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Blazers Top 100: The Pick that Wasn’t Meant to Be

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A look at the 100 players and personnel who have influenced the Trail Blazers’ 50-year history.

Portland Trail Blazers: Sam Bowie Photo by Brian Drake/NBAE via Getty Images

The Trail Blazers’ 50-year anniversary season is temporarily on pause as the NBA goes on hiatus to slow the spread of COVID-19. During that break, Blazer’s Edge is counting down the top 100 Blazers: players, executives, and other influencers who made the franchise what it is today.

No. 36 | Sam Bowie

Games Played with Blazers: 139 Regular Season, 12 Postseason

*PTS: 10.5 | REB: 8.1 | OREB: 2.5 | FG%: 50.4

*Statistics are pulled from a player’s time in Portland

Joined Club: You already know

Departed Club: June 1989, traded with a first-round pick to the New Jersey Nets for Buck Williams

Place in History: Friends, Portlanders, NBA fans, I come not to bury Sam Bowie, but to praise him.

Bowie wasn’t just a 7’1 center, he was a long, graceful 7’1 center. He could dunk effortlessly. His shot release was always above his head, fully extended, and was all but unblockable due to his expansive wingspan. He was lithe and quick. If ballet were made of melted butter, that’s his footwork. He could spin either way and dribble. He had range out past 15 feet. He was a great passer, a potential terror in the high post. He had timing on defense and could block shots.

Before you hear what you expect to hear about Sam Bowie, watch this video of his rookie year highlights:

SERIOUSLY. That was his ROOKIE YEAR. I want you to imagine, for just a second, any modern-day seven-footer showing that suite of skills, that kind of fluid movement, and the ability to put it all together seamlessly in a professional context in their FIRST YEAR. Just envision what you’d think of that guy. I’ll wait...

You know what? You’d go absolutely, ape-crap, bonkers crazy if your 23-year-old rookie center was doing that right now.

Granted, the Trail Blazers would have selected Hakeem Olajuwon over Bowie, given the chance. Calling “tails” at the ill-fated coin flip resolving the tie at the top of the 1984 NBA Draft between the Blazers and Houston Rockets robbed them of that opportunity and of a potential dynasty in Portland (imagine Olajuwon and Clyde Drexler being paired organically for a decade instead of uniting near the end of their careers). But that’s the way Bowie’s career went. He was a victim of things outside of his control.

The coin flip was the first. The second was the selection of Michael Jordan right after Portland’s pick. Bowie didn’t ask for that, either. At the time, it didn’t seem like that big of a deal. Maybe it wasn’t, in itself. Two players were picked before MJ. One earned titles and MVPs and thus is never mentioned in this context. The second didn’t, and would become the poster child for bad draft decisions for time immemorial.

Bowie might have emerged less scathed had it not been for the chronic leg injuries that held him to 139 appearances over his first five seasons...the final and most devastating twist of fate. He played 76 games his rookie year, but wouldn’t reach that over the next four combined. He got off to a cruelly hot start in 1986-87, scoring 31 against the Utah Jazz in Portland’s second game of the season. By game six he was gone again, forced to sit out almost three complete seasons.

For the Blazers and their fans, Bowie’s career became a waiting game. Was he ever going to be healthy? Was he really as good as advertised? Would the team see any value from that ultra-high pick? These questions provided muted, but noticeable, counterpoint during an era when Drexler, Jerome Kersey, and Terry Porter were coming into their own. Portland replaced Bowie with a decent batch of bigs: Steve Johnson, Caldwell Jones, Kenny Carr, Kevin Duckworth. Somehow it wasn’t quite the same. As the seasons progressed, most everybody gave up. Having Bowie on the roster was like standing outside Disneyland without a ticket, watching everybody else get on the rides and wondering what it was like.

As it turned out, the Blazers did get to ride in the end. Bowie’s Portland career was all but over, but both he and the team had life left.

In the Summer of 1989, the Blazers traded Bowie to the New Jersey Nets for power forward Buck Williams. Williams would become the final piece of the puzzle, helping the Drexler rosters gel into NBA Finals contenders. Bowie would play four seasons with the Nets and two more with the Los Angeles Lakers, logging 372 games over six seasons after returning from his series of injuries. It was nowhere near a Hall of Fame career, but 14,100 minutes played became its own achievement.

Over time, Bowie’s name became a byword, a cautionary tale about drafting for need instead of best player available. Was Jordan widely known as the best player available in 1984? That’s beside the point, I guess. Mention that you’re a Trail Blazers fan to a casual observer in 2020—nearly four decades after Bowie was drafted—and you’re not going to hear about Drexler’s greatness or Walton’s title. You’re going to hear his name, accompanied by a rueful chuckle and a wince.

That alone may make Sam Bowie worthy of the #1 spot on our Top 100 List of Trail Blazers players and influencers. On the national stage, he’s still what the franchise is best known for. But as I said, I come to praise Sam Bowie, not bury him. Acknowledging that the circumstances surrounding him put a rocket next to his name, propelling him far above his natural place in the order, we’re still going to keep him in broad context, placing him snugly among his peers at 36.

Sam, if we were to divvy up this list into All-Time Blazers teams, you’d still belong among them.

Share your memories of Sam Bowie below, and continue to journey with us towards #1!