by Duane Watson / @sweetswatson
“With the number two pick, the Portland Trail Blazers select Sam Bowie.”
Knowing that Michael Jordan was still available, those words now sound incredulous. Jordan had just hit a game-winning shot in the NCAA Championship game, won a Gold medal in the Olympics and was about to become the greatest player to touch a basketball. At the time however, it wasn’t a questionable selection—the Blazers already had Clyde Drexler as their shooting guard and needed a center. In an era where you had to have a big man on your team to excel, they were going big and they went with Sam Bowie.
History has told the tale of Jordan’s rise and Bowie’s demise. But Going Big, a telling documentary on the life, college and professional careers of Sam Bowie and the injuries that plagued him, paints a more informed picture.
Going Big is part of ESPN Films SEC “storied” series and not only speaks with Bowie at length, but also Charles Barkley, Hakeem Olajuwon, Patrick Ewing, John Thompson, Joe B. Hall, Ralph Sampson, Jack Ramsay, David Stern and Drexler, among others.
The archival footage, photos and interviews do an excellent job at profiling the man who, at 7-1 and 260 pounds, became the biggest footnote in NBA history. Now, he gets to tell his story, in his own words.
SLAM: How did you feel when you heard they wanted to make a documentary about your story?
Sam Bowie: ESPN and their staff had gone months trying to get a hold of me, leaving messages with my family in regards to doing this documentary. To be honest with you, I was kind of running from them and had no desire to do it. I’ve never been one to cherish being in the limelight and doing a documentary, I never felt as though I was really worthy of a story to be told. But after contacting them and working with them over the last six to seven months to get this thing together, I’m so elated and humbled that I allowed them to tell my story.
SLAM: Did you feel vindicated in a sense that you had an opportunity to share your perspective?
SB: It’s no secret the fact that I was drafted before Michael Jordan, that’s going to be the topic of conversation whenever you mention the Draft and Sam Bowie. There’s going to be a lot of critics that say, “Who could be the idiot to draft Bowie before Jordan?” I think this documentary gives you a full detailed story how all that transpired. It gives me a chance to tell my story, and maybe your thought process on me after, might be a little different.
When I watched it, I forgot about some of the historical events that took place during my career; being an Olympian in 1980 and President Carter boycotted the Olympics, the amount of times that I fractured my leg, the hardware that’s in my leg as we speak with the compression plates and the screws, things of that nature. After they put the documentary together it was kind of an educational experience for me, because things happen so quickly in one’s life and one’s career that it almost took a film like this to realize what I’ve been through.
SLAM: How did it feel to watch the footage of your injuries?
SB: The one injury in Portland, the nasty fracture, I’ve only seen one replay of it and even in the documentary before they show it, I continuously turn my head because that was a nightmare experience. I can still get the sensation of what it felt like when it originally happened back in ’86. So watching it is fine, except some of those injuries.
SLAM: How do you feel about people who say you lied or deceived the Trail Blazers about your physical condition?
SB: What I said, I’ll say it again, I did not cheat or try and trick anybody. I wish that people would understand when you go for a job interview for the Portland Trail Blazers, knowing that if you’re selected as the second pick, you’re making $5 million guaranteed and I don’t want the dollar to be the sole motivating factor for anything because, I came up from eating government cheese and food stamps and things of that magnitude. So a dollar has never been a sole motivating factor for me, but the articles have come out about me lying, I think you have to watch the whole documentary to get the full appreciation of what I was saying.
What I said was that when they were taking the mallet and hitting my tibia, even though there was some discomfort, I wasn’t about to tell them that the discomfort and the pain was to where they shouldn’t draft me, where they shouldn’t give me $5 million. What they fail to realize is that when they were checking me, they checked my ankles; my hips, my knees and I had discomfort in all of those areas. But they took X-rays and bone scans, MRIs and did their due diligence and I passed with flying colors.
After they drafted me and after the physical, I played in 76 of the 82 games that year with no complications or setback. It wasn’t until my second year in the pros, when a teammate of mine Jerome Kersey, who was 6-8 and 255, fell on my leg in Milwaukee. That was when I had the re-occurrence of the leg that I hurt in Kentucky. So it does bother me, usually the media I don’t keep up with the negativity, but to have me come out like I purposely deceived the Trail Blazers’ medical staff, that couldn’t be any further from the truth.
SLAM: You had an ability to play outside as a big man, shooting, dribbling etc. Do you feel your skill-set was before its time?
SB: I would have loved to play in today’s game, because back when I was playing when you were 7-feet, you were automatically assumed to be down on the post and be in the paint area. You weren’t really allowed to showcase the skills, the ball handling the perimeter jump shots, running the floor. Where today they don’t really have positions they’re are all kind of interchangeable; I would love to play in today’s style of basketball.
SLAM: Why do you think the rest of your pro career is so overlooked?
SB: I hear people use the word “bust” and what people fail to realize after all the surgeries and all that hardware, plates and screws and all the rehabilitation, that I still did play 10 years. A lot of times people automatically assume that I never played a game in the NBA except that first year, where they show me with my broken leg. I could have easily called it quits and headed to Lexington and said, It just wasn’t meant to be. But I think the one thing the documentary portrays, is the kid who would get up, brush his knees off and go right back to work
SLAM: Did you have any feelings of empathy for what Greg Oden is going through?
SB: Very much so. Portland had Bill Walton and Bill had all the setbacks with his feet, then I come along and then they draft Greg Oden. He might be getting it worse than Sam Bowie, ’cause even though he wasn’t drafted before Jordan, to think of what he’s going through mentally has to be really, really painful for Greg. I’ve never have had the pleasure of meeting Greg… injuries are something that’s part of the game, no one wants to break their leg like I did and no one wants to fracture their kneecap like Greg did, but those things occur.
SLAM: Who was the best player you ever played against at the collegiate level, as well as the pro level?
SB: In the college level, I’d have to say it’s probably 1 and 1A, would probably be Patrick Ewing and Hakeem Olajuwon. Those two guys were the biggest challenge I played against in college. But in the pros, it’s no secret that Michael, who many will say is the greatest player that will ever play the game, you always have to start the list with him. I also got a chance, not that it was any fun, but Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, my first introduction to him, he must’ve scored 40 on me with that skyhook. He was as good as they got as far as a basketball player was concerned. I got a chance to play against Julius Erving, Magic Johnson, Larry Bird, Karl Malone, those guys were rewarded as the top-50 players of all time and a lot of them come form my era.
SLAM: Knowing your game and the competition you played against, where do you think your legacy would’ve left off, if you didn’t get injured?
SB: The only thing that really comforts me is that when I talk to the Olajuwons the Jordans, the Barkleys, when your peers know that your game was to the point that they respected it, that they had their hands full. Knowing that my peers know if I had stayed healthy, I would have put up some numbers that would’ve been reflecting the type of player that I could’ve been. I always say if I’m going to say, Why me? Why me that I have been blessed the life I have now?
At 51 years old, I live as good today as I did when I was in the NBA—I’m healthy, got three beautiful children, college graduate—so whatever I say what it could’ve been, it’s hard for me to believe it could be better than it is right now.
Going Big premieres on Thursday, December 20, at 9 p.m. ET on ESPNU. It re-airs on ESPN Sunday, January 20, at 6:30 p.m. ET and ESPN2 on Saturday January 22, at 10 p.m. ET.