bob McAdoo in '72, Larry Bird in '78, Michael Jordan in '84 and Kevin Durant in 2007.
Instead, it took LaRue Martin, Mychal Thompson, Sam Bowie and Greg Oden, respectively.
All those picks are hard to fathom and/or swallow, but it is the Bowie pick that resonates in pop culture. It is the Bowie pick that is a metaphor for draft-day gaffes. It is the Bowie pick that is mentioned in a rap song by Jay Z ("Hola' Hovito") and in another by a New York basketball fan named Jadakiss:
Yo, take a second
What if we could rewind the hood?
Better yet, what if the Lox woulda signed wit Suge?
What if Arnold woulda just let Tookie get life?
What if B.I.G. missed the party?
What if Pac missed the fight?
What if hate ran thru me?
And what if Portland woulda drafted Jordan instead of Sam Bowie?
But what if we flip the script? What if I told you it isn't as sad a story as everyone thinks? What if I told you Bowie walks around today with scarred legs saying he's living the dream, that no one's luckier than Sam Bowie?
Does that sound like a "bust" talking?
If you want a window into Sam Bowie, follow him to Lexington, Ky., where he played college basketball and where his jersey hangs in the Rupp Arena rafters. John Calipari plays golf with him; business leaders rub elbows with him. His mom says he could run for mayor here. At the local harness racetrack, the Red Mile, Bowie is a celebrity. Not just because he took UK to the Final Four in 1984 but because they keep seeing his horses in the winner's circle.
It's all explained in the documentary, but the point is, Bowie has managed to get over the MJ stigma -- partly because he lives in one of the few places in this country that's Jordan-blind.
"I always knew when the [NBA] season was over that I was immediately going to go back to Kentucky, because that was a safe haven for me to get away from the Michael Jordans, from the critics," Bowie said. "And that's a beautiful thing, because when you're getting beat up like I was getting beat up, you run for cover. And my cover was getting back to Lexington, Ky.
"People back in Kentucky would say, 'Ah, Bowie, don't you worry about that. We know if your leg was healthy you'd be just as good as Jordan.' And you need to hear things like that. It's comforting to know that there is positive feedback rather than negativity on a regular basis. I used to hear a lot of comments back here, that, 'You'll always be one of the best that's ever played here.' They weren't talking about the pros; they were talking about Kentucky and the college basketball. So I'd rather surround myself around those type of comments rather than sitting around in a pro city and hearing about MJ and then hearing about the sadness of me being drafted and how I was the biggest bust that the NBA has ever seen."
The Bowie narrative is long and complex. There's more to him than broken bones and Michael Jordan. He was raised in Lebanon, Pa., a place that's surrounded by Amish country but is far from pure. Bowie saw and heard a lot of evil. In his teens, two of his buddies stole a car, and he rode with them in the stolen vehicle. He then sat in the car, hiding in the back seat, while his buddies robbed an old man's house. He says he "spent the dirty money with them." He's lucky he had basketball because those two buddies are locked up to this day.
His home life wasn't exactly tranquil, either. His father once played for the Harlem Magicians -- a poor man's Harlem Globetrotters -- and the truth is, Benjamin Bowie was a poor man. He and Cathy Bowie raised Sam and his younger sister, Shelly, at 1118 Church St., a 660-square-foot row house with low ceilings -- not exactly ideal for a 6-foot-11 father and a son who would soon approach 7 feet. But that's how Sam Bowie began life -- ducking to keep himself out of harm's way.
Fairly soon, his father and mother would divorce, largely because of Benjamin Bowie's drinking. Ben would show up at Sam's junior high and high school games reeking of alcohol, but Sam was like any son -- proud to have his old man in the gym. He was desperate to get to the NBA so he could take care of Mom, Dad, his sister, his grandparents and anybody else who was kin.
All he had to do was stay healthy.
By now, everyone knows he had brittle bones. But for a while, he was looking like a million bucks. In fact, in his darkest times, he would leave notes for his mother -- who worked long hours at the Hershey Chocolate plant -- calling himself the "Million Dollar Kid." By 1979, he was considered the No. 1 high school player in the country, ahead of Isiah Thomas, James Worthy, Dominique Wilkins, Clark Kellogg, Quintin Dailey and Ralph Sampson. He could run the court in virtually three steps and drain a 20-footer with ease. He was Kevin Garnett before Kevin Garnett. He was money, all right.
Even though Sampson ended up outdueling him in their only high school meeting, Bowie signed with Kentucky and became the marquee player on the 1980 Olympic team that never went to Moscow. His plan was to turn pro after his sophomore year, but a nasty fall against Vanderbilt led to a stress fracture in his left tibia that wouldn't heal. It's 2012, and it hasn't healed yet.
After sitting out two Kentucky seasons, he somehow made it back for a fifth and final year, thinking that the NBA and the million dollars were a pipe dream. Along with Mel Turpin and Kenny Walker, he took UK to the 1984 Final Four -- before losing to Georgetown and Patrick Ewing -- figuring that was as good as it got. But a series of circumstances led to the unthinkable: Portland taking him over Jordan.
The Trail Blazers were coming off a 48-34 season, good for second place in the Pacific Division. They had no business being in the coin flip for the first overall pick. But in 1981, they had made one of the most fortuitous trades of all time -- sending journeyman center Tom Owens to Indiana for the Pacers' 1984 first-round pick. Lo and behold, Indiana finished '84 with the worst record in the East, meaning Portland hit the jackpot.
The Blazers already had a young Clyde Drexler, boasted an All-Star in Jim Paxson and were planning a trade for Kiki Vandeweghe. All they needed was a top-flight center, someone like the franchise's former icon, Bill Walton. Someone who could rebound and pass the ball out of the post. Someone who could deal with the Lakers' Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. With at worst a top-two pick, the Blazers were determined to get their big man. Magic Johnson was going to have some competition out west.
The Portland general manager was Stu Inman, one of the most thorough scouts in the business. He was famous for flying to a prospect's college campus, talking to his professors, trying to peer into his soul. Around the league, at the time, it was known as the "Blazers way." And in 1984, Inman's first two preferences were Hakeem (then Akeem) Olajuwon out of Houston and Ewing out of Georgetown.
But Ewing decided to stay in school, surprising many, which left Inman with a choice between Olajuwon and none other than Bowie. In fact, those two weren't all that disparate in their abilities -- on the surface, anyway. Olajuwon was still raw -- having spent only three seasons in the U.S. -- and Bowie had had 17 rebounds against Olajuwon in a midseason showdown. Inman liked the way Bowie passed the ball and shot from the perimeter. His coach, Jack Ramsay, wasn't thrilled with Bowie's low-post moves, but he wasn't going to nix the pick, either. The coin flip hadn't happened yet, but they were all on the same page: They would choose Olajuwon if they won the flip and Bowie if they didn't.
Inman flew down right away to Lexington. He went to see Bowie's professors, who adored him. He went to see his coaches, who raved. He asked anyone and everyone, "Who is Sam Bowie?" He was borderline obsessed.
"Mr. Inman had a look and a stare that I never could figure out or never knew what it meant," Bowie said. "I remember him kind of staring at me like he was looking through me and just trying to get a visual, a picture of my insides. He looked like he was trying to search for the truth. Like he could be an interrogator. You just felt as though he wasn't only looking at your eyes but he was checking out the body, as well."
Inman was checking out the kid's body, all right, and his simple request to Bowie -- before the coin flip -- was to come to Portland for a physical examination. Bowie agreed, flying up for a marathon exam that began at 7 in the morning and ended at 10 at night.
It was a less sophisticated time, at least from a technological standpoint. Bowie doesn't remember getting an MRI. But he does recall running on a treadmill and being asked to hop up and down on his bad leg. He recalls having dye injected into a vein "so they could light up my bones." He recalls X-rays and scans and even the old-fashioned method of taking a little mallet and tapping on his injured tibia.
The team doctor at the time, Robert Cook, asked Bowie whether the mallet hurt his tibia. Bowie said no. He played dumb. But hell yeah, it hurt. The tibia was throbbing. Still, this was a "job interview," and he wanted the job. He had given up on the NBA, to a large degree, but the NBA hadn't given up on him. He couldn't afford to tell the doc his tibia burned; that would've been sabotaging himself.
"You do what you have to do," Bowie said. "And I don't want you to think that I shortchanged Portland, by any means. But I did what I thought any other athlete would do, which is try and market themselves, get to the NBA. Not only get to the NBA, but have a chance of being the first pick in the draft. But when I went through that physical, my leg was killing me that day. It really was."
Of course, Portland knew nothing of the sort. After the physical, Ramsay called Bowie into his office and showed him video of Walton in the Portland motion offense. Ramsay finally seemed on board, and Bowie left town believing he was going to be their pick whether they won the coin flip or not.
"[Ramsay] made me feel like if Kareem [Abdul-Jabbar] was in the draft that I was going to get picked before Kareem," Bowie recalled. "So when I left Portland, I just assumed that I was going to be a Portland Trail Blazer. And it was a strange feeling because, flying back across country, here's a kid who just knows I'm not right. I'm not the Sam Bowie that I thought I could be and others. But yet here they are, talking about me being the top pick in the NBA draft.
"So flying back, I had a whole new mindset. I told my mother -- and friends and everybody -- that, uh, there is no speculation. I know where I'm going -- I'm going to Portland! I was just under the impression that I was going to be a Portland Trail Blazer and there wasn't any controversy, any decision to be made."
Houston won the flip, and salivated at the chance to draft local college player Olajuwon. Word soon leaked out that Bowie would be headed to Portland, although that didn't stop North Carolina coach Dean Smith from calling Inman.
Smith had a flashy guard who could play a little, a certain No. 23. Jordan had been the college basketball player of the year that season. But the Tar Heels had been knocked out earlier than expected in the NCAA tournament, and Jordan was still a work in progress -- a little thin, with an inconsistent jump shot. "First of all, nobody knew Michael Jordan was going to be that good," Charles Barkley said. "That's always been one of the great bogus arguments of all time. I got to know Michael at the '84 Olympics, and I never thought he was going to be that guy. He was one of the good players there, but it wasn't like he was head and shoulders above everybody else at the '84 trials."
But Smith tried to tell Inman otherwise. He explained that his team-oriented system sometimes kept Jordan under wraps. In other words, the coach was validating the age-old joke: Who's the only person able to hold Michael Jordan under 18 points a game? Him. Dean Smith.
Inman told the coach thank you but his mind was made up. Inman couldn't even be influenced by his good friend Bob Knight, who had coached Jordan during the 1984 Olympics. Knight had adored Jordan's killer instinct and urged Inman to take him with the No. 2 pick.
"But, Bob, I need a center," Inman told Knight.
"Then play Jordan at center," Knight countered.
But it was all going in one ear and out the other. No one could change the Blazers' minds. Mychal Thompson, the 6-10 forward who had been the No. 1 overall pick in 1978, was telling the media that he could play center and that the team should draft the North Carolina kid. "With Michael and Clyde, we would've had the greatest backcourt in history," Thompson said. Drexler went public and agreed, as well. But Drexler says Ramsay ordered them both to button their lips. The organization would handle this. And on a June day in 1984, Sam Bowie was taken one pick before Michael Jordan.
Bowie knew he wasn't physically right. Knew he couldn't move the way he used to move. It's not his fault Portland took him. Chicago, which had the third pick, had taken Bowie off its board because of the stress fracture at Kentucky. In today's more medically sophisticated world, Bowie might have dropped out of the lottery.
But he had made it, and he thought of his dad, who had died after Bowie's sophomore year in college. Benjamin Bowie had been drinking one day at the Lebanon American Legion post and had walked to his car inebriated. He climbed in, then suddenly suffered a lung hemorrhage, collapsing over the steering wheel. The car horn blared, but no one batted an eye. Everyone just assumed Benjamin Bowie was drunk. No one knew he was dying.
So when Sam Bowie shook hands with a rookie commissioner named David Stern, that was enough. He had made it, and he knew his father would've been elated. He wasn't a bust. No matter what happened from here, he wasn't a bust.
What happened next was inevitable. Bowie re-broke his left tibia in his second season. He broke his right tibia in his third season, then the right tibia again in his fourth season. He basically missed two full years before screws and brackets fixed his unfixable leg.
But he played on and played on -- going from the Blazers to the Nets to the Lakers. He played 10 seasons. He had a 38-point game against Minnesota and a 34-point, 15-rebound game against Houston and Olajuwon. He finished his career in 1995 averaging 10.9 points, 7.5 rebounds and 1.9 blocks.
Even Michael Jordan was impressed. Because when Bowie was just four months into retirement, his phone rang -- and it was the Bulls calling. Chicago wanted to sign him as a backup center. Bowie's head spun. Him and Michael -- together?
"Who would have thought, after all I've been through, at the tail end of my career, we'd have Michael trying to get me to be his teammate?" Bowie said. "That sounds like fiction. There's no way that someone's career would start like mine, go through what I went through, and then, at the end of the story, happily ever after with Michael Jordan. That just -- that sounds [like a] fairy tale. That can't exist."
Sam flew to Chicago, had dinner at Phil Jackson's house and the next day was invited to the Bulls' practice facility, the Berto Center.
"I remember watching Michael Jordan practice for the first time in my life," Bowie said. "I was trying to figure out why Michael was as great as he is, and they were doing line sprints. And I never caught Michael cheating a line. I remember them saying, 'Do 50 sit-ups.' Michael never did 48, 49. He always did 50. And I sat up there and I was like, people think they know why Michael's great, but to witness what I just witnessed at this stage of his career, success doesn't happen by accident. He worked hard, and he deserved everything he could get.
"It was somewhat comforting to know that it wasn't just me [who ended up not being as good as Michael]. We're dealing with a guy in Michael Jordan that's a freak athlete. We'll never see another one of them in our lifetime. So it had nothing to do with me. Whoever was gonna be the second pick was gonna get some criticism when you compare them to a guy like Michael Jordan."
Bowie and Jordan ended up speaking that day in the locker room. Michael told Sam, "Look, big guy. We're gonna win it with you or without you, but it'll be a lot easier with you." Bowie nodded, couldn't believe how obsessed Jordan was. This was the Bulls team that was on its way to 72 wins and a title. But Bowie's heart wasn't in it.
That's the last time he saw Jordan in person.
But every time Bowie gets out, they drag him back in.
In 2007, his old team, Portland, drew the first pick of the NBA draft and had its choice between Oden and Durant. The Blazers needed a center -- like Oden. But a high-scoring wing player was also available -- like Durant. It was the Bowie-Jordan decision all over again, and the city was hyperventilating.
"They sold 3,000 season tickets before they even picked Oden," The Oregonian columnist John Canzano said. "Billboards went up, saying, 'Honk once for Oden, honk twice for Durant.' People would be walking around, going, you know, do you honk once or twice? It was just electric. The city was buzzing about the Blazers and the possibilities. It had gone from -- we can't get a break -- Bowie, Jordan, whatever you want to look back on, LaRue Martin -- whatever you want to talk about: Bill Walton. But finally something went Portland's way. They have a chance to get this right."
They got it wrong, of course. First, Oden had arthroscopic knee surgery, then microfracture surgery. Then it was a rolled ankle, another knee surgery, then a knee surgery on the opposite leg. Then it was a fractured patellar tendon, and then this season still another knee surgery.
"It was like bang, bang, bang bang! Greg Oden's out, Greg Oden's out, Greg Oden's out," Canzano says. "And it got to the point where people went, you know, this is 'Groundhog Day.'"
Bowie watched from a distance and covered his eyes. "Well, Portland selected Greg Oden, and little did I know that he was going to be the reason this whole Michael Jordan ordeal is brought up like it's brand new," Bowie said. "I just can't get away from it. Every time they talk about Greg Oden, they talk about Sam Bowie. They talk about, 'Here we go again.' And it's almost like where do I go? Where do I hide? How do I get away from it?"
But a strange thing happened while Oden was being rolled off on stretcher after stretcher: Sam Bowie was forgiven.
"When Sam Bowie played, he was upbeat and would tell his teammates, 'Hey, I -- I got you, I'm going to be back. I'll be OK,'" Canzano said. "He seemed to be lifting his teammates. Greg Oden, he looked like he was tired of talking about it, right from the beginning. You have to look at Greg Oden as being the biggest bust in professional sports history. You have to. Given that Kevin Durant appears to be the next Michael Jordan, given that Portland had the option between those guys.
"You look at Bowie's career, and he played games! He played 10 seasons. And you look at Greg Oden -- it's 82 games. All of it amounted to one season. One 82-game season, really, that ended up as a big disappointment and five knee surgeries.
"Sam Bowie gets off the hook."
It's funny how history repeats itself -- all over the place. On Wednesday, Dec. 5, Sam Bowie went to watch his daughter Gabby play a high school basketball game, and she had a triple-double (25 points, 20 rebounds and 12 blocks). The next day, he watched son Marcus hit a winning shot for his seventh-grade team.
I'm the luckiest man on earth, Bowie says. I'm not sad, he says. So our narrative ends with Bowie in Lexington, rich enough that he doesn't have to work another day in his life. Free enough to drive all over the state watching his kids play. Proud enough to tell us his story. Confident enough to let Marcus Google him. And secure enough that he never says, "What if ?"