As a precursor to the larger lottery we now know, the worst team in each conference participated in a coin flip to determine the No. 1 pick in the NBA draft. In 1984, the Rockets and Trail Blazers (who owned the Pacers’ first-round pick) faced off in the coin flip.
Houston picked Akeem Olajuwon (later known as Hakeem Olajuwon) No. 1. Portland – with shooting guard Clyde Drexler already on the roster – took center Sam Bowie No. 2. That left shooting guard Michael Jordan for Chicago at No. 3.
If the Trail Blazers won the coin flip, they probably would have drafted Olajuwon No. 1, and Jordan would have likely gone No. 2 to the Rockets. The Bulls would have been stuck with someone else. (The next five picks: Sam Perkins, Charles Barkley, Melvin Turpin, Alvin Robertson, Lancaster Gordon).
That’s not the only way it went just right for Chicago. The Bulls won only one more game than Indiana in 1983-84. Had a single result for those teams gone the other way, Chicago could have been involved in the coin toss and gotten the No. 1 pick.
And it wouldn’t have been Jordan.
Then-Bulls general manager Rod Thorn in ESPN’s Michael Jordan documentary:
Olajuwon would have been first by anybody who picked, including me.
I really appreciate Thorn admitting this. Drafting Jordan is literally the first line on his Hall of Fame resume.
Far more often, we hear about teams’ near-hits. The less-flattering near-misses usually get buried. But Thorn is secure enough to share the full story.
Olajuwon was a megastar at the University of Houston. He was also big at a time conventional wisdom held centers were the most dominant forces in basketball. Of course, he was going to be the top pick.
Success in the NBA requires both good performance and good fortune. Thorn believed enough in Jordan to draft him. Thorn gets credit for that.
He was also lucky to be in that position. No shame in acknowledging that, too.