It was the mid-point of Ronald Reagan’s presidency. It was an Olympic year. The Jacksons did a “Victory Tour.” The two greatest franchises in the NBA were in the middle of a death struggle(sport-wise) for league supremacy. But perhaps, the most lasting legacy was the NBA draft. It was the last draft that did not have a lottery; The circumstances would be controversial for the team that had the 1st pick(The Houston Rockets). Today it is somewhat unimaginable, but a highly touted center was the rage of most of the NBA. But this draft had just about everything. It had a player that lasted in the NBA until 2007(Kevin Willis). It had 3 MVPs. It had terrific role players (Jerome Kersey, Sam Perkins). It has the leading assist man in the history of the NBA. And, of course, it has the most celebrated icon perhaps ever in any sport endeavor (Michael Jordan). Over the years, many fans and commentators have argued that this is the best draft. I would contest that (believing 1970 to be stronger), but there is no question that it transformed the NBA for the next two decades. Instead, this post will focus on the weekend of October 26th, 1984. For here, the 4 best (Olajuwon, Jordan, Barkley, Stockton) made their triumphant entry. Each player joined with a slightly different set of expectations. This writing will examine some of those expectations. Let’s deal.
The Stage and the Spotlight: The main characters
Hakeem Olajuwon- Though he was drafted #1, the “Dream” in 1984 was considered a project. Considered a great rebounder/defender, the transformative footwork for which he’d become famous was still a work in progress. In fact, his offensive skills were often considered his weak link (boy, would that soon change). In any event, Dream was joining a team in which 7-4 Ralph Sampson was considered the star player.
Michael Jordan – Michael was certainly considered a dynamic player, but there were also some question marks. Could he go left? What about his jump shot? Bull GM Rod Thorn (along with coach Kevin Loughery) thought they were getting a great player. However, they were in the process of learning; they would be getting a foundational one.
Charles Barkley– Of all the great ones listed here, the “Round Mound of Rebound ” was simultaneously joining the best (for the team) and the worst (for him) situation. Barkley joined a team of perfectionists, with class acts like Julius Erving ( league ambassador) and Moses Malone( The James Brown of the NBA, aka the hardest worker in the business). Barkley did not have a lot of discipline; he would enter training camp at about 285 pounds, and this infuriated coach Billy Cunningham( who desperately wanted fellow Carolina alum Jordan). He would tell Erving, ” this guy will end my coaching career.”
John Stockton– Drafted at 16, Stockton(like Barkley) had slightly lower expectations. He would start his career as a reserve to the well-regarded Rickey Green. Unlike Barkley, however, Stockton thrived in a lesser role. Though short(and lacking quickness), he was a very instinctive player. He was also an exceptionally hard worker. As a result, jazz Coach Frank Layden held high hopes for his potential.
The spotlight: How they performed.
Olajuwon: Opening Night – The #1 pick was now a part of something called “The Twin Towers.” Along with Sampson, this was “year 2 ” of a “5-year plan” (This is the 80s). On October 27th, the Rockets would travel in-state to Dallas to play the suddenly good Mavericks. Olajuwon would get 24 points and 9 rebounds. But, he also showed an alarming trend of careless fouls. In 28 minutes, he would get 4 fouls. Nevertheless, the Rockets would win, 121-111.
Jordan: Opening night: The game’s most popular player would open his career (ironically) against the franchise he would finish with 19 years later. Encouraged by Loughery’s iso, Jordan had already established himself as his team’s best player in practice and preseason. But in game one, teammate Orlando Woolridge would star. Woolridge would get 28, while Jordan would play a good all-around game. He would score 16 points, as he acquainted himself with the league, he would soon dominate. The Bulls won easily, 109-93.
Barkley: Opening Night- Of all the teams, Barkley’s 76ers had the highest expectations. Champions in 1983, they returned their starters 18 months later with Barkley as a new addition. They were the thinking man’s pick to return to the Finals; At the very least, only Boston or LA should have been a better basketball team. Facing the once awful Cleveland Cavaliers, Barkley came off the bench for 11 points and 6 rebounds in 27 minutes. The 76ers won 111-101, behind Moses Malone’s 26 points and 19 rebounds (an almost normal day for the “James Brown” of the NBA).
Stockton: Opening Night– In 1984, the Jazz were a walk-it-up team built around the awesome post moves of mercurial star Adrian Dantley. The skillset that would later make Stockton invaluable was not yet needed this night. At this point, it was getting Dantley the ball and get out the way. Dantley, though, would miss the opener against the Los Angeles Clippers. Stockton got 16 minutes and took 5 shots. He hit 3 of them but also got 6 assists in limited action. It was a sign of things to come. The Jazz would lose, 103-94.
As we can see, each star in their first game showed us the signs that would make their legend rise in the years (or weeks in Jordan’s case) to come. These were baby steps. Amazingly, these four greats were all still playing at some point in the new millennium. The only one of the great newcomers to lose was Stockton. But they all gave us a small taste of what was to come. Salute to the very best of the class of 1984.