'Experts' on NBA draft busts should lay off Sam Bowie

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If you want to be heard, there’s no sense yodeling into a canyon, but sometimes I can’t help myself. This is one of those times. I’ll shout and likely won’t be heard, but here goes.

To my media brethren: Could we lay off Sam Bowie? Finally?

The NBA draft looms, meaning incessant lists will begin to appear. Top shooting guards; best big men; can’t-miss prospects; sleepers. And, as always, a look back through the years at previous drafts, which can mean just one thing.

Biggest busts.

Since his early days in the NBA, Sam Bowie has been the poster child for Opportunity Missed. He’ll forever be The Guy the Blazers Took Instead of Michael Jordan. Okay, I get that. But to label Bowie a bust – a failure – is unfair.

Full disclosure: Sam, through the years, has become a friend. We don’t hang out but we talk at length whenever we see each other, about kids (his and mine grew up playing in the same park), about UK basketball, about his years in the NBA, about life in general. He spent four years with the UK radio network, so were colleagues for a while.

So I feel for him when I see the lists, such as the one produced this week by Lostlettermen.com: “NBA’s Biggest Draft Busts: Where Are They Now?” Clearly, the writer never saw the excellent documentary produced by ESPN Films, as part of the “SEC Storied” series. “Going Big” examined the claim that Bowie was a bust, a failure.

And tore it apart.

Sam entered the league via the 1984 draft, after five years at Kentucky – two of them lost to leg injuries. And as we all know, he suffered even more in the NBA. But they came after an All-NBA Rookie team debut season in 1985. And once he finally became consistently healthy, Bowie had a solid career. Even the Lost Lettermen blurb points out that Sam played 11 seasons in the league, setting him apart from every other former player on the list.

But he wasn’t Michael Jordan. And every “expert” who opines about the mistake made by the Trailblazers in 1984 will conveniently ignore the fact that A.) Portland already had a proven high-flying, highlight-making shooting guard named Clyde Drexler, B.) Bowie, because of his passing ability, was the perfect fit for the Blazers’ offense, which won a championshipin 1977 with a passing whiz in the high post named Bill Walton, and C.) nobody – NOBODY – had predicted the level of greatness Jordan would some day achieve.

Bowie is an easy target, but shouldn’t be. There are so many legitimate targets out there, and the web site covers a lot of them. And if we really want to be fair, they should be divided into two groups: Guys who were plagued by injuries, and guys who just plain couldn’t play.


Among the players who, like Bowie, suffered crippling injuries:

 Greg Oden (drafted #1 by Portland in 2007). An obvious target, because of the Bowie/Blazers connection, Oden suffered through myriad knee injuries and looked as though he was heading for retirement, before earning a spot this season as a backup with Miami.

 Luke Jackson (#10, Cavaliers, 2004). A star out of Oregon, injuries limited him to 46 games in two seasons; after he was released by the Celtics, he bounced around the D-League, Italy and Israel. He’s now coaching an NAIA school back in Oregon.

 Marcus Fizer (#4, Bulls, 2000) After four mediocre years in Chicago, he tore his ACL; upon returning he played in the D-League and five different countries as he battled the reputation of being a lazy hothead. Since becoming a Christian, he’s become an ordained minister and still plays in Argentina.

 Ed O’Bannon (#9, Nets, 1995). Best known for the lawsuit he brought against EA Sports, for using his likeness without his consent, O’Bannon should be remembered for his incredible college career. He was the national POY in ’95, when he led UCLA to the national title. But balky knees limited his NBA playing career to two nondescript seasons and then trips through five foreign countries.

 Harold Miner (#12, Heat, 1992) Known as “Baby Jordan” out of Southern Cal, Miner won the NBA’s Slam Dunk competition both in 1993 and 1995. But chronic knee injuries forced him out of the game at age 25.

 Sean May (#13, Bobcats, 2005) Considered the most talented of the four draft picks on the 2005 North Carolina national championship team, May had micro-fracture knee surgery in 2007 and is recovering only now, as he plays (quite well) in France.

 Trajan Langdon (#11, Cavaliers, 1999) Highly-recruited by Kentucky, Langdan was a three-time First-Team All-ACC shooting guard at Duke. Knee injuries, as well as a shooting touch that deserted him, cut his NBA career short after three seasons. But he rediscovered it in Europe, especially in Russia, where he led his team to a pair of Euroleague championships. He was named to the Euroleague All-Decade team before retiring in 2011.

 Dajuan Wagner (#6, Cavaliers, 2002) Perhaps the hardest of hard-luck stories, the legendary scorer from Camden, NJ, played just one season at Memphis before then-coach John Calipari revoked his scholarship, telling Wagner he should not pass up the NBA. During his three checkered seasons in the league he endured: a bladder infection, torn knee cartilage, an inflamed liver and pancreas and a badly sprained ankle. And just as he was about to try another comeback, he had to undergo surgery to have a portion of his colon removed. Eventually, he went on to play in Poland and, at age 30, reportedly still dreams of one last shot at the NBA.


On paper their future was bright. In reality, they never blossomed in the NBA:

 Michael Olowokandi (#1, Clippers, 1998). Drafted out of Pacific, he played five seasons for three different teams, and disappeared.

 Adam Morrision (#3, Charlotte, 2006). Morrison never matched his prodigious scoring levels from his college days; dealt with a torn ACL; did manage to win a couple of rings as a backup with the Lakers but was waived by Portland last fall.

 Joe Alexander (#8, Milwaukee, 2008). A pre-draft training camp phenomenon, Alexander was considered the best overall athlete in the draft. He bounced through two other NBA teams before playing first in Russia, then China.

 Shelden Williams (#5, Atlanta, 2006). Two-time national Defensive Player of the Year at Duke, Williams played with seven different NBA teams before signing with a team in France. On a brighter note, he IS married to WNBA superstar Candace Parker. So he’s got that going for him. Which is nice.

 Mike Sweetney (#9, Knicks, 2003). He was considered “undersized” as a power forward out of Georgetown, but that was in height only. Weight problems sidelined him for two full seasons just two years into his career. Since returning to the game in 2009, he’s tried the D-League, China, Uruguay and Venezuela; currently, he’s playing in Puerto Rico.

 Patrick O’Bryant (#9, Warriors, 2006). Remember him? Me either. He’s the 7-footer who helped Bradley pull a couple of upsets in the NCAA tournament. He’s also the first lottery pick ever to be sent to the D-League. Then-coach Don Nelson said, “I assumed there would be progress… He hasn’t improved one bit.” Released last May by his team in Lithuania.

 LaRue Martin (#1, Blazers, 1972). Considered the worst flop in the history of the draft (and again, chosen by Portland), Martin emerged from Loyola-Chicago as something of a mystery man and eventually left the league the same way. He spent four quiet years in the league and never delivered on his promise. But eventually Martin became an expert in the delivery business, returning to Chicago, where he became a successful executive with UPS.

Some were injured, some just couldn’t play. I suppose it depends on the definition of the word, “bust.” But it says here, Sam Bowie, who averaged 11 points, 7.5 rebounds and blocked 900 over 11 seasons for three NBA teams, ain’t one of ‘em. His only sin was that he wasn’t Michael Jordan.

Other than His Airness, who is?

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