Boycott still stings Bowie, 28 years later

Tayshaun Prince is now the ninth ex-Kentucky Wildcat to make a U.S. Olympic men's basketball team.

Yet, assuming the Detroit Pistons forward stays healthy and plays in Beijing, he will be the eighth ex-Cat to play for the U.S.A. in a men's Olympic hoops tournament.

In 1980, Sam Bowie made the Olympic team; the team never made it to the Olympics.

”My initial thought was that we were kind of cheated and robbed,“ Bowie said Monday. ”As I've gotten older, I've realized why politics and athletics had to interact in that time.“

It was Christmas Eve, 1979, when, without provocation, the Soviet Union's Red Army rolled into Afghanistan.

As part of the American response to the Russian invasion, U.S. President Jimmy Carter issued an ultimatum: If the Soviets did not withdraw by 12:01 a.m. on Feb. 20, the United States would not send any athletes to the 1980 Summer Olympics in Moscow.

Carter's deadline came and went. The Soviets had not budged.

The President called for an American boycott. The U.S. Olympic Committee's House of Delegates voted by more than 2 to 1 not to participate.

By the time America's best amateur basketball players gathered here in Lexington to try out for the 1980 U.S. roster, Bowie says they pretty well knew they were going for the lifetime right to say they had made an Olympic team and not a chance to compete for a gold medal.

Still, even now, Bowie has vivid recollections of the anxious mess that was a 19-year-old's stomach as he went to look at the list posted of who had made the 1980 team.

”There were like 150 guys competing for 12 spots,“ he said.

Future NBA stars Isiah Thomas, Mark Aguirre, Rolando Blackman and Buck Williams, as well as University of Louisville standout Rodney McCray, found their names on the list.

So did Bowie, the 7-foot-1 center from Lebanon, Pa., who had averaged 12.9 points in his freshman year playing for Joe B. Hall.

With a team but no Olympic destiny, the U.S. played a series of contests, mostly against teams of NBA All-Stars. The six-game tour culminated in a matchup against the 1976 U.S. Olympic team that had won the gold medal in Montreal.

”That in itself was a sensational experience,“ Bowie said. ”We were playing against guys that I had idolized.“

A teenager got to see if he could block George Gervin's famous finger rolls (an underhand flip shot) or keep Darryl Dawkins from unleashing his monster dunks.

The U.S. team went 3-1 against the pro all-stars, beat the French national team and finished up by edging the '76 Olympians 81-77.

Before the chronic leg injuries that hampered Bowie at both UK and in the pros, the young center was the Olympic team's second-leading scorer (11.8 points a game) and its leader in rebounds (6.9) and blocked shots (14 total).

To make up for the lost trip to Moscow, Carter invited all 1980 U.S. Olympians to a ceremony at the White House. The athletes got honorary medals.

For Bowie, the biggest thrill was meeting Edwin Moses, the legendary hurdler.

In Washington D.C., Bowie says it hit him that there were a lot of American athletes — those whose sports only attract attention in Olympic years — with far more reason to be upset by the boycott than the basketball players.

”A lot of us went on to play professional sports and were very blessed,“ Bowie said. ”The track and field (athletes), the swimmers, some of those people really did lose their once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.“

On Monday, Bowie, 47, took special relish in seeing Prince become the first player with a Kentucky Wildcats pedigree on an U.S. Olympic team since 1980.

When Prince came to UK as a freshman in 1998, Bowie was serving as color analyst on the Kentucky radio network. On long plane trips, Bowie says he befriended the willowy product of Compton, Calif.

”I was in his ear on flights,“ Bowie said. ”To see him now with a championship ring (2004 Pistons) and the success he's had, I'd like to feel like I was a part of it from those times I was talking to him on those planes.“

The full impact of having made a U.S. Olympic team has meant more to Bowie with time.

”I can promise you that when Tayshaun is an old man like me, he'll really cherish having his name linked with the Olympics,“ says the former Kentucky center.

Bowie has a trophy room. There he keeps the honorary medal he got instead of having a chance to play for the real thing.

”I stare at it on a constant basis and wonder what it would have been like to go to Moscow,“ Bowie said.