Updated: July 22, 6:01 PM ET
Hype over LeBron doesn't match Alcindor's
By Sam Smith
Special to ESPN.com
Hype makes people do strange things. Whole sports leagues, in fact.
Although I can't remember if we called it "hype" in 1984 when Hakeem Olajuwon (then named Akeem) was entering the NBA. He didn't grab a collegiate championship, but he got about everything else, leading all players in rebounds, blocks and shooting.
Back then, there was no draft lottery. The worst teams in each conference flipped a coin for the first pick in the draft. So it was clear what had to be done: Be the worst. Under that method this season, LeBron James would be trying to figure out what kind of winter coat he wants to wear in Cleveland or Denver. However, if all it took was being the worst, Chicago, Miami and Memphis surely could lose a few extra games here and there if it was going to mean future championships.
But we know the Knicks are going to win the lottery to get James to save the league's most important market ... that is, unless the league decides to help out Jerry West and one of its important new markets in Memphis ... or whether the NBA has had enough of the sickness in Chicago and revives its best market of the last decade. That is how it's all decided, isn't it?
It didn't have to be back then. Lose enough games and you got a 50-50 shot.
And so that's what they did in '84. It was perhaps the most amazing month in NBA history. The previous season Houston had the No. 1 pick and took Ralph Sampson, who was something of the Yao Ming of his day. He was a giant whom many said would revolutionize the game with his unusual size combined with his athleticism. His entry was much anticipated, although several tournament failures in college against tougher players such as Buck Williams left some unsure of Sampson's eventual impact. But few doubted what Olajuwon would mean.
Especially the Chicago Bulls. They had a team filled with high draft picks and rarely could win 30 games. Sure, they'd settle for Michael Jordan if they had to, but he wasn't what they were hoping for. It was Olajuwon. As general manager Rod Thorn would later say after drafting Jordan with the No. 3 pick, "He's not the kind of player to turn a franchise around." Olajuwon was.
The Bulls had 26 wins on March 20. At the end of the season on April 15, they had 27 wins. They even traded away their best player, Reggie Theus, for fear he would help them win too many games as they lost 14 of their last 15. And the race was on with Houston.
Back then, it was not uncommon to trade No. 1 picks for veterans. The other losingest teams were Indiana, Cleveland and the Clippers, who were trying to win. Chicago and Houston weren't. Portland had Indiana's pick, Dallas had Cleveland's and the 76ers had the Clippers'. Among that group, which ended with the top five picks in the draft, only the 76ers were trying for Jordan (they had Moses Malone at center). Billy Cunningham was coach, and his North Carolina connection was strong. He was going for Jordan and probably would have gotten him if the Clippers hadn't won a few games those last couple of weeks while the Bulls were dumping theirs. But back then, the Bulls couldn't even get that right.
Houston, even with Sampson, was the best at tanking the season. They came barreling down the stretch, losing nine of their last 10 to get themselves into the coin flip, which they won for Olajuwon. Portland, in perhaps the most infamous draft mistake in history, passed on Jordan for Sam Bowie, and the Rockets were in the NBA Finals a year later. The hype about Olajuwon was justified. He went on to become one of the elite players in NBA history. Of course, he was no Jordan.
Is there someone out there better than LeBron James, the Ohio high school sensation who'll be on ESPN2 tonight? We probably won't know for a few years, but it doesn't seem like it. Even guys whose personnel knowledge I respect think James will be a great NBA player.
One thing is sure: No one has ever gotten the attention, buildup and hype of James. Games on pay-per-view. A record shoe contract to come. National magazine cover stories. Clearly, it's all part of the changing sports society in which teenagers are becoming a commonplace addition to NBA rosters. So no one is surprised that James is expected to leave high school and declare for the NBA draft next spring.
The larger surprise is the unprecedented level of attention being paid to a high school kid, to the point where he ever was mentioned for the 2004 Olympic team.
It wasn't like this for Shaquille O'Neal or Tim Duncan or David Robinson, the franchise-changing big men of the past 15 years. Robinson missed a couple of years in the Navy and no one was quite sure about him because of the college schedule he played. O'Neal never had great success in college, and neither did Duncan, who had this quirky nature that suggested education was more important than the NBA. Who knew if that kind of misguided person could make it in pro sports?
The greatest hype? I'd have to say it was for Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, then named Lew Alcindor. High school games weren't televised back then, but we did have TV and even a couple of stations. When Alcindor was at Power Memorial High School, his game against Morgan Wooten's DeMatha powerhouse was a national story, especially since Power hadn't lost for several years. DeMatha won, and Alcindor went to UCLA and didn't lose again for several years.
Alcindor's entry into the NBA was as anticipated as Wilt Chamberlain's. When Chamberlain came, there really wasn't much to the NBA. There were eight teams going as far west as St. Louis and Minneapolis. Wilt was The Giant. A Philadelphia product but always an adventurer, he decided to see America and went to college in Kansas. George Mikan was the standard for centers, but no one had ever seen anything like Wilt, who was the combination of power and grace. No one believed anyone that big could be that coordinated.
But the NBA had this quaint notion back then that kids should stay in college four years. After three seasons at Kansas, Chamberlain had seen enough wheat and decided to spend a year traveling with the Globetrotters. Barely alive, the NBA then was giving teams "territorial" draft picks so popular players would not leave home, and Chamberlain went to the Philadelphia Warriors. He got by far the biggest contract in the league, then about $35,000, but bonuses and side deals doubled his income to make him easily the highest-paid player in the league for years to come.
His first appearance, in an exhibition game in Los Angeles, drew the Sports Arena's largest crowd ever, and his first games against Bill Russell were a huge sports story for a league that still wasn't covered by media on a regular basis.
Perhaps the next biggest hype was for the entry of Magic Johnson and Larry Bird. There were questions about both even when they played one another in the 1979 NCAA finals. There were doubts whether either, alone, could be the dominant player to carry a team like Abdul-Jabbar or Chamberlain, but as a pairing, bringing their rivalry to the NBA was much anticipated. They became, in effect, "saviors" of the NBA and winners as both led their teams to championships and were responsible for much of one of the most successful eras in the league's history.
There were others whose arrivals brought considerable anticipation. There was Pete Maravich, the exciting scorer from LSU who was one of the most popular players ever in college for his free-wheeling style. There was Oscar Roberston, who headed for the Cincinnati Royals after an unstoppable college career; Bill Walton, who brought hippie consciousness and remarkable fundamental play to the NBA; Patrick Ewing, who was seen as the next Bill Russell and was the first prize ever in the initial NBA lottery after the 1984 embarrassment down the stretch; and Cazzie Russell, a dominant scorer at Michigan. I'd probably go with the guy Russell lost the position battle with, Bill Bradley.
He was a New York territorial pick from Princeton. He never became the great individual star to match the others so anticipated, but his arrival was one of the biggest national sports stories at the time. He'd made a famous run in the NCAA Tournament with little Princeton and then went to Oxford to study for two years. Everything is bigger when it happens in New York. It's why, by the way, they have to say it twice, "New York, N.Y." And here was this good-looking, smart -- did we remember to mention he was white? -- talented basketball star coming to a miserable franchise in New York. Talk about your saviors. There would have been less newspaper space back then for Christ. It turned out it was Willis Reed who saved the Knicks, but the arrival of Bradley drew the most attention.
Sam Smith, who covers the NBA for the Chicago Tribune, writes a weekly column for ESPN.com. You can watch LeBron in action Thursday Dec. 12 on ESPN2 -- followed by NEXT -- at 9 p.m. ET.