The call came at mid-afternoon.
“Sammy,” Cathy Bowie said from Lebanon, Pa.
She paused for a moment, and then started to cry.
“What’s wrong?” Sam Bowie, her son, asked from Lexington, Ky., inside his apartment at the University of Kentucky.
“Your father just passed away,” she said.
Sam dropped the phone. He jogged out of the building and around a nearby corner to sit. Leonard Hamilton, an assistant coach with the Kentucky basketball team, had heard the news and was on his way to see Sam when the call came. Hamilton noticed him sitting and went over to offer comfort. Sam preferred to be alone, to absorb the shock.
Later that day, he headed home. From Lexington to Pittsburgh for a change of planes, and from Pittsburgh to Harrisburg before making the final 26-mile leg east to Lebanon, Pa., by car.
In the Pittsburgh airport, Bowie spent practically the entire hour layover signing autographs, talking basketball and posing for pictures with fans who had no idea of the day’s events. While painfully difficult to smile and be sociable, Sam granted all requests, proud to represent the family name in a positive way.
It was typically hot and humid that August night he returned, a week or so before school would begin at Kentucky. The next day, he began making arrangements to bury his father.
“I was 19 years old, a sophomore in college, a kid, and I have to go buy a grave spot for my father,” said Sam Bowie, now 28 and a fifth-year player with the Portland Trail Blazers.
“I had to pick out a tombstone and buy the land. This was the first time I’d ever had to do anything like that. But being the oldest child, it was my responsibility to settle a lot of those kinds of things. I knew right then that, no matter what happened to me in the future, nothing could be as bad as this.”
Samuel Paul Bowie stands 7 feet 1 inch and weighs 240 pounds. He is a large man who is largely, most agree, heart, class and eloquence. He has a unique perspective on life and a talent for playing basketball.
History shows that when he plays, he is as good as anyone.
At Lebanon High School, for instance, he was named national player of the year by one coaches’ association when Ralph Sampson was also a senior.
At Kentucky, he averaged 17.4 points and 9.1 rebounds as a sophomore and that summer made the 1980 U.S. Olympic team.
With Portland, he was named to the all-rookie team for 1984-85 after finishing third in the National Basketball Assn. in blocked shots, shooting 53.7% from the field and averaging 8.6 rebounds a game, the latter tops on the Trail Blazers.
But then there is his medical history, which is far less positive. Sadly, he has become better known in recent years for attempted--and eventually aborted--comebacks than playing ability. But that’s what happens when you get broken bones and surgical stitches the way most people get cavities.
“I feel I should have an MD behind my name from all the education I’ve received from my own cases,” Bowie said.
From the knees up, he’s a star in waiting. Knees to toes, he belongs in a medical encyclopedia, a case history for all time.
Bowie’s troubles started at Kentucky during his sophomore season, when he landed off-balance in a game against Vanderbilt. Doctors at first thought the pain in the left leg was caused by shin splints. Just before preseason workouts in 1981, new X-rays showed a stress fracture. He was in a cast for 44 weeks.
When the injury did not heal properly, he had it surgically repaired, with a bone graft. In all, he missed two full seasons.
Bowie returned and played in 34 games for Kentucky as a senior. The Trail Blazers, who stuck with Bill Walton through injury-filled seasons in the late 1970s, gave Bowie a seven-hour examination that included bone scans, dye injections and treadmill testing, then made him the No. 2 pick in the 1984 draft, behind Akeem Olajuwon and ahead of Michael Jordan.
They signed him to a six-year contract worth $5 million, all guaranteed.
Jordan became rookie of the year playing for the Chicago Bulls, but Bowie, who could intimidate inside and also shoot from the perimeter, proved to be a sound selection. He was all-rookie and a key player when Portland upset Dallas in the first round of the playoffs.
In 1985-86, when Jordan played in only 18 games because of a foot injury, Bowie raised his scoring average to 11.8 through the first 38 games.
But when everyone was thinking about the bright future, his past returned. Surgery was needed to correct a defect in the left shinbone, and to remove bone spurs from the base of his big toe.
Bowie made it back from that. Then, Nov. 7, 1986, in a home game against Dallas, another off-balance jump shot, another awkward landing. Another broken shinbone, this time in the right leg. He later compared the feeling to someone chopping at his leg with an ax.
“It was not a pretty sight,” teammate Clyde Drexler recalled. “He went to make a move, fell, and threw the ball down hard off the court. I remember seeing part of the bone sticking out of his leg and how he was beating the floor over and over with his fist.”
Three screws were placed in the bone to keep it together during recovery but two did not hold. Another operation was needed to put in three new ones.
Bowie came back, again. He was ready to play in 1987-88. However ..
While practicing a jump hook before an exhibition game against Cleveland, Bowie re-broke the right leg in the same area. It was set and put in a cast but it did not heal. On March 29, 1988, he received another graft from the hip bone and had a metal plate with 10 screws permanently attached to the shin.
That he was able to come back at all this season, let alone average 20.6 minutes in 20 games, puts Bowie ahead of schedule. He is rusty, and the first to admit it, but simply playing, and even looking good in Game 1 of the Western Conference quarterfinals Thursday against the Lakers, is the real news. It’s kind of like he’s back, but far from being back.
If he stays uninjured.
That, though, is just not likely. He is questionable for today’s Game 2, since his chronically painful right ankle swelled after the series opener.
“I can’t say I’ve reached the point where I don’t worry,” said Heidi Bowie, the senior-year girlfriend at a rival high school who became his wife. “It’s still tough for me. But it is getting to the point where I have accepted what could happen and just want to enjoy watching him play.
“On the other hand, he is very comfortable with what happened and is always optimistic about what could happen in the future. We tend to be opposites in that regard. I’d hate to think I’m a pessimist, but he definitely is an eternal optimist.”
Bowie, who made six of seven shots, mostly long-range jumpers, and scored 15 points against the Lakers in Game 1, even downplays the seriousness of his sore ankle, saying that it simply is one of the bumps and bruises that every player gets at the start of the season. And this is the start of his season.
So bring on 1989-90 already.
“He’s shown he can contribute and be a force again,” Drexler said. “He can really change the complexion of a game, even when he’s injured and not 100%. If he is healthy and 100%, he’s one of the top three centers in the league, without a doubt.”
Bowie said, though, that this is his last comeback. The next injury that requires a long rehabilitation will be his last, and he and Heidi will move to Lexington, where they live during the off-season, and continue to build on what is already a promising business of breeding trotters and pacers for racing.
With them will go his original Portland contract, which pays no less than $150,000 a year in deferments through 2008. Bowie has felt guilty at times about taking such riches, especially after the times he has gone into the locker room on crutches and realized he didn’t do anything to contribute to the win or to hold off defeat.
That’s about the closest thing to a negative, self-deprecating note anyone can get from him. He came from a blue-collar background and a family that lived from paycheck to paycheck, recently went through a stretch of having played just five games in three calendar years and has attended only one training camp with the Trail Blazers, but things are great. The financial security helps, but it goes far beyond that in the search for inner peace.
“My main objective is to play the game for the fun of it and the love of it,” said Bowie, who, despite only 20 appearances this season, was named co-winner with Jerome Kersey as the Trail Blazers’ most inspirational player in a vote by fans. “Every time I go off the court, I’m thankful I didn’t get hurt again. I think too many people take their health for granted.
“You know, I go speak and visit at hospitals a lot--and not to sound mushy--but I’ve seen 7-, 8-, 9-year-old kids who have had their legs amputated because of bone cancer or a car accident. That’s when it puts things into perspective. There’s a kid who wishes he had a leg to break. That’s when I realize how lucky I am. I can’t complain about the hand I’ve been dealt.
“It’s hard for me to get through to people sometimes about things like that. I appreciate all their support and welcome the numerous friendship cards and calls I’ve gotten, but I’m not going through adversity. I like that I can be some sort of inspiration for people during trying times, but what I’ve gone through and what I’m going through--the comeback--is nothing I consider heroic by any means.
“Sure, I’ve had my share of surgery and broken bones, but these things were meant to be. I’m a Christian and I’ve always felt that tomorrow is predetermined and that you will never be put through more than you can handle.”
Ben Bowie was 6-10 and played six seasons for the Harlem Magicians. He was divorced from Cathy when Sam, the oldest of two children, was 12. He died seven years later, at the age of 45, when a cyst on his lung burst.
“We loved each other more than two individuals could,” Sam said. “But we never could say, ‘I love you.’ Neither of us was that kind of person. That’s the thing I’m most sorry about, that I didn’t get to tell him I loved him before he was gone.”
Before going to college, Sam lived with his mother for a while after the divorce and then with his father. Both remained in Lebanon, a close-knit steel town in eastern Pennsylvania. So concerned about not showing favoritism toward either parent, he moved in with his maternal grandmother.
He remained close to his father then, and also after going to Kentucky.
And in Sam’s mind, they’re still on intimate terms.
They visit before every Trail Blazer game. Sam focuses in on the Stars and Stripes as the national anthem is played and pictures his father. Each time, almost like a dreamy routine, Ben pulls up a chair, gets his usual front-row seat and starts right in on his buddies, telling them how proud he is of his son the pro basketball player. Sam calls it their little get-together.
“I’ve always been a big dreamer,” he said.
Personally and professionally.
“I firmly believe I can be one of the top centers in the league if I’m healthy,” said Sam Bowie, a big dreamer but also very much a realist. “One year, things are going to fall into place, and I’m going to show people how good I can be.”