“The Last Dance” documentary, a 10-part series chronicling Michael Jordan and the 1997-98 Chicago Bulls, debuted its first two episodes Sunday night, and one of the parts that had to catch everyone’s attention was Rod Thorn, who was the Bulls’ general manager in 1984, admitting he would’ve taken Hakeem Olajuwon over Jordan had the Bulls had the No. 1 pick.
“Olajuwon would’ve been first by anybody who picked, including me,” Thorn said.
In 1984, Olajuwon was indeed considered the best player in the draft, and make no mistake: The Rockets hit aces on their pick. “There was no one alive, not [North Carolina] coach [Dean] Smith, not Rod Thorn who drafted him, no one, none of the experts thought [Jordan] would become what he became.”
On the other hand, Olajuwon was a can’t-miss prospect who wound up delivering the Rockets two championships (both coming in the years Jordan went on his baseball sojourn). Hindsight is 20-20, but at the time Olajuwon was, at the very least, an extremely defensible pick, and probably the right pick.
Now, the Blazers taking Sam Bowie, a seven-footer out of Kentucky with a severe injury history? That was probably a bad call at the time, and over the years it’s come to look even worse. Portland had Clyde Drexler, who played the same position as Jordan, and back then the NBA didn’t play the same position-less style that’s played today, which not only encourages but in many ways necessitates having multiple wings with Drexler and Jordan’s size and skill.
In 1984, it was a big man’s game. It was no coincidence the first two players drafted were seven-foot centers. Even after Jordan was drafted, Rod Thorn quipped to the media: “We wish he was 7-1, but he isn’t.” The footage of former Knicks star Walt Frazier questioning Jordan’s ability to be a franchise player is telling.
“Michael’s got to realize he’s not seven foot, so he’s not going to carry a team in the NBA,” Frazier said at the time.
Again, it was a big-man’s game. Even when Magic Johnson took the league by storm in leading the Lakers to a title in his rookie season of 1979-80, he played the Finals as a center. He was 6-foot-9, as was Larry Bird. Jordan, meanwhile, was listed at less than 6-foot-6.
Still, none of that may not have mattered had the draft been held just a few months later, after the 1984 Olympics, in which Jordan led the U.S. to a gold medal while putting on a show worthy of U.S. coach Bob Knight calling him “the best basketball player that I’ve ever seen play.”
“The reality is, we were lucky the draft was before the Olympics,” Thorn said in the documentary. “Michael became the most popular amateur basketball player in the world because of the Olympics.”
The Bulls, luckily, got him a few months before everyone found that out.