As a junior at Syracuse, Owens packaged 23.2 points and 11.6 boards per outing as the 1991 Big East Player of the Year, and had some memorable battles with Mourning along the way.
“Billy could play above the rim, but he was more effective below it, because he was such a great rebounder,” said Mourning, a seven-time NBA All-Star. “He was tough to compete against. He had a lot of different talents, and they were all overwhelming, sort of like a poor man’s LeBron [James]. He definitely brought out the best in my game.”
“There’s no question that Carmelo Anthony, Billy Owens, and Derrick Coleman were the best players I ever coached,” said Boeheim. “Billy was very similar to ’Melo in terms of his ability to put the ball on the floor and use both hands equally as well.”
Owens declared for the draft after suffering the “worst experience of my life” in the first round of the NCAA tournament. Richmond’s historic upset of second-seeded Syracuse marked the first time a 15th seed had ever advanced in the brackets.
“It still hurts; the sting has never gone away,” he said. “ESPN Classic re-aired the game a few months ago, and it just brought back all the pain. To this day, it doesn’t seem real. We were down like eight points all night and kept waiting for something to click. It never did.”
The Kings selected Owens third overall in a draft that featured Larry Johnson, Kenny Anderson, and Dikembe Mutombo, but he refused to sign with the club.
“It was a happy, but confusing time in my life,” Owens said. “I didn’t even know where Sacramento was. I remember pulling up to ARCO Arena and seeing sheep roam around outside. Me being young, I told my agent [Arn Tellem] I couldn’t play there. It didn’t help that their first contract offer was for less money than what Steve Smith got with the fifth pick.”
On the eve of the League’s 1991-92 season opener, Owens was traded to the Warriors, who triumphed in an hour where the Kings had failed in four months by inking him to a seven-year pact worth $19.6 million. The deal sent Mitch Richmond to Sacramento and broke up Golden State’s popular Run-TMC trio of Tim Hardaway, Richmond, and Chris Mullin.
“I was in a barber shop in Santa Monica getting my hair cut when Arn called with the news,” Owens said. “The guy wasn’t even finished, but I hopped out of the chair and gave him $100 and left.
“Because I hadn’t gone to training camp, I was nervous and out of shape when we played our first game. It was at Chicago against Jordan and the Bulls. I had 16 points and 10 rebounds, and right away, I knew I’d be alright.”
As a rookie on the left coast, Owens posted norms of 14.3 points and 8.0 boards for a franchise that averaged a league-best 118.7 points per contest. (No NBA team has come close to matching that clip in the 19 years since.) Mullin, Hardaway, Sarunas Marciulionis, and Owens combined to account for more than 82 of those points, as Golden State won 55 games, 11 more than the previous season.
“Nellie [Warriors coach Don Nelson] let me play my game,” Owens said. “He let us run and do what we were capable of without any restrictions. I handled the ball a lot as a point-forward, and I think that’s why he and Tim had a little falling out.”
A torn meniscus in Owens’ left knee derailed his second year as a pro. He returned to form the following winter, his third in Oakland, as the Warriors began overhauling their roster in favor of budding stars Latrell Sprewell and Chris Webber.
Several of Owens’ ensuing years in the league were marred by injuries. By his retirement from a decade-long career in 2001, he had become a journeyman, having suited up for six different franchises.
Owens currently resides in suburban Philadelphia and is an assistant coach at Division III Rutgers University-Camden. Having worked out guys like Brandon Roy, Russell Westbrook, and J.J. Redick, his goal is to get back in the NBA in a similar capacity.
“Unfortunately, the public loses trace of you if your career doesn’t end on a high note,” Vaccaro said. “That’s tragic—legacies shouldn’t lose their luster. From age 16-23, Billy Owens was one of the greatest players in the world. Anyone who refutes that is not drawing from their earliest memories of him.
“He’s one of the all-time forgotten greats. What he achieved scholastically at Carlisle will never be duplicated.”
Mark Hostutler is a former award-winning journalist at the Delaware County Daily Times. This was an excerpt from his book, Heads of State: Pennsylvania’s Greatest High School Basketball Players of the Modern Era. (You can check out the book’s facebook page here.) Mark currently teaches English and coaches hoops at Coatesville High School, his alma mater in suburban Philadelphia, where as a teenager he ran the floor with Rip Hamilton.
Photos 1-3 courtesy of the Harrisburg Patriot-News, 4-5 courtesy of the Carlisle Sentinel and 6-7 courtesy of Syracuse University.