Bowie over Jordan the worst decision in Trail Blazer history? No.
Virtually every Oregon sports fan of a certain age can remember the awful moment when they heard the news of the Portland Trail Blazers' decision to choose Sam Bowie instead of Michael Jordan in the 1984 NBA draft and thus change the fortunes of the city, state and the league forever.
On Thursday the Blazers will select the number one pick in the 2007 NBA draft. A city and state await the decision and the tension is palpable, even for many who don't give a damn about pro basketball. But something huge is about to happen in Oregon and, well, something that doesn't happen very often.
Back in 1984 I was riding a bus to Portland State University and I heard some teenager scream, "NO!" He ripped his transistor radio's headphones from his ears and looked at me with a seething disgust. "They took Bowie! Over Jordan! Can you believe that?"
No, I could not. Twenty-three years later, I still can't. The decision constituted a colossal blunder that pro basketball fans still discuss with passion. In Oregon, if you watch a Blazer game in a drinking joint, which I occasionally do at the Sportsman Tavern in Pacific City, the Bowie-over-Jordan mistake topic invariably comes up and the drunken consensus is always the same: this was the franchise's biggest blunder. Nothing else comes remotely close.
These fans are flat wrong. The number one blunder in Portland Trail Blazer history was dealing Moses Malone prior to the 1976-77 season.
Once upon a time, the fall of 1976 to be exact, a twenty-two year old, nearly indestructible, rebounding machine named Moses Malone wore the uniform of the Portland Trail Blazers.
How Malone came not to wear Blazer red and black and not help Bill Walton, Maurice Lucas and company win three or four consecutive NBA championships warrants a recounting. Why? If, in a few days Portland's front office screws up the pick, we can all find consolation that the front office screwed up worse before, even worse than not selecting Jordan.
In the summer of 1976, Portland traded Geoff Petrie and Steve Hawes to the Atlanta Hawks for their second overall pick in the ABA dispersal draft. The Blazers took Maurice Lucas with the choice and then used their pick, fifth overall, to draft Moses Malone, who had played two somewhat inconsistent seasons in the ABA after becoming the first player in the history of professional basketball to jump from high school to the pros.
Here's what Blazer Head Coach Jack Ramsay in his 1978 autobiography The Coach's Art wrote about Malone: "The Blazer front office had it made it clear to me from the beginning that the combination of Malone's $350,000 purchase price and his high-salary contract would make it impossible for the Blazers to keep him... After I saw what he could do in the exhibition season, I really wanted Malone to stay with us. It was unfortunate that we just couldn't afford to keep him."
Now consider what Portland General Manager Harry Glickman wrote in his 1978 autobiography Promoter Ain't a Dirty Word: "We drafted Malone with no intention of keeping him for the Trail Blazers; we intended to involve him in a trade... Ramsay didn't want any part of Malone, even in training camp, so all summer long we tried to make other deals for him."
According to Glickman, he contacted Boston Celtics General Manager Red Auerbach and offered Malone and malcontent forward Sidney Wicks for All-Star guard Jo Jo White. Auerbach turned Glickman down.
More Glickman: "Finally, we brought Malone to camp and he looked terrible... He started improving through the exhibition season, and in the last pre-season game he turned in an outstanding performance. But by that time (Blazer owner) Larry Weinberg had given John Y. Brown of Buffalo an option on a deal to Buffalo for cash and a first round draft choice."
And there is this titillating passage from David Halberstam's The Breaks of the Game, his 1981 bestselling history of the Blazers in the Bill Walton era: "On the following Monday they [the team] held a meeting, voting unanimously (my emphasis) to do so (keep Malone). But even as they were talking, Harry Glickman, the General Manager, came into the room and told them it was too late, that Buffalo had just picked up the option.
Later that day Ramsay appeared at a practice session. The players were subdued; Moses had already packed and gone. "We just traded Moses to Buffalo," Ramsay said.
"What did you get for him?" Walton asked.
"We got a first," Ramsay answered.
"You didn't trade him away," Walton said, "you gave him away."
Two weeks after Portland traded Malone to Buffalo for its number one pick, Buffalo traded Malone to Houston for two number one picks. The Blazers never did acquire a guard the caliber of Jo Jo White (who surely must have drawn a salary commensurate with Malone) and later signed Herm Gilliam.
Imagine the possible frontline combinations with Malone as a Blazer! Walton could have played twenty-five minutes a game, taken weeks off for foot rest if necessary, and the team still would have won sixty games a year. Thus, he would have been healthy and available for longer minutes in the playoffs and nothing in professional sports matters more than successful postseason results. Look at the mediocre teams who won NBA Titles in the late 1970s. A Blazer team that included Malone would have blown the likes of the Bullets, Sonics and even the Lakers with a young Magic Johnson, off the floor with ease.
More evidentiary points: During the 1976-77 season with the Houston Rockets, Malone averaged thirteen points and thirteen rebounds a game and helped his team earn a trip to the Eastern Conference Finals, where they lost to the 76ers. Malone progressed from this solid NBA debut to become the third leading rebounder and sixth leading scorer in ABA/NBA history. In his Hall of Fame career, Malone averaged better than twenty points, more than twelve rebounds, won three league MVPs, and captured the 1983 NBA Title as a Philadelphia 76er (with assistance from his teammate Dr. J!). The league honored him as one of the fifty greatest players of all time in 1996.
One last fact for consideration: Moses Malone played twenty-one years of professional basketball and hardly ever missed a game. Bowie over Jordan as opposed to trading away Moses Malone as the worst blunder in Blazer franchise history? It's not even close.
And if the Blazers blunder again on Thursday, which I sense they will, well, it still won't even be close to parting with Moses.
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Matt Love is the founder and publisher of Nestucca Spit Press; author/editor of the Beaver State Trilogy: Grasping Wastrels vs. Beaches Forever Inc.: Covering the Fights for the Soul of the Oregon Coast (2003), The Far Out Story of Vortex I (2004), and Red Hot and Rollin': A Retrospection of the Portland Trail Blazers' 1976-77 Championship Season (2007); and also Let it Pour. He is a regular contributor to the Oregonian, columnist for the Bear Deluxe and In Good Tilth magazines, and teaches English and history in the Lincoln County School District. He lives at the Oregon Coast, where for nine years he has served as caretaker of the Nestucca Bay National Wildlife Refuge.