John Wall figures to make history Thursday night by becoming the first University of Kentucky player to be the first pick in an NBA Draft. That UK has never produced the first player taken in an NBA Draft surprises Sam Bowie, arguably the most notable Wildcat associated with the draft.
"I just assumed with Kentucky's history and tradition, we'd have had a No. 1 pick," Bowie said last week. "And I take pride in knowing a little about Kentucky basketball."
UK can make another bit of history in Thursday's NBA Draft if former teammates DeMarcus Cousins, Patrick Patterson, Daniel Orton and Eric Bledsoe join Wall as first-round selections. No college team has produced more than four first-rounders in a single draft. Three teams have produced four first-rounders in a draft (see chart on Page C4).
If Wall joins Derrick Rose as first players selected, John Calipari can become the fifth college coach who's worked with two overall No. 1 picks. The other coaches are John Thompson (Patrick Ewing and Allen Iverson), Dean Smith (James Worthy and Brad Daugherty), John Wooden (Lew Alcindor and Bill Walton) and Guy Lewis (Elvin Hayes and Akeem Olajuwon).
No coach has had three, so that gives Enes Kanter, Brandon Knight, Michael Gilchrist and Marquis Teague something to shoot for.
Bowie made another kind of history in the 1984 draft when the Portland Trail Blazers selected him with the second overall pick. Of course, what made that selection noteworthy was the third pick, Michael Jordan.
"I used to always joke with him," Bowie said. "If he didn't turn out to be the player he was, I wouldn't have had to hear the ridicule I did."
Bowie forevermore became known as the player Portland took instead of Jordan (and never mind that the Houston Rockets took Akeem Olajuwon with the first overall pick). Injuries, including two broken tibias, curtailed Bowie's career. Jordan led the Chicago Bulls to six NBA championships and became widely recognized as the greatest player of all time.
In 2006, ESPN's David Schoenfield listed the 100 worst draft picks in any sport. He picked Portland's selection of Bowie as the worst draft decision by any team in any sport.
"Why Bowie?" Schoenfield wrote. "The Blazers were fixated on drafting a center. ... Before the coin flip (to decide which team would make the first selection), Portland was fined $250,000 for improper contact with Olajuwon and Georgetown center Patrick Ewing."
Portland had two all-star caliber players at Jordan's shooting guard position in Jim Paxson and Clyde Drexler. The Blazers needed size.
"They made the right selection," Bowie said. "My only regret I have is I wasn't able to stay healthy and let my career fall as it may."
Schoenfield noted that the Chicago Bulls saw Jordan as something of a consolation prize. Then-Bulls general manager Rod Thorn said of Jordan on draft day, "I only wish he were 7-1."
Bowie always took his place in basketball history with a smile. "Any time you're mentioned, good or bad, with Michael Jordan, it's all good," he said.
But Bowie acknowledged that being repeatedly belittled by comparisons to Jordan took its toll.
"There were times, you're sitting there going through the rehab, and your team is struggling," he said, "and Michael's getting all the accolades he pretty much deserved. And I'd hear commentators and I'd hear beat writers. I mean, I'm human. For me to say that didn't affect me (or) that didn't bother me (his voice trailed off).
"The reason it never broke me down was because that was something I had no control over."
With that, Bowie recalled an ironic moment in his second NBA season. Jordan missed most of the season because of a fracture in his foot.
"A lot of people were saying, 'I'm glad we drafted Bowie instead of Jordan. Jordan is looking like he's injury prone,'" the former UK center said.
Alex Groza, who was drafted in 1949 by the Indianapolis Olympians, is the only other UK player to be taken with the second pick of an NBA Draft.
In 1978, Rick Robey was chosen third overall by the Indiana Pacers.
The only other top-five picks out of Kentucky have been Jamal Mashburn (No. 4 in 1993), Kenny Walker (No. 5 in 1986) and Frank Ramsey (No. 5 in 1953).
Ramsey turned pro in a vastly different time. He was the anti-one-and-done. When he got the telephone call informing him that he'd been drafted, Ramsey thought of the Army.
No, the voice on the telephone line said. "By the Boston Celtics. What are you going to do?"
Ramsey said he planned to return to UK for a fourth season, which he did before joining the Celtics in 1954.
Although Kentucky has not had a No. 1 player chosen in an NBA Draft, the draft itself has changed dramatically. There used to be "territorial picks" before the actual drafting of players. These picks — for instance, Tommy Heinsohn of Holy Cross to the Celtics; Philadelphia native Wilt Chamberlain to the Philadelphia Warriors — were intended to help a fledgling league build fan support.
Ramsey noted that Ralph Beard, Groza and several other UK players were taken as a group to found the ill-fated Indianapolis Olympians franchise.
In expressing his surprise that no Kentucky player had been the first overall selection in an NBA Draft, Bowie wondered about one player.
"Right away," he said. "The first thing that comes to my mind is Dan Issel. When you think of Dan Issel, the stories and the legend of Big Dan, I automatically assumed he was a first pick."
Issel, UK's career scoring leader, was taken in the eighth round of the 1970 NBA Draft.
That's because he seemed likely to sign with the Kentucky Colonels of the American Basketball Association.
"The ABA was a pretty flexible league," Issel said.
The rival league's Dallas Chapparels drafted Issel. Then he told the ABA he had no intention of playing in the upstart league. But Issel added that he'd consider signing with the Colonels.
"Three days later, the Colonels made a deal for my draft rights," Issel said.
Even without the ABA factor, Issel did not see himself as the overall No. 1 pick in the 1970 draft. That distinction went to Bob Lanier of St. Bonaventure.
"Bob was the prototypical NBA center," Issel said. "I think I'd have been in the top five."
The list of UK players chosen outside the top five includes such stars as Hall of Famer Cliff Hagan (13th player chosen in 1953), Pat Riley (No. 7 in 1967), Kevin Grevey (No. 18 in 1975), Jack Givens (No. 16 in 1978), Rex Chapman (No. 8 in 1988), Antoine Walker (No. 6 in 1996), Ron Mercer (No. 6 in 1997), Tayshaun Prince (No. 23 in 2002) and Rajon Rondo (No. 21 in 2006).
"That's very strange," Issel said of UK's absence from the top of NBA Drafts. "I think we're going to erase all that this year."