How The 1984 Draft Changed Basketball Forever

On the late morning of Tuesday, May 22, 1984, two opposing groups of thoroughly superstitious team officials converged on the NBA offices in Manhattan to pray for good fortune, to flip a coin, and to redraw the league’s burgeoning road map for decades to come. They all hoped to win the big prize in the “Olajuwon lottery,” though there were certainly some intriguing alternatives. College basketball in 1984 was chock full of individual genius, a bushel of seasoned, polished upperclassmen eager to impact the league in their rookie professional season. Consider some of the players who had just been showcased in the forty-eight-team NCAA tournament, whetting appetites for NBA fans: Patrick Ewing, playing center, helped Georgetown capture the title. And while Ewing decided to remain a Hoya for another year, Hakeem Olajuwon (he was still “Akeem” back then, at least to the public) chose to leave school early and declare for the draft. He had played fearlessly in that same tournament for the University of Houston, leading the Cougars to the final. Sam Bowie and Mel Turpin, two talented big men, reached the Final Four with Kentucky. Michael Jordan and Sam Perkins at North Carolina were brilliant at times but lost unexpectedly early on to Indiana. And while Auburn could not quite measure up to these other top basketball schools, its star, Charles Barkley, was a hurricane force out of the Southeast Conference.

These players, and their arrival at this special moment in time, would mean the birth of a new National Basketball Association, the modern NBA. The league that was waiting anxiously for this wave of saviors was very different from the one that exists today, at a crossroads in so many ways. The NBA in 1984 had only recently turned the corner from its darkest days, from the budget deficits affecting seventeen of twenty-three franchises and the kind of rampant substance abuse that was coming to light through the well-publicized plights of Micheal Ray Richardson and Quintin Dailey. In 1983, the NBA and its Players Association adopted their first drug program, aimed particularly at those societal scourges: cocaine and heroin. A system of testing, based on “reasonable cause” for suspicion, was put into place, and a series of penalties was introduced in three steps—a period of rehabilitation, without loss of pay, for the first voluntary admission of drug use; a suspension without salary during the rehab period for the second violation; and a permanent league ban for a third violation. A relatively rumpled league attorney, David Stern, accepted the reins from a well-connected, hands-off politician, Lawrence O’Brien, who had been more at ease as campaign manager of John F. Kennedy than as keeper of the flame for Bob Cousy and Bill Russell. Stern inherited a stagnant business from O’Brien, and the new commissioner envisioned an aggressive marketing strategy to turn the league around with assistance from salary controls.

The transition at the top heralded the start of a hands-on regulation era. Earlier, as aggressive point men for the league, Stern and his lieutenant, future NHL commissioner Gary Bettman, won a salary cap in 1983 during collective bargaining negotiations with the players’ union. The nascent NBA once had a cap in the 1940s but abandoned it after just one season. Groundbreaking for professional sports, the new system would go into effect for the 1984–85 season, basing the cap on 55 percent of the league’s total revenues. The maximum combined player payroll would be set at $3.6 million for each team. Twenty-one years later, for the 2005–06 season, the cap number was $49.5 million, and many franchises were well over that number because of rule exceptions. The average salary of players in 1984 was $340,000 and would grow to $4.28 million within two decades.

“The things we worried about then . . . ,” Stern said, looking back. Most of all, the league fretted about getting its product on television. No network wanted any part of the NBA in prime time, so Stern found himself scheduling playoff games on back-to-back Saturday and Sunday afternoons, just so they would be broadcast live. “Even later, the year the NFL was on strike [1987], CBS would rather put on a St. John’s–Yugoslavia game,” Stern said. “They wanted $50,000 from us to get our games on. We were begging them to get on.”

Ironically, the NBA was in its competitive and artistic heyday at this time. The playoffs that spring of 1984 produced incredible basketball, dramatic matchups that ended in a sublime, seven-game victory by the Boston Celtics over the Los Angeles Lakers in the finals. Larry Bird and Magic Johnson were incomparable bicoastal rivals. And yet these stars were still not transcendent in a global marketing sense. They were most famous for their passes, for their championships, not for their dunks or for their shoes or for their off-court trash talk. Playoff games finally were being shown live, instead of on tape, but networks were just beginning to bid for rights.

So this would be a brave new world, and the class of rookies would be its founding fathers. Fresh, exciting dynamics were suddenly in place. Stern was leading the charge toward competitive parity with his crusade, the salary cap. Younger players were leaving college before their graduation, offering yet another layer of suspense to the draft: Will he stay, or will he go? As the stakes grew, players looked to maximize their marketing power. Family friends and lawyers no longer afforded adequate representation. Super agents with big firms and impressive client lists would soon determine the very composition of the league and its teams. And then there were the sneakers, the fast food chains, the soft drinks. Endorsements and television money were about to change all the rules, forever.

The league in 1984 was in its last throes of a stubborn plutocracy, dominated by a powerful ruling triumvirate: the Boston Celtics, the Los Angeles Lakers, and the aging Philadelphia 76ers. The rosters of too many other teams were paper-thin in marketable stars. The coin flip to determine the first draft pick on May 22 represented a chance for either the Houston Rockets or the Portland Trail Blazers to change all that, to transform the trio of elite teams into a quartet. Olajuwon wasn’t a particularly glamorous figure. He wasn’t even American. But the Nigerian star figured to have an immediate impact. He was big, smart, and agile. He owned surprising court savvy despite his inexperience. Title teams were built around such centers, guys like Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Robert Parish. Olajuwon looked like a franchise player who figured to win a championship or two.

The two sides, Houston and Portland, did not arrive empty-handed to this coin flip in midtown Manhattan, for that surely would invite disaster. Ray Patterson, president of the Houston Rockets and an Irish-American to the core, considered himself an exceedingly lucky man who knew all about this courtship of the coin-flip gods. As president of the Milwaukee Bucks in 1969, he once won the flip for Lew Alcindor, later to become the incomparable NBA superstar Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. And in 1983, with a different league commissioner but in the same office with windows looking down on the spires of St. Patrick’s Cathedral, Patterson had won another flip for the first pick and the right to draft Ralph Sampson.

This time, the Rockets would be flipping against the Trail Blazers for Olajuwon, the surest of sure things. The Sampson flip, a year earlier, served as a model for success, and the Houston representatives would repeat every ritual. On the eve of the flip, they gathered again at the renowned Jimmy Weston’s bar on Manhattan’s East Side to drink Irish whiskey late into the night. Weston knew Jim Foley, the Rockets’ public relations director, from the late ’60s, when Foley was working at Marquette University. Anybody who was a friend to Al McGuire, the personable coach and bon vivant at Marquette, was a friend of Weston. So not only did Weston host these good-luck eves for the Rockets, he ordered a worker at the saloon to grab a pair of giant shears and to snap a chain that tethered an odd-looking clock to the barroom wall. This clock was in the shape of Ireland, with twelve Irish coins in a circle to represent each hour. This would be Weston’s gift to the Rockets, and it was guaranteed by the proprietor himself to assure success in the coin flip for Sampson, for Olajuwon, for anybody.

To this fateful meeting in May, the Rockets also brought a couple of certified bearers of good luck: Liz Patterson, Ray’s daughter, and Tracy Thomas, the daughter of the Rockets’ owner, Charles Thomas. Tracy, a twenty-one-year-old senior at Texas A & M, had suggested in 1983 that her father call “heads” for the Sampson flip, but cried in panic as then-commissioner O’Brien prepared to flip the coin. “Oh, Daddy,” Tracy screamed suddenly. “Why did you listen to me? Please don’t blame me!”

That coin bounced twice, hit the wall, and turned up heads. Charles Thomas turned proudly toward Ray Patterson, the Rockets’ owner. Tracy was correct, allowing Houston to choose first in the draft and to pick Sampson, College Player of the Year from the University of Virginia. “I would have jumped out the window if his daughter was wrong,” Ray Patterson said. The Indiana Pacers were stuck with Steve Stipanovich at number 2, who was the worst sort of consolation prize. Afterward, before heading back to Houston, Rockets’ personnel, family, and friends consumed five bottles of Dom Perignon at Weston’s. A few more bottles were left unopened, gifts to their gracious host, Jimmy.

Funny thing, though: the Rockets kept right on losing games in 1983–84, even with Sampson. They were back in the coin flip, and this time the stakes were arguably even greater. Most experts believed that Hakeem “The Dream” Olajuwon was a purer pro center than Sampson and therefore an even bigger catch. Patterson was convinced again that all lucky omens were pointing in Houston’s direction, even though the Irishman, O’Brien, had been replaced by a Jewish attorney, David Stern. Larry Weinberg, the owner of the Portland Trail Blazers, knew he faced a tough coin-flip opponent in Patterson and didn’t trust his own karma that day. He dragged along a friend from an entirely different walk of life, a guy known to others only as “Lucky,” because of a serendipitous personal history. Lucky would advise Weinberg on the coin flip. Mainly, he would stand around and be lucky.

Stern, the new commissioner, performed this famous flip in his office. Jimmy Weston’s clock was again present. It was held for a bit by Steve Patterson, Ray’s son, who would much later become president of the Trail Blazers—a touch of bittersweet irony. First, there was a coin flip to decide who would call the real coin flip. The Blazers won this flip, the wrong flip. They then made the call: “tails.” The coin landed heads. Foley tore off his jacket and dress shirt, like Clark Kent crammed into a phone booth, to reveal a T-shirt underneath that proclaimed in large block letters “AKEEM.” There was much hugging and kissing. Bill Fitch, the Rockets’ coach, remembered that Weinberg growled only one thing after his own crushing defeat: “C’mon, Lucky, let’s get out of here!” The victorious Houston crowd headed to Weston’s for more celebrating. The Blazers’ officials departed New York in a huff, terribly disappointed they had lost Olajuwon and now had only Michael Jordan, Sam Perkins, Charles Barkley, John Stockton, and a pack of other future NBA stars to choose from.

Fitch, meanwhile, sneaked away just ten minutes after the victorious flip, placing a clandestine phone call to someone in North Carolina.

A big thanks goes out to Sean Maher at Perseus Books for sending me a copy of Filip Bondy’s book “Tip-Off: How The 1984 Draft Changed Basketbal Forever” to review on this site. What you just read was the prologue for this book and I’ll be posting a chapter called “The Imperfect Fit” about Charles Barkley and the Philadelphia 76ers on Wednesday. Make sure you keep your eyes out for an interview with Filip Bondy that I’ll be posting early in July where we discuss his book.

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