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J.A. Adande

'84 Class Proved to Be One for the Ages

June 24, 2004|J.A. Adande

It's sad to see what the NBA draft has become: a bunch of high school kids whose faces you don't recognize and foreigners whose names you can't pronounce.

I would rather celebrate a significant anniversary than spend much time discussing the uncertain crop about to enter the league tonight. The talent evaluators say this draft could be deep but unspectacular, with plenty of good talent but few to no guarantees.

I guarantee you this: None of the players selected tonight will score 63 points in a playoff game or lead his team to the NBA Finals within his first two years in the league. Those are feats that belong to the best class ever.

Twenty years ago, a new NBA commissioner named David Stern stepped to a microphone in Madison Square Garden and announced that the Houston Rockets had selected Akeem (back then the silent "H" also was invisible) Olajuwon with the No. 1 pick. With that, the greatest influx of first-round talent in league history began.

Michael Jordan and Charles Barkley went in the first five picks. The Utah Jazz snatched John Stockton, who recorded more assists and steals than any player in NBA history, at No. 16.

Pound for pound, it would be hard to top the eight-team draft in 1960 in which Oscar Robertson and Jerry West went 1-2 and Lenny Wilkens sixth. Three Hall of Famers in six picks.

But try to find a draft that could produce a better group of five players than 1984, which could give you a starting lineup of Olajuwon, Barkley, Jordan, Stockton and Sam Perkins.

The Class of '84 supplied three members of the Dream Team for the 1992 Olympics.

Jordan, Olajuwon and Barkley combined to win seven most valuable player awards.

Thanks to Jordan and Olajuwon (who had help from the Class of '84's Otis Thorpe in 1994), this class had a hand in every NBA championship from 1991 to 1998. And when Kevin Willis won with the San Antonio Spurs last year it gave the class 10 championships.

"A lot of rings in that draft," said Willis, who went to the Atlanta Hawks with the No. 11 pick. "The players that were selected were incredible."

Perkins, Barkley and Stockton made a total of six other NBA Finals appearances among them.

"These guys, they knew what it took to win," Willis said. "They were winners coming out of college. Mike was a winner. Charles definitely wanted to win. [Olajuwon] was in the Final Four [three times].

"These guys just had the hunger and the commitment that it would take to get to a championship one day in the NBA. It's proven that they did it. I'm proud to be a part of that."

Then there are players from that class who had lengthy, productive NBA careers, such as Alvin Robertson, Jay Humphries, Michael Cage and Vern Fleming.

And Willis.

I walked down memory lane with Willis when the Lakers played the Spurs in the second round of the playoffs. Of all those great players, he was the only one left in the league this season. He sounded a bit like an old war veteran.

"All of my guys are gone, man," he said.

It was down to Willis, who played in 48 games for the Spurs in his 20th season.

He still remembers his entry to the league, how he was so excited the night before the draft that he stayed up late, talking to Sam Bowie in the hotel hallway. He remembers Stern's mustache. And he remembers that it wasn't so stunning to see Portland take Bowie over Jordan.

"Bowie was a big man," Willis said. "And at the time, everyone wanted big men."

That's why Olajuwon was the consensus No. 1 pick, even though Jordan was the college player of the year. It worked out well enough for Houston. I've always said that the greatest testament to Olajuwon is that the Rockets never had to apologize for taking him ahead of Jordan. They went to the Finals in 1986 and won it all in 1994 and '95, which is plenty in return for a No. 1 overall pick.

If you want to see picks gone wrong, look at the 1986 draft. I did the other night, when NBA TV replayed it. It was like watching "Titanic," knowing that it would turn out badly for almost everyone you see on the screen.

It was a class that became known for busts, both playing and drugs. Chris Washburn, William Bedford, Roy Tarpley. Almost every name brought out a wince.

The class had its share of drunk-driving arrests, including the wife of No. 24 pick Arvydas Sabonis. And it had the death of Len Bias, the No. 2 overall pick who died of a cocaine overdose within days of the draft.

And while Willis keeps the Class of '84 on the court, the Class of '86 is still in court: John "Hot Plate" Williams, the No. 12 pick in 1986, got a one-year jail sentence Monday for failing to pay $128,000 in child support.

Ironically, the 1986 draft might have produced the best second round of all time; its members played a total of 151 seasons in the NBA, only six fewer than the first round. And how about this all second-round squad of point guard Mark Price, shooting guard Jeff Hornacek, center Kevin Duckworth, power forward Dennis Rodman and small forward Johnny Newman?

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