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Rookie Sam Bowie no smash hit, but Blazers like his potential

By Phil Elderkin / November 13, 1984



After researching the background of National Basketball Association rookie center Sam Bowie of the Portland Trail Blazers the only logical conclusion is that Sam's ancestors came over on the Juneflower!

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Bowie's progress, it seems, has always been just a trifle behind what was expected of him, almost as if his career came equipped with its own hold button. At the University of Kentucky, after a standout first two years in which he was picked for the US Olympic team and was All-America as a sophomore, Sam was forced to sit out the next two seasons with a leg injury.

By the time Portland's current season started, he had already missed training camp plus most of the exhibition schedule with physical problems.So far, his game has opened to mixed reviews.

But whether anyone still remembers or not, the 7 ft. 1 in. Bowie was the No. 2 pick in last year's NBA player draft, behind center Akeem Olajuwon of the Houston Rockets but ahead of much-publicized Olympic star Michael Jordan of the Chicago Bulls. Since most pro scouts felt that Jordan was the best college player in the country last season, why would two teams with the chance to get the former North Carolina star pass him up?

The answer is that at 6-5 and working out of the backcourt, Jordan is not going to be a dominating force on either backboard. Where Olajuwon and Bowie have a good chance of grabbing maybe 800 rebounds apiece as rookies, Michael probably would get rave notices for 400.

The reasons Portland wanted Bowie are his size and potential - potential that in two years may result in the Blazers having their best passing and defensive center since Bill Walton. Although coach Jack Ramsay is deliberately soft-peddling Bowie's immediate role with the club, mostly because Sam's game isn't fundamentally sound yet, he still thinks great things are ahead.

''If Bowie had played his college basketball for someone like Bobby Knight, he could have been a tremendous force in this league his first year,'' one NBA scout, who didn't want to be identified, told me.

''While I think Portland was wise to take Bowie, because he is going to be solid rather than spectacular and there is a lot more than show to this game, the kid needs time to develop his skills. Fortunately Sam is playing for a coach in Ramsay who understands this and also recognizes the importance of defense. While Jack will push him as much as he can, he's not going to take any risks.''

Until recently I had never met Bowie, but had been told he didn't have much of a personality and that he was a poor interview. I'd like to correct that impression.

Bowie was honest, pleasant, and as up front with his opinions as any athlete I've ever met. What's more, he stayed around the locker room to talk on a night when he could very easily have felt justified in excusing himself and leaving by a side door. It was a night when Sam had been given an embarrassing lesson in playing the pivot by center Kareem Abdul-Jabbar of the Los Angeles Lakers, the No. 1 scorer in the history of the NBA. Confronted by reporters, he was asked questions such as: Were you surprised that Kareem scored so easily against you? Bowie replied:

''I didn't like it, but in the 16 years Kareem has been in the league nobody else has stopped him either so I guess you could say I'm in good company. I know I've got a lot of things to learn, but I also know I'll get better.

''The fact that I was injured and didn't have a training camp with the club is not a good way for a rookie to start. At least during that period you are going to learn some of the things you need to know about your new teammates. But when you have to gain that knowledge and win at the same time, you are often apt to be a little tentative.''

Bowie also indicated that the difference between college and professional basketball is the difference between Dynasty's Alexis Carrington and Joan of Arc.

''One of the first things that has struck me as a rookie is the talent level throughout the league,'' Sam explained. ''Every center I've played against so far has been big, strong, and smarter about the game than I am. I used to have to deal with maybe one seven-footer a game in college, but in the NBA they're all over the place.''

As for the Portland franchise, it is generally considered the heir apparent to the Lakers, who have won the Pacific Division title the past three years but will no longer have the retiring Abdul-Jabbar after this season.

While there were a lot of indignant fans when Portland traded Calvin Natt, Wayne Cooper, and Lafayette (Fat) Lever to Denver during the off-season for Kiki Vandeweghe, Ramsay felt he needed Vandeweghe's offense. It didn't hurt the Blazers' image either when they started well and signed team scoring leader Jim Paxson.