Jordan’s career with the Bulls, which included six championships, was chronicled in ESPN’s recently completed 10-part documentary series, “The Last Dance.” Sewell’s one season in the NBA was all but forgotten, but for one night in Chicago, he and Jordan were rookie first-round picks realizing the same dream.
“I look at it like so many guys don’t get the chance to play in the NBA at all,” Sewell, who now runs a youth basketball league in Nottingham, England, said of his 21-game NBA career. “I had the best seat in the house to watch Larry Bird, Bernard King, Dr. J, Magic, Kareem.”
He had a pretty good seat to watch Jordan, too.
‘We would have taken Barkley and kept him’
Coming off a 35-47 season and looking to transform their plodding offense into an up-tempo attack, the Bullets reshaped their roster with a three-way trade on draft night in June 1984. The blockbuster deal was contingent on Washington being in position to draft 6-foot-11 Kentucky center Melvin Turpin with the sixth pick, which was assured when the Dallas Mavericks, who were in the market for a big man, drafted North Carolina’s Sam Perkins with the fourth choice, one spot after Jordan.
After the Philadelphia 76ers took Auburn’s Charles Barkley, the Bullets selected Turpin and immediately traded him to Cleveland for 24-year-old power forward Cliff Robinson and the Cavaliers’ 12th pick. Washington used that selection to draft Michigan center Tim McCormick before shipping him and guard Ricky Sobers to the Seattle SuperSonics for guard Gus Williams.
Bullets General Manager Bob Ferry then traded Washington’s first-round pick in the 1988 draft to Philadelphia for Sewell, whom the 76ers had taken 22nd.
“If Dallas had taken Turpin, Philadelphia would have gone for Perkins, and in that case, there would have been no deal,” Bullets Coach Gene Shue told reporters. “We would have taken Barkley and kept him.”
Sewell, who averaged 22.9 points as a senior at Lamar, was expected to be a valuable contributor to the Bullets’ new brand of basketball, with Ferry describing him as a “playmaker” who would “play well alongside anyone we use him with.”
“I’m not the best defensive player,” Sewell admitted after signing a four-year contract a month after the draft. “But I worked hard at it. I believe in defense. But I’m an offensive player.”
The journey to the NBA
Grades prevented Sewell from earning a Division I scholarship out of high school in Florida, so he played one season at Amarillo Junior College in Texas before transferring to Lamar as a sophomore. Higher-profile programs such as Texas, Kansas and Georgia Tech showed interest, but Sewell liked the idea of replacing Lamar shooting guard Mike Olliver, who had been selected in the second round of the 1981 NBA draft after leading the Cardinals to three consecutive NCAA tournament appearances.
Sewell blossomed as a junior, averaging 18.6 points and leading Coach Pat Foster’s team to an upset of Alabama in the first round of the NCAA tournament. He was the Southland Conference player of the year as a senior, beating out a couple of future Hall of Famers: Louisiana Tech’s Karl Malone and McNeese State’s Joe Dumars.
On draft night, Sewell was working out at Lamar when his agent called to say he had been selected by Philadelphia and traded to Washington. The Los Angeles Lakers, who liked Sewell after General Manager Jerry West watched him score 29 points in an NIT game in 1984, took University of the District of Columbia star Earl Jones with the next pick.
“When I went to Washington, I didn’t feel like I fit in,” Sewell said. “I wasn’t a Washington-type player. They were playing half-court basketball, and I liked to run and play up-tempo. We had a playbook that was so thick, I think I might’ve known about three plays. I don’t think anyone knew half the damn plays.”
Going against Jordan
Sewell played four minutes in the first half of his NBA debut, making 1 of 2 shots and committing two fouls. He spent the entire second half of Washington’s 109-93 loss on the bench.
What Sewell remembers most about the game is Bullets big man Jeff Ruland almost ending Jordan’s career before it began. Ruland sent Jordan sprawling after the rookie made the mistake of attempting to dunk after being whistled for traveling in the second quarter.
“I was standing right there,” Sewell said. “I was like, ‘Bloody hell.’ He hit him so hard, I thought Jordan was dead, because he was on the floor for a long time. I thought he was seriously injured.”
Jordan would return and finished with seven assists, six rebounds and a game-high four blocked shots to go with his 16 points.
“I didn’t shoot well, but I thought I had a good overall game,” he said afterward. “Where’s the postgame party? At home, in my bed. Just me, a bottle of aspirin and an ice pack.”
Sewell wasn’t expecting to play in the opener, but with Williams hampered by an injury and second-year guard Jeff Malone out, Shue was forced to turn to the rookie. Sewell played 10 minutes and scored four points the following night at Indiana, a two-point Bullets win, and 16 minutes in a blowout loss at Milwaukee four days later. By December, he had fallen out of the rotation. Sewell finished the season with 20 points, four rebounds and six assists in 21 games. The Bullets lost to Philadelphia in the first round of the playoffs.
The summer after his rookie year, Sewell went head-to-head with Jordan again at a basketball camp hosted by Rod Higgins at Fresno State.
“That’s when I really got a chance to match up with him a little more and saw what kind of player he was,” Sewell said. “On one play, I beat my man and shot a teardrop floater. He jumped so damn high, and he just tipped it. The ball came down to me, and I laid it up. And I looked back, and he’s still up in the air. This guy could really jump.”
With only one year guaranteed on his rookie contract, Sewell faced an uphill battle to make the team in 1985. He played well during the preseason, including a game against Jordan’s Bulls at Hampton Coliseum. But after scoring 12 points in the preseason finale, he was cut with Guy Williams and Tony Costner.
Sewell played for the Continental Basketball Association’s Wyoming Wildcatters and Detroit Spirits during the 1985-86 season. He said the Bulls expressed interest in inviting him to training camp after he shined in the 1986 Los Angeles Summer League, but he opted to play in Switzerland instead.
“I felt like I didn’t get an opportunity to showcase my game in Washington, so I decided I would take my chances in Europe,” Sewell said. “I led the league in scoring. I made more money over there than I did in the NBA. They gave me a house, a car; the money was tax-free. It was good.”
Sewell traveled the world playing and coaching basketball over the next decade, spending time in more than two dozen countries, including France, Portugal, Greece, Russia, Mexico, Argentina and Venezuela. He moved to England in 1997, played until he was 39 and then established a basketball league in Nottingham for players 18 and under.
These days, Sewell, 58, coaches his 15-year-old son, Miles, and offers free basketball camps for disadvantaged youths during the summer. In addition to growing basketball’s popularity in England, he enjoys mentoring young players and teaching them life skills.
A few years ago, some of Sewell’s players showed him a video the NBA uploaded to its YouTube channel in 2014 to mark 30 years since the 1984 draft. It’s titled “Tom Sewell Career Highlights” and includes footage of eight of his 20 career points, though not the two he scored in his debut opposite Jordan.
“I didn’t have the last dance with MJ,” said Sewell, who was looking forward to watching the Jordan documentary series. “But I had the first.”
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