DAVID GREENE, HOST:
In the mid 1980s, the NBA's Portland Trail Blazers chose Sam Bowie, a 7-foot-1 center from the University of Kentucky, the second pick in the college draft. They passed over a man named Michael Jordan. The Chicago Bulls then took Jordan and we know what happened from there. He became a legend. Bowie's tenure in Portland was marred by injuries.
Tonight, sports channel ESPN recounts all of this in a new documentary and it's generating some new controversy, as NPR's Tom Goldman reports.
TOM GOLDMAN, BYLINE: Moments after he was drafted, June 19, 1984, Sam Bowie did his first TV interview as a Portland Trail Blazer. He thanked his mom for her support. He said he was ready to go after missing two seasons at Kentucky with a stress fracture in his left shinbone.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV BROADCAST)
SAM BOWIE: When I went up to Portland, they gave me about a seven-hour physical. They didn't let anything out, so as far as I'm concerned, I'm 100 percent sound.
GOLDMAN: But now Bowie himself calls into question just how 100 percent sound he was. In tonight's ESPN's documentary, "Going Big," Bowie recounts his pre-draft examination by Trail Blazer team doctors.
(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY, "GOING BIG")
BOWIE: And I can still remember them taking a little mallet, and when they would hit me on my left tibia, I don't feel anything, I would tell them. But deep down inside, it was hurting. If what I did was lying, if what I did was wrong, at the end of the day, when you have loved ones that have some needs, I did what any of us would have done.
KELLY AUCOIN: I gotta say, I'm pissed off. Can I say that? I am.
GOLDMAN: Forty-five-year-old Kelly Aucoin has been a Blazers fan since 1975.
AUCOIN: He couldn't have asked for a more forgiving, protective fan base, and then to find out that you were protecting a guy who lied to the people who were making an evaluation, it's a little hard to swallow.
GOLDMAN: Other Blazers fans think Bowie's words are being blown out of proportion. As does Bowie, who's now 51 and living in Lexington, Kentucky.
BOWIE: The thing that people fail to realize is after they gave me that thorough physical, I played in 76 of the 82 games, which obviously indicates that the bone was strong, that there was no tricking of the medical personnel.
GOLDMAN: The troubles, Bowie says, started in season two, when a teammate fell on Bowie's leg. Orthopedic surgeon Bob Cook was the Blazer team doctor who examined Bowie's tibia pre-draft. Dr. Cook calls Bowie a man of integrity, someone who didn't lie, but instead did what most elite athletes do when talking about injuries.
BOB COOK: For him to say, oh, that doesn't really hurt, is certainly no indictment of his character. He - all athletes downplay their status to remain competitive and participate in their sport.
GOLDMAN: Cook says Bowie was checked so thoroughly that an admission of pain wouldn't have prompted Portland to rethink its draft strategy, which, according to Dr. Jack Ramsay, never focused on Michael Jordan. Ramsay was Portland's head coach in 1984. The Blazers, Ramsay says, were well-stocked at Jordan's position. What the team needed was a center who could pass, block shots and run the floor like the willowy kid from Kentucky.
JACK RAMSAY: It made the most sense for us to select Sam Bowie. It was almost a no-brainer.
GOLDMAN: Jordan was considered an outstanding player. But the best ever? Who knew? Drafting is an inexact science, like the balky physiology of a 7-foot basketball player. Sam Bowie was traded by Portland in 1989. He ended up playing 10 years and making good money, certainly not a Michael Jordan career but, Bowie says with conviction, certainly not a bust. Tom Goldman, NPR News.