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Draft Week: Book Review

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I recently received a copy of Tip Off:  How the 1984 NBA Draft Changed Basketball Forever.  The book was written by Filip Bondy, sports columnist for the New York Daily News.  Since the topic is so timely, a review seemed appropriate here.

Overall the book is an excellent read.  It does what all great sports-history books do--it shakes you out of your perceived view of the actors granted by interpretive hindsight and takes you back to the immediate moment when nobody knew how this crazy ride would turn out.  The book excels in bringing you face-to-face with the talent pool in this historic draft...not only Jordan, Olajuwon, and Bowie but Stockton, Barkley, Sam Perkins, and the infamous "Dinner Bell" Mel Turpin as well.  Bondy almost succeeds in convincing you of the merits of these then-young college kids even knowing what you know now about their relative, and disparate, qualities.  These bios are salted with memories and anecdotes from the coaches and general managers who shuffled the draft into its final form:  North Carolina legend Dean Smith, then-Bulls GM Rod Thorn, and a host of others.

Portland fans will get a glimpse of the past and present Sam Bowie, of course, but also an in-depth rationale for selecting him.  Despite making the most infamous pick in NBA draft history the Blazers, and particularly Stu Inman, come out looking pretty good.  Bondy mentions the prize selections of Drexler, Porter, and especially Kersey (taken in the second round in 1984) almost as prominently as the Bowie pick.  You'll also get a glimpse of the machinations behind the coin flip from every angle, including that of the league office.  Bondy pulls no punches when it comes to the Houston tank job or its repercussions and tends to credit the way things eventually turned out to luck as much as any plan of genius.  "There but for fickle fate go six or seven potential franchises" could be the moral of the story when looking at the phenomenon that became Jordan and the new NBA.

Along with the main theme you also get a number of sideline tidbits that intentionally or unintentionally open the door to the inner workings of the league--particularly enticing since 1984 was also David Stern's first year as commissioner.  Among the juicier revelations:

--(H)akeem Olajuwon, now a model citizen in every sense of the word, once caused people a fair amount of headaches with his wild ways and lack of discipline on and off the court.

--Charles Barkley had his own agenda from the start, which included NOT making the Olympic team for which he tried out in '84.

--Jordan was far from a consensus pick, even in Chicago.  In fact several people thought it would be a career-ending pick for GM Thorn.

--Friction between even the best coaches and players is remarkably common.

--Both the draft process and scouting potential players have changed dramatically in the last two much so that you wouldn't recognize the processes that went into determining the most famous draft in history.

--There's a HUGE difference between having A-list players to choose from and taking your compromise candidate, and often that difference falls right after the first pick or two.

--From the very beginning David Stern knew what he wanted and was willing to arm-twist anyone and everyone in order to get it.  And apparently from the get-go you just didn't say no.

--An interesting note for Blazer fans: there is double incentive to curse the name of "Patterson" in this town.  In 1984 Ray Patterson, head executive of the Houston Rockets, was responsible for the tank job and coin flip that snatched Olajuwon from our grasp and left us in the position to make the wrong decision.  Two decades later his son Steve would run the public image of the franchise into the ground and then some as its GM and President.  If there is a third generation of Pattersons in the league I suggest that Portland stay far, far away.

Criticisms of the book are few.  The style of writing is pure and classic "sports columnist" prose.  Each chapter is an entity unto itself, almost like a daily column.  The writing never offends you but it rarely challenges or inspires you either.  It's enjoyable but seldom dramatic.  While the facts are perhaps sufficient enough to prop up the subtitle's claim about "changing basketball forever" you never really feel the momentum in the story.  It's far more like watching a Sportscenter feature than taking in an Oscar-winning film.  Given the subject matter perhaps that's appropriate but a little more continuity and story arc would have been appreciated with such a momentous, and now safely historical, topic.

Tip Off is an interesting study when juxtaposed with the over-analyzed, slickly-hyped-and-covered madness that is going on this week.  If you read between the lines you will find implications about the draft process that add another dimension to the matter at hand.  You'll also see how far the league has progressed since 1984, for better or worse.  I'd recommend the book for the perspective value alone.  The fact that it sheds light on one of the defining moments in Blazer history is a nice bonus for Portland fans.

Title:  Tip Off:  How the 1984 NBA Draft Changed Basketball Forever
Author:  Filip Bondy
Publisher:  Da Capo Press  (
Details:  262 pages plus Bibliography and Index, copyright 2007

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Buy it at Powell's

--Dave (