Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Canon Book Review: Tip-Off: How the 1984 NBA Draft Changed Basketball Forever

Recently, I finished reading the book Tip-Off: How the 1984 NBA Draft Changed Basketball Forever by Filip Bondy. This book is surprisingly about the 1984 NBA Draft and how the players selected changed the sport of basketball forever. The 1984 Draft featured arguably four of the top 25 players in NBA history; Hakeem Olajuwon, Michael Jordan, Charles Barkley, and John Stockton. The first three players were picked in the top 5 of the draft, while Stockton, a little-known point guard from Gonzaga, was picked by the Utah Jazz with the 16th pick. Bondy, an NBA beat writer for many tears, tales the tale of the 1984 Draft focusing on six players, the four greats along with Sam Bowie and Sam Perkins, and how they ended up with the teams they did. A few thoughts about this book:

- One thing that I found interesting was just close that teams such as the Dallas Mavericks, Houston Rockets, and Philadelphia 76ers were to drafting Michael Jordan, only the best basketball player of all time. For example, the Mavs owned the Cleveland Cavaliers' first round pick that year, and the Cavs finished exactly one game ahead of the Bulls. If one game had been different, than the Mavericks would have the third pick in the draft, which is the pick the Bulls used to select Jordan. The same goes for the 76ers, which had the San Diego Clippers' first round pick. The Clippers finished one game ahead of the Rockets that year. If the Clippers lost one or two more games, Philadelphia would be guaranteed one of the first two picks of the draft due to the Clippers having the worst record in the Western Conference. As for the Rockets, the Bulls considered an offer which would send the third pick in the draft to Houston for Ralph Sampson, who at the time was considered a can't miss prospect at center. If the trade had gone down, the Rockets would have Michael Jordan and Hakeem Olajuwon on the same team, and who knows how many titles the team would have won. Wisely, the Bulls decided to keep the pick.

- So Houston selected Olajuwon with the first pick, which was a no-brainier because not only was he a can't miss big-man prospect, but also because Hakeem played his college ball at the University of Houston. The Rockets, behind last year's number one pick Sampson and Olajuwon, instantly became a dangerous team, making the playoffs in Olajuwon's rookie year and the NBA Finals in his second year. Of course, Sampson was brought down due to injuries and other players on that team lost much of their careers to drug use, but Hakeem remained in Houston, and was the main man on two NBA Championship teams. Some pundits may say that Houston made a mistake in taking Hakeem over Jordan, but I don't see how it's a mistake to pick one of the four of five best centers in history, even if you do pass on Jordan. As the book illustrated, the Rockets brass at the time was tickled pink that they landed the big man, and Olajuwon proved to be everything a 1st overall pick is supposed to be and more.

- The big mistake, and probably the most famous missed draft pick in NBA History, was perpetrated by the Portland Trailblazers, a team that needed a center at the time, and felt that Bowie was the man that would push them over the top. Before we get into all of that, keep in mind that the Blazers were a playoff team that year, and had the second pick because of an ill-fated trade with the Indiana Pacers three years prior, for which Indiana got one season out of journeyman center Tom Owens. Nobody brings this up, and really the only person in this book to bring it up was Stu Inman, Portland's general manager at the time. Basically, the Pacers traded the chance to draft the greatest player of all-time for one year out of an average center. With hindsight being 20/20 in all, that has got to rank among the worst trades in NBA history.

- Of course, the Blazers didn't make the right call either, as they selected Sam Bowie. The prevailing wisdom at the time said that you always pick a very good big man over a great guard. Well, that wisdom changed not too long afterwards. Bowie actually seems like a good guy, and in the book he takes his particular place in history in stride, not seeming bitter or anything like that. Sam Bowie's problem was not his play, it was that his body just couldn't handle the strain of being a top-level NBA player. Of course, the Blazers probably should have realized this after Bowie missed two seasons of college ball with a serious shin injury. Or maybe the fact that they needed a seven-hour medical exam to clear Bowie medically before the draft should have been a red flag. But Portland needed a center, and was set at the shooting guard position with Jim Paxson and future Hall-of-Famer Clyde Drexler, so Bowie was their man. In his first year, Bowie played well enough to make the All-Rookie team, but things quickly fell apart from there, as Bowie reinjured his left shin and fractured his right shin twice over the course of three years. In a four year stretch from the 1985-86 season until 1988-89, Bowie played a grand total of 63 games. The Blazers gave up and traded Bowie to the Nets, where he stayed relatively healthy for a few years and played decently, but not at the same level of Jordan or Olajuwon.

- Throughout the book, people defend Inman's decision to draft Bowie over Jordan by saying that nobody was quite sure of Jordan's potential. Well, that's all fine and dandy, but I'm just not buying it. For one, both Dallas and Philadelphia offered major trades to get the third pick, Dallas offering Mark Agguire, who was only the second leading scorer in the NBA the previous season, and Philadelphia owner Harold Katz offering the legendary Julius Erving, perhaps one of the three most famous basketball players on the planet at the time and still a great player, straight up for the third pick in the draft. Adding the Sampson for Jordan rumor (although in the book, the Rockets claim that it never was a serious trade offer), and it was pretty clear that a lot of NBA executives knew that Michael Jordan was a special ball player. Hell, watch the video of Michael Jordan being drafted by the Bulls, and listen to the announcers gush over his potential.

The book also touches on Charles Barkley, who was selected by the 76ers with the fifth pick. Barkley was a larger-than-life character who was considered a bit of a question mark due to his height (listed at 6'6" but closer to 6'4", short for a post player) and weight (somewhere around 300 pounds). Barkley showed up at the 1984 Olympic team tryouts, along with Jordan, Perkins, Stockton, Patrick Ewing, Karl Malone, Joe Dumars, Jon Koncak, and every other major college player at the time excluding Olajuwon (not a U.S. citizen at this time) and Bowie (who turned down his invitation to focus on the draft). From all the accounts given in the book, Barkley was, other than Jordan, the best player at the camp, which raised his draft status immensely. According to the book, Barkley's goal wasn't to make the team, but dominate the first two weeks when NBA scouts were watching in order to improve his draft stock, and coast from there. That makes a lot of sense considering that the coach was Indiana University's Bobby Knight, who was not easy on any player, to be sure. Knight wanted Barkley to come in at 215 pounds, which was a ridiculous request to make, all things considered, and Knight was a hard-ass on everyone, even Jordan. To be honest, Knight comes across as a cranky man who was never satisfied, and picked players he could control (such as Vanderbilt's Jeff Turner and Indiana's Steve Alford), over more talented players like Barkley and Stockton, who also made quite an impression during the camp. The 76ers' thought process is also dissected in this book, as the team really didn't want Barkley, but due to the needs of the roster and his immense talent, could not pass on him.

- Sam Perkins and John Stockton are also profiled in this book. Perkins and Stockton came from opposite spectrums of college basketball, as Perkins was an All-America center at North Carolina, winning national championship and spending most of his college career in the limelight, while Stockton was a point guard at little known Gonzaga, playing in relative obscurity. Oddly enough, they both seem to share a lot of qualities, as both men were humble and praised for their loyalty. Perkins was a starter for many seasons who was considered too laid-back to lead a team, but he definitely contributed and worked as hard as any other player, while Stockton became the all-time assists leader through a mixture of talent, durability, and basketball smarts.

Overall, this book is a fine read, but it doesn't really go into how the draft changed the NBA until the very end of the book, where a few pages are devoted to it. Even then, I'm not sure if it was the draft that changed the game or Michael Jordan that changed it. Either way, it is an interesting look back at the events and the people that shaped up what would become maybe the most important draft in NBA History. Because of the Rockets and other teams "tanking" games to gain draft position, the NBA Draft Lottery was put into place the next season. Because of Jordan's success, the idea of drafting a big man over a guard every time was no longer in vogue, and largely due to Jordan's success, the game has evolved from a battle of the big men into a game where players such as LeBron James, Kobe Bryant, and Dwyane Wade can dominate the game just as much, if not more, than centers such as Dwight Howard. Today, a Sam Bowie type player would never be selected over a Michael Jordan type, no matter if the team selecting needed a center and was set at guard. Now, 26 years later, Jordan, Barkley, et. al have all retired, but their impact on the game is still being felt today.

If you are a fan of the NBA, than this book will prove to be very interesting to you. My only complaint is that the book kind of skimmed through the actual draft itself, focusing more on the actions of the teams and players before the draft. It also didn't go into a whole lot of depth on other stars selected such as Otis Thorpe and Kevin Willis. But these are minor complaints, so overall I'll give the book a 7.9 out of 10. Thanks for reading, and remember if you have any ideas for future reviews, than send them to me at KtheC2001@gmail.com and I'll see if I can fulfill your request.


  1. Awesome review. I wouldn't mind checking this book out as I always thought the '84 draft was very intriguing. Jordan was a one of a kind player and he will probably have a bigger impact on basketball than anyone else in history.

  2. You're probably right about Jordan, although Sheldon Williams's impact ranks a close second. Anyway, if you want to borrow the book than let me know and I'll be happy to lend it to you.

  3. "Today, a Sam Bowie type player would never be selected over a Michael Jordan type, no matter if the team selecting needed a center and was set at guard."

    Portland in 2007 selected Greg Oden (center) over Kevin Durant (sf)

  4. Well, touche. Although at the time Oden didn't have the injury problems that Bowie did when he entered the draft, but as we've seen, Oden hasn't worked out.

    So clearly I was wrong about that, but I feel confident that in the future, an NBA team will not take a project center over a sure thing at a another position. Or at least they shouldn't, especially the Portland Trailblazers.