The 1984 NBA Draft: Drafting Jordan – Not a Done Deal

MJ at his signing press conference
MJ at his signing press conference

On September 12, 1984, Michael Jordan signed his first NBA contract with the Chicago Bulls. It was a 5 year guaranteed contract with two option years. The whopping total was for a little over $6 million and that included a $1 million signing bonus. At the time, it was the third highest contract ever given to a rookie (behind Ralph Sampson and Hakeem Olajuwon). In 1984 the salary cap for the entire team was only $3.8 million. But for Thorn and the Bulls, they thought Jordan and his $1 million a year salary was worth it. A myriad set of circumstances took place that spring and summer for Jordan to fall to the Bulls, but also for the Bulls to use the pick to draft Jordan.

When the 1984 NBA season ended on April 15, 1984, the Indiana Pacers had the worst record in the Eastern Conference. Unfortunately, they did not own their first round pick, Portland had traded Tom Owen for it in 1981. The Houston Rockets, who had landed 7’4″ Ralph Sampson the year before, were also in the running for the first pick having the worst record in the Western Conference. A coin flip would decide who would own the pick. The NBA was gaining popularity thanks to great players like Magic Johnson, Larry Bird, and Julius Erving. The draft in 1984 was seen as huge new part of the NBA’s marketing scheme and business model under new commissioner David Stern.

A lot of maneuvering took place before the coin flip took place. The consensus #1 pick that year was Hakeem (then spelled Akeem) Olajuwon. The 7’0″ center from the University of Houston was coveted by every General Manager (GM) of every NBA team. He was smooth, sleek, quick, and a winner having won a NCAA Championship as part of Phi Slamma Jamma at the University of Houston. After Olajuwon, the second pick was anybody’s guess. If Patrick Ewing of the Georgetown would have come out a year early, he would have been the second pick. In fact, the Portland Trail Blazers tried to convince Ewing to leave school a year early. Ewing did not. Ewing only wanted to play for the Lakers or the Knicks. But, the Trail Blazers got caught with their hands in the proverbial cookie jar. The result was a then staggering $250,000 fine placed by brand new commissioner David Stern.

Stern, asserting his authority, called both the Rockets and the Blazers executives to his office to discuss the matter. The Rockets, having documented their contacts with NCAA coaches came away with no damages, fines, or draft picks taken away. The Bulls meanwhile, sat on the sideline hoping that either team would be stripped of its pick allowing the Bulls to possibly move up and take Olajuwon. That did not happen either.

Before the coin flip, the Bulls were in active talks with several teams about the #3 pick. Some of the talks were not so pleasant. Former Bulls coach and then Dallas Mavericks head coach, Dick Motta, complained openly the Bulls had tanked several games in the 1983-1984 season in order to enhance their draft slot. Despite Motta’s objections, Philadelphia GM Pat Williams adored Jordan and was willing to talk a deal. Everything depended on the coin flip. Either team was going to take Olajuwon with first pick. But Houston was not going to take Bowie second if it lost the first pick. Had this scenario played out, that meant that 7’1 Kentucky big man Sam Bowie would fall to the Bulls. Then, in turn, the Bulls would have shipped Bowie off to Seattle for All-Star and Illinois native Jack Sikma, then a 28 year old center for the Super Sonics. The Rockets won the coin toss killing the Sikma deal.

May 27, 1984 Tribune Trade Account
May 27, 1984 Tribune Trade Account

The Bulls also took in and pondered offers from the Atlanta Hawks of Center Tree Rollins for the third pick. The San Diego Clippers (soon to be Los Angeles) offered Forward, and Chicago native, Terry Cummings. Thorn turned down all offers.


But even drafting Jordan was not a done deal. The Portland Trail Blazers sat at number two and they controlled the draft and the Bulls’ fortunes. According to Hakeem Olajuwon, in his memoir, the Trail Blazers offered the Rockets an unbelievable scenario to snag Ralph Sampson instead of Bowie. It would have gone down like this: Olajuwon would have been drafted at one by the Rockets. Then Ralph Sampson would have gone to Portland in exchange for Drexler and the #2 pick and Jordan could have picked #2 by the Rockets. But that deal, like many others, was either just a pipe dream or received little merit by the Rockets. The Rockets saw Olajuwon as once in a lifetime player to pair with Sampson.

It was up to Portland. They brought in Sam Bowie in for a round of tests and examinations. According to Bowie, the physical exam lasted seven hours. Bowie was not that far from Olajuwon athletically, but Bowie sat out 2 years in college with shin splints and leg issues. He was only 22. But at 7’1″, the Blazers, who had won 48 games the year before, felt Bowie could push them over the edge to a championship caliber club. The NBA game at the time was built around the center being a dominant offensive and defensive force. Bowie fit that mold as a college player when he was healthy.

In the recently released ESPN Films “Going Big,” Bowie said of the process,

“I can still remember them taking a little mallet, and when they would hit me on my left tibia, and ‘I don’t feel anything’ I would tell ‘em. But deep down inside, it was hurting,” Bowie said in the documentary. “If what I did was lying and 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.”

Still, despite Bowie’s admission of hiding pain, the Doctors for the Blazers cleared him. He did have a productive rookie season before missing most of the next two seasons. The Blazers pick was later seen as a disaster and a cautionary tale of millions of dollars lost investing in a high pick. In the film, then Coach Jack Ramsey said that Jordan wasn’t even a consideration. It was alluded that Blazers were more interested in Auburn forward Charles Barkley.

At the draft, it was well-known who was taking whom ahead of time. Draft picks were not held close to the vest like today. Olajuwon went first.

He would go on to win two back-to-back NBA Championships in 1994 and 1995.

Sam Bowie went second to the Trail Blazers. Listen closely to the commentary about Bowie and how he was projected.

While his second and third years were spent missing a lot of games, he did wind up playing in the league for over ten years, some very productively for the New Jersey Nets. He was no lost pick like Greg Oden.

Basketball Reference’s chart on Bowie’s career


Jordan, he went third to the Bulls. Six Championships later and the greatest player ever label was not foreseen. Most scouts thought he would be a good player, but they even had no idea.

The summer of 1984 was a magical one for Jordan and the Bulls. Jordan went to the Olympics and helped the US win Gold in Los Angeles. Jordan’s prowess was on display that summer and it became clear to Bulls GM Rod Thorn that he had made the right choice with the third pick. Rave reviews came in from not only Coach Knight, but basketball reporters across the world as Jordan led the Olympic team in scoring at over 17 points per game.

Jordan olympics

After the Olympics ended, negotiations began in earnest for Jordan’s services. The highest contract the Bulls had previously given was to Center Artis Gilmore when he arrived after the 1976 merger and that was for $4.5 million. Jordan in one fell swoop became the richest Bull and led the Bulls to many riches. over the next 13 years.

That summer of 1984 saw many other changes in the NBA. The Clippers moved to LA, Stern and the NBA sued and lost. A draft lottery was instituted to keep teams from tanking and losing on purpose in order to move up in the draft. It was not popular as many owners and GMs felt that the worst team should have the best pick. It rarely has happened in the 28 drafts since. When New York won the lottery in 1985, the right to draft Patrick Ewing along with charges of conspiracy came along with it.

However, in one summer in 1984, what some call the greatest draft class ever, changed the fortunes of many NBA teams and was a turning point in the history of the game. Jordan, along with Hakeem Olajuwon, Charles Barkley, and 16th pick John Stockton ruled the NBA in the 1990s at the height of its popularity.

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Watch the whole 1984 NBA Draft here.


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