Taking Dares with Yes
Would you rather have the best ice cream in the world … or the 11th best ice cream in the world? It’s not even a question, right?
The Portland Trail Blazers taking Sam Bowie with the second pick in the 1984 NBA Draft — ahead of Michael Jordan — is one of the biggest gaffs in sports history. But the Houston Rockets taking Hakeem Olajuwon with the first pick never gets questioned.
For those unfamiliar with NBA history:
Olajuwon was the most-dominant center of his era. He led the Houston Rockets to back-to-back championships in 1995 and 1996. After that second title, he led the United States national team to winning a gold at the Summer Olympics. He redefined the center position with an arsenal of tools rarely employed by big men — like deadly outside shooting, guard-like footwork, and dazzling low-post moves that had defenders seeing double.
On the defensive end, he and teammate Ralph Sampson — the “Twin Towers” — made opposing players afraid to come anywhere near the paint. Olajuwon finished his career as the NBA’s all-time leader in blocked shots (3,830), and was named one of the 50 Greatest Players in NBA History. The Ringer’s Bill Simmons ranked Olajuwon the 11th greatest player of all time (and the 4th greatest center, behind Russell, Kareem and Wilt, respectively).
When it comes to the number one pick in the 1984 NBA Draft, no one questions the judgement of Rockets’ GM Ray Patterson. At the time, there wasn’t a more tantalizing lure than a center with promise. Before Jordan, no one conceived of a shooting guard carrying a team. The league’s biggest stars — Magic Johnson and Larry Bird — were a point guard and small forward, respectively, who led teams rich with shooters, playmaker and defenders, each anchored by legendary big men (Kareem and Rambis for LA; Parish and McHale for Boston).
Bottom line: If you wanted to win, you needed a good center. That’s just the way it was. But, in short time, that would change.
What’s the point?
That when you see the first flickerings of a phenomenon never seen before, you need to move. You can’t “wait and see”; you can’t gather data to validate your suspicions. By then, it’ll be too late. You need to look at this new thing as objectively as possible, measure it against everything that came before, prognosticate your best-case and worst-case scenarios for how it could play out, then make a judgement call.
Rich data/information will get you to good. But greatness requires the ability to see what could be … and a willingness to take educated dares with “Yes!” *
Michael Jordan changed the game of basketball forever. He led the Chicago Bulls to six NBA Championships. And he is, by any reasonable measure, the greatest of all time. **
Hakeem Olajuwon is not.
Again, no one will ever criticize Ray Patterson for his number-one pick in 1984. It was a “no brainer.” But “no brainers” lack vision, imagination and daring. They’ll help you succeed, sure — but only get you so far.
Far too many marketing leaders need that kind of assurance to feel comfortable. Does this sound like you? Well, the good news is that such prudence generally equates to some level of success. The bad news is that you need to be satisfied with “some level” — and not let yourself get hung up wondering about what could have been.
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*Legend has it that, before the 1984 draft, Portland Trail Blazers GM Stu Inman called Bobby Knight to ask his advice on what to do with his number-two pick. Knight advised him, unequivocally, to pick Michael Jordan. Inman explained that the Trail Blazers already had a good shooting guard (Clyde Drexler) and were in desperate need of a center. “Then play him (Jordan) at center,” Knight said.
**If you want to make an argument for LeBron James or Wilt Chamberlain, bring it. (You’re wrong, but go ahead and bring it.) Get me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
NOTE: The title of this piece is inspired by a line from “Eat for Two,” by 10,000 Maniacs. Credit where credit is due.
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