Sam Bowie's injury-plagued career gets a second opinion in ESPNU documentary

jtipton@herald-leader.comDecember 17, 2012 

  • Kentucky vs. Western Kentucky

    When: 7 p.m. Saturday
    Where: LP Field in Nashville
    TV: ESPNews
    Radio: WBUL-FM 98.1; WLAP-AM 630; WWRW-FM 105.5

There's something ironic about how former Kentucky star Sam Bowie resisted ESPN's desire to make him the subject of a documentary. "I was running from ESPN for months," he said Monday.

Ironic because injuries prevented Bowie from running, literally, for long stretches of his ill-fated basketball career.

The documentary, which airs at 9 p.m. Thursday on ESPNU, tells how Bowie overcame repeated setbacks, physical and psychic. As basketball's Hester Prynne, he's worn the scarlet letters "M-J" as the player the Portland Trail Blazers selected in the 1984 NBA Draft instead of Michael Jordan.

The fear that ESPN Films might dwell on the-man-picked-before-Jordan angle initially made Bowie reluctant to cooperate. But after a private viewing for family, friends and selected K Fund donors Monday night, he expressed appreciation for the film's sweeping review of his remarkable life to date.

"I think they did a wonderful job almost defending me," he said of the film, entitled "Going Big."

Portland's ill-fated decision recently generated a new burst of publicity — and a new reason for Bowie to feel the need for protection — when word spread about his pre-draft physical examination with the Blazers.

"I can still remember them taking a little mallet, and when they would hit me on my left tibia, and 'I don't feel anything' I would tell 'em," Bowie says in the documentary. "But deep down inside, it was hurting. If what I did was lying and what I did was wrong, at the end of the day, when you have loved ones that have some needs, I did what any of us would have done."

When asked by the ESPN documentarians about his response to the doctors, Bowie made no apologies.

"I'm 51 years old now and my legs are broke down," he said. "I'm very proud, don't feel like I owe an apology to anyone. The bottom line is: Sam Bowie was drafted before Michael Jordan and you're gonna have to accept that."

Yahoo Sports used the word "lied" in a headline for a story about the film. This description of Bowie's response to Trail Blazers doctors heaped further pain on someone who has endured so much.

"I thought it was a cheap shot," Bowie said Monday night. " ... It was the first time an article really affected me."

Bowie likened his physical exam to a job interview. It's not unusual for facts on a résumé to be fudged, he said. In this case, millions of dollars were on the line.

"I don't think anyone would say when you hit me with a mallet, 'My leg is killing me,'" Bowie said. "That's human nature.

"I'll be elated when people see the documentary. I think they'll have a different perspective."

Tom Friend, the ESPN reporter who pitched the idea of a Bowie documentary to his bosses, noted the circumstances of the former UK player's childhood. Bowie grew up in a 660-square foot house in Lebanon, Pa. An alcoholic father. A mother who worked two jobs to support herself, Bowie and his sister.

As a high school phenom, Bowie signed more than a few autographs as "The Million Dollar Kid."

"You have to understand the context," Friend said.

Bowie came to UK as the Anthony Davis or Nerlens Noel of his time. He intended to turn pro after his sophomore season, a startling departure from the norm at the time. In the documentary, he said it was a "mortal lock" that he would leave Kentucky after his sophomore season.

But in the third-to-last game of the 1980-81 regular season, Bowie landed awkwardly on his left leg after rising for an alley-oop pass. No one knew that this moment in a game Kentucky won by 32 points (over Vanderbilt) began a sad, surreal spiral of injury and rehabilitation.

Bowie finished that season, but it was soon determined that he had sustained a stress fracture in his left shin. He could not play the two seasons. After returning as a good, if not great, player for UK in 1983-84, Bowie found himself the subject of the Blazers' physical exam. This visit to the doctor's office held multi-million dollar consequences.

"You think he's going to throw that away?" Friend said of Bowie's failure to tell the Portland doctors how he felt. "Are you kidding me?"

For all the publicity generated by the physical exam, it's only a tiny slice of the documentary.

Much more compelling is Bowie's life story: Banned from an elementary-age youth league because he was too tall, a high school phenom long before recruiting became a year-round obsession, a contemporary of (if not first-among-equals with) Isiah Thomas-Ralph Sampson-James Worthy-Dominique Wilkins, an Olympian denied of playing for his country by President Jimmy Carter's decision to boycott the Moscow Games, his father's death at age 45, a celebrated final college season ending in UK's 3-for-33 second-half shooting against Georgetown in the 1984 Final Four, the player-taken-before Michael Jordan, not-one-not-two-but-three broken legs as an NBA player.

Monday night's audience heard an ESPN producer salute the documentary as a testament to perseverance. But Friend said it's also a success story. For all the aches and pains, the supposed symbol of NBA miscalculation stands triumphant. Financially secure. Owner of horses. Stranger to the daily toil that comes with working a job.

Along with fellow reporter Jon Fish, Friend took a bow for a documentary that he said was "debunking the myth that this is the biggest bust in NBA history."

Jerry Tipton: (859) 231-3227. Twitter: @JerryTipton. Blog: ukbasketball.bloginky.com

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