To this day, the Trail Blazers are haunted by their decision not to draft Michael Jordan with the No. 2 overall pick in the 1984 draft. The team instead went with the prevailing wisdom of the time, that the most important thing a team could have was a star center, and after the Rockets led off with Hakeem (then known as Akeem) Olajuwon, Portland opted for 7-foot-1 Kentucky product Sam Bowie.
That left Jordan for the Bulls at No. 3, and the rest, as they say, is history, including six championships for Chicago, to Portland’s zero. Interestingly, it turns out that a very similar scenario played out in the world of athletic footwear, with Adidas playing the unfortunate role of the Blazers.
On Sunday, the Wall Street Journal published an article about how the German sports apparel giant has struggled for years to gain traction in the lucrative U.S. sneaker market, after having been a dominant brand in the 1970s. That piece contained this fascinating nugget:
In 1984, Adidas made a misstep that presaged others. A University of North Carolina basketball star named Michael Jordan wanted a sponsorship deal with Adidas when he went professional, say people familiar with the matter.
Adidas distributors wanted to sign Mr. Jordan, says someone who was an Adidas distributor then. But executives in Germany decided shoppers would favor taller players and wanted to sponsor centers, the person says, adding: “We kept saying, ‘no—no one can relate to those guys. Who can associate with a seven-foot-tall guy?’ ”
Adidas signed centers of the era, including Kareem Abdul-Jabbar—it still sells sneakers named for him. Mr. Jordan in 1984 signed with Nike, which built his name into a blockbuster basketball business. Mr. Jordan and Adidas decline to comment.
So to recap, Jordan wanted to wear Adidas shoes. And the company said no. Ach!
The parallel with Portland becomes stronger with the detail that Adidas passed on MJ in favor of a traditional big man. Nike pounced on Jordan, but there the comparison breaks down — what’s happened in the sneaker market since then would be the equivalent of the Bulls winning the NBA title nearly every year.
In fairness, no one at the time could have known that Jordan would turn into arguably the greatest player in NBA history. He had been the consensus player of the year at North Carolina, but the full range of his talents had been somewhat held in check by the late Dean Smith on squads that also featured Sam Perkins and Brad Daugherty.
The Blazers could also point to the fact that, in 1984, they already had a pretty good young shooting guard, Clyde Drexler. Adidas had no such excuse, but at the time, the history of the NBA had been dominated by star centers, from George Mikan to Wilt Chamberlain and Bill Russell to Abdul-Jabbar.
We’ll never know how things would have turned out if Adidas had signed Jordan. It’s safe to say that his career on the court would have unfolded in much the same way, but the fates of the German company and its American rival, Nike, would likely have been greatly impacted.
With Jordan skying to the basket and dominating opponents in Adidas shoes, we’d probably seeing a lot more stripes on kids’ feet, instead of swooshes.