NBA

Bowie never brought Portland a title, but fans still won his heart

6/27/07 in NBA   |   Todd   |   respect

Sam Bowie expects to spend June 28 like any other fan.

He plans to be fixed to his television at his Lexington, Ky., home, eagerly watching the NBA Draft as the Portland Trail Blazers select Greg Oden with the No. 1 overall pick. At least, that's who Bowie would select.

The process already stirs emotions in the former Blazers center, bringing back a rush of memories. He understands the expectations the Blazers' pick will feel.

He remembers the pride that comes from being a top selection, the desire to reach the lofty expectations it sets, and how "beautiful" it felt to have the Blazers place their hopes on him with their infamous No. 2 pick in 1984.

Through his TV, Bowie will share those emotions with the Blazers' selection. And he'll hope that person enjoys a few different experiences.

Good health.

Success.

Possibly a championship.

They're the things that, two decades later, Bowie still feels some guilt for not being able to provide Portland and its fans.

"I wish I would've been able to reach the goals that not only they had for me, but I had for myself," he said.

Anybody who ever crossed paths with a basketball knows the story: The Blazers selected Bowie with the No. 2 pick in 1984 - until this year, the highest they had drafted since 1978 - bypassing Michael Jordan in the process. Jordan went on to win six championships in Chicago. Bowie went on to several leg surgeries, the Blazers went titleless, and his No. 2 selection became Sports Illustrated's choice for the biggest bust in draft history.

But Bowie doesn't show any resentment toward his injuries or that his name has become a metaphor for draft blunders. He talks excitedly about his time in Portland - even the bad moments. His voice reflects a sense that each day is a gift. Bowie says he feels blessed.

Blessed to own a $1.2 million brick home where he can relax in front of one of his three fireplaces and spend time with his wife and three children. Blessed to spend his days raising Standardbred horses and shuttling his son and two daughters to school, piano lessons, gymnastics classes and soccer practices. Blessed to live a life that he wishes the whole world could share.

The only thing remotely approaching regret in his voice is a feeling of having let down the Blazers and their fans - a special group with which he still feels a tight bond. Bowie, letting his excited tone drop slightly, says he would like to apologize to them - for not living up to expectations; for not providing the championship they anticipated.

What is often left out of the cautionary tale of Sam Bowie is that the Blazers thought they were rounding out a title contender with his selection. Clyde Drexler was a rising star. A blockbuster trade brought in dynamic scorer Kiki Vandeweghe.

Bowie was expected to complete the lineup by providing an All-America frontcourt presence, and he started fulfilling that vision as a rookie when he led the Blazers in rebounding and established himself as one of the league's up-and-coming shot blockers.

Then the injuries started. Surgery in his second year cost him the season's final 41 games. A fractured right tibia five games into the next year set up the stigma that would be cast firmly next to his name. The separation between him and Jordan widened.

Fans know that side of the story well.

What they might not know is how Bowie still carries the burden of those years - physically and emotionally. How a pressure plate is still planted in his tibia, which is held together by 12 screws that remain buried inside. How his right leg feels like a fire is raging inside on many days, leaving him unable to put any pressure on it. And how he feels some guilt for living out a relaxing life partly because of his draft selection, and lamenting that he couldn't have been healthier to give more in return.

Bowie remembers watching the fans while he sat lame on the Memorial Coliseum sidelines. He admired the intensity in their faces and the passion in their cheers. It reminded Bowie of his college days in Kentucky's Rupp Arena. Seeing that fervor made it difficult not to be physically capable of giving back.

But that passion developed in Bowie a special connection to Portland and the region - even though the adoration often wasn't shared. He continued following the Blazers after retiring in 1995 and starting his new life as a "carpool daddy" in Lexington.

Bowie ached along with fans during the Jail Blazers era and the struggles that followed. And now that they hold the No. 1 pick, he's celebrating what the future may hold and wondering if it could start filling the void Bowie feels he left behind.

That's why he plans to spend draft night like a fan: "Glued to the TV," Bowie says, "and hoping that they get to hang a banner in the real near future."

 

And if that happens and Portland goes on to a championship, maybe - just maybe - Bowie can breathe in some relief, and feel a debt was finally settled.

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