Eighteen times a rare silver dollar had been flipped into the air,
and 18 times the coin had flattened out with all eyes transfixed on
its top side. On May 23, 1984, executives from the Houston Rockets
and the Portland Trail Blazers gathered at the league's headquarters,
in New York City, for the final rendition of this NBA ritual before
the introduction of the lottery the next year. No one who was on hand
that day had any idea that the last landing of the 100-year-old coin
would produce a revolution in Chicago.
Houston, despite the presence of 7 ft. 4 in. rookie Ralph Sampson,
had limped into this game of chance by taking no chances of its own.
The Rockets had closed the season with five straight defeats to edge
the San Diego (now Los Angeles) Clippers for last place in the
Western Conference. Portland had arrived thanks to a 1981 trade with
the Indiana Pacers that sent center Tom ! Owens to the Pacers for
their first-round draft choice in 1984. To Portland's delight,
Indiana had held off a hard charge by the Chicago Bulls, who finished
1-14, to guarantee that the Pacers wound up last in the Eastern
The coin came to rest. Portland owner Larry Weinberg had called
tails. It came up heads, giving Houston the right to select Hakeem
Olajuwon, the 7-foot center from the University of Houston and the
player everyone most coveted. Back home in Wilmington, N.C., Michael
Jordan, who was a junior at North Carolina, sighed.
The process that had enticed Jordan to leave North Carolina a year
short of graduation had begun in Philadelphia. Billy Cunningham, a
former Tar Heel who was the 76er coach, had been summoned to Chapel
Hill by North Carolina coach Dean Smith. Smith wanted to know how
high Jordan would be picked if he opted for the draft. Smith had
followed the league standings, and as winter turned toward spring, he
had begun calling NBA executives whose teams were positioned to have
one of the top five picks. One of those teams happened to be the
76ers, who owned the first pick of the Clippers, one of the league's
Though others had helped Smith paint the picture of Jordan's pro
future, none provided more color than Cunningham. His Sixers had won
the NBA title in 1983, and though they would win 52 games in 1983-84,
their brightest star, Julius Erving, was clearly on the back side of
a brilliant career. In Jordan, Cunningham saw the future. He assured
Smith that if the standings remained the same -- the Sixers were
looking at the No. 3 pick at the time -- they would select Jordan if
he was still available. For Smith and Jordan the discussion largely
But the jockeying for position was far from over. The Bulls'
woeful finish enabled them to jump to the third spot in the draft,
with a 27-55 record. What's more, the Clippers wound up 30-52,
dropping the 76ers' pick to fifth. Philadelphia tried to make a deal
with the Bulls, but Chicago wasn't interested. ''((Bull general
manager)) Rod Thorn wanted me,'' says Jordan. ''Somebody else in the
organization wanted a big man. But I knew Rod wanted me at that
Chicago had gotten itself into a public-relations mess earlier in
the season by trading All-Star guard Reggie Theus, the franchise's
most popular player. That trade left the Bulls with lackluster guards
Ronnie Lester, Quintin Dailey, Ennis Whatley and Mitchell Wiggins,
along with the legendary tandem of Wallace Bryant and Jawann Oldham
at center. In other words, they needed help at every position.
''The only obvious thing about the draft was that Olajuwon would
be picked by whatever team won the coin flip,'' says Thorn, now the
league's vice- president of operations. ''With Portland, I think once
their doctor cleared ((Kentucky All-America center)) Sam Bowie ((who
had suffered several leg injuries)), they didn't have any interest in
Jordan because they already had ((guards)) Clyde Drexler and Jim
Paxson. But we were going to take Jordan Number 2 or Number 3. If I
had had the first pick, though, I would've taken Olajuwon. Anyone
other than Olajuwon, though, you had to use it on Jordan.''
Nonetheless, the Bulls talked to the Trail Blazers about obtaining
the No. 2 pick. Some members of the Chicago organization felt that
the team should draft Bowie. Jonathan Kovler, the Bulls' managing
partner at the time, remembers listening to coach Kevin Loughery, as
well as assistants Bill Blair and Fred Carter, plead for a big man.
Kovler also recalls fielding calls from Philadelphia, where 76er
owner Harold Katz had caught Cunningham's enthusiasm for Jordan.
''They were very high on Jordan, but the center spot was our biggest
weakness,'' says Kovler. ''We had discussions about Bowie, ((Kentucky
center)) Mel Turpin and ((Auburn forward)) Charles Barkley. We also
talked to Houston about Hakeem, but nothing ever worked out. The
bottom line is that, no matter what we almost did or didn't do, we
drafted and signed Michael Jordan.''
Get this, though: Virtually everything that has happened to the
Bulls since June 19, 1984, the date of that year's collegiate draft,
could just as easily have happened to the Rockets. After Philadelphia
dropped into the No. 5 position and before the coin flip, Jordan set
his sights on the Rockets -- particularly Sampson.
Ever since high school Jordan had wondered what it would be like
to play on the same team with Sampson. ''I wanted to go to Virginia
because I wanted to play with Ralph for his last two years of
college,'' says Jordan. ''He would have been going into his junior
year when I started college. So I wrote Virginia, but they just sent
me an admission form. No one came and watched me, nothing like that.
Then I visited North Carolina. I was happy with the atmosphere, so I
Four years later the Rockets committed early too. Their coach,
Bill Fitch, was more intrigued with the notion of starting Olajuwon
alongside Sampson than he was with pairing Sampson and Jordan.
Still, if the Rockets had lost that coin flip, Houston would have
been home to another space program. Besides the thought of joining
Sampson, Jordan liked the idea of playing in a city with a more
Carolina-like climate than most other NBA cities'.
''It all relied on the flip of a coin,'' says Jordan. ''If
Portland had won the flip, I knew I was going to the Rockets with the
second pick. I knew that. They had Ralph, and they didn't really have
a two guard. Like I said, I had wanted to go to Virginia, and they
never came after me. So I was looking forward to going to the
Jordan pauses for a moment and then says, ''Funny how things turn
Yes and no. Yes, if you're the Bulls, not exactly if you're the
Trail Blazers. Portland had been involved in three coin flips before
unlucky number 19. The only time the Trail Blazers won the toss, in
1972, they drafted LaRue Martin with the No. 1 pick. The Buffalo
Braves, who lost the flip that year, grabbed Bob McAdoo with the
second selection. Enough said.
This time Portland considered its biggest need to be at center.
Paxson had made second-team All-NBA in '83-84, and Drexler, though
unimpressive that season as a rookie, remained a key figure in
Portland's plans. High-scoring forward Kiki Vandeweghe had just
arrived from the Denver Nuggets in a momentous four-player deal. So
while gambling on the injury-prone Bowie looks ridiculous in
retrospect, at the time the decision made perfect sense to the Trail
Unlike the Bulls, Portland was sound. It had gone 48-34 in
1983-84, but it hadn't had a capable pivotman since Bill Walton left
after the 1977-78 season. Bowie, assuming he stayed healthy and lived
up to the potential he had shown at Kentucky, was to be the final
link to another title run. At least that's how Jack Ramsay,
Portland's coach at the time, and general manager Stu Inman saw it.
''Our needs were obvious,'' says Inman now. ''To have a shot at
going all the way, we had to find rebounding help. We had to draft
for size and intimidation. Bowie provided all of that.''
''I had gone to Bowie's hometown, Lebanon, Pennsylvania, to work
him out,'' recalls Ramsay. ''I worked him out myself, just the two us
in a local gym. I told him that unless something crazy happened, we
were going to take him with the second pick. I showed him some things
I wanted him to improve on over the summer and said that I'd see him
in training camp.
''We had Paxson and Drexler. We needed a big man. No one knew
Michael Jordan was going to become the greatest player to play the
Not exactly. Although Thorn and most every other member of the
Bull organization admits to having had no idea how good Jordan would
become, the skinny had started to emerge from members of the '84
Olympic team. Said George Raveling, an assistant coach of the U.S.
team, ''He does things in practice that are mind-boggling. I'd only
seen Michael on TV, and I'd never gotten a true appreciation of how
good he is. Down the road, I think Michael will create a tremendous
controversy as to why he wasn't picked first or second in the
In the days leading up to the draft, however, no one spoke of such
controversy. Portland needed a big man, and Bowie made sense. So when
Stern announced that Chicago had chosen Jordan, there was no
celebration at the team's draft headquarters, where a modest group of
locals had assembled for the event.
''They were real happy, but it wasn't like, Wow, this is it,''
recalls public-relations director Tim Hallam. ''They thought we had
picked a solid player who would turn out to be good for the team, but
not the greatest player in the league. Shaquille O'Neal? Not even
close. They figured we got a kid from North Carolina from Dean
Smith's program, and they said Michael was a great guy. No, the
atmosphere around the draft was nothing like when Shaquille or ((New
York Knick center)) Patrick Ewing ((was drafted)).''
With the Olympic team sequestered in Indianapolis for practices,
Jordan remembers the moment passing quickly. He did his little bit
for the press and called his family, which had hosted a huge party
for friends back in Wilmington. ''The day he was picked, I was
working and they let me off early,'' says Michael's father, James.
''A television station actually came and set up in our living room.
My wife, Deloris, was working at the bank, and she got off early too.
So the whole family was home sitting there in front of the camera.
''We had an idea of what was going to happen, but everyone knows
that on draft day a lot of deals can happen. So it was quite
interesting to see if the whole scenario would be played out the way
we thought it would. Michael called right after they called his name.
He was excited and we were excited. We had the biggest party ever in
the neighborhood that night. It was tremendous. Everybody came over
and carried our privacy home with them.''
Recalls Michael, ''There had been some disagreements about whether
the Bulls should take me, so when they picked me I was happy. I had
never even been to Chicago. I didn't know anything about the city,
nothing. I didn't know anything about the team except that it was
bad. I didn't know any of the players, any of the past players,
nothing. I didn't know much about the NBA at all.''
Jordan pauses and says, ''It really is funny how things turn
Eighteen times a rare silver dollar had been flipped into the air,