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December 20, 2012

ESPN doc focuses on Bowie's life, basketball and beyond

Sam Bowie already had seen the new ESPN documentary about his own life and career twice.

But not in a setting like this. Not with his family, his friends, his former coach and about 60 others in a meeting room at the Kentucky football facility surrounding him.

So as the former UK basketball star stood up moments after the film ended to thank them, he stopped. His eyes welled up with tears. His voice cracked. He took a few seconds to gather himself.

"Got a lot of loved ones in this room, family, friends, who have made this possible for me," Bowie said. Asked about the moment later, he said, "It was emotional because - I think when you're in the profession I was in, you fail to realize the accomplishments you had."

"Going Big," a new ESPN Films documentary that airs Thursday at 9 p.m. on ESPNU as part of the SEC "Storied" series, puts a different angle on Bowie's career.

His story has been dominated by the infamy of being the No. 2 pick in the 1983 draft - one spot ahead of Michael Jordan - and the multiple leg injuries that kept him from living up to all the potential.

The film delves into that, getting a variety of perspectives on the topic. But it also covers his entire career, from his days as one of the most coveted high school prospects to his time at Kentucky to the forgotten ending to his NBA career, when he stayed on the court long enough to show what could have been.

"The way history remembers things, sometimes it's too quick with the punch line," said Jon Fish, co-director of the movie. "People look at the end and forget all the steps that got you there. For us, it was pretty awesome to show all that."

Bowie said he initially was hesitant to cooperate with ESPN because he's "never really been big on self-publicity." He was afraid they would cover the same "Bowie as bust" angle, the one he had spent 20 years dealing with.

He came around.

"My kids," Bowie said when asked what changed. "I thought it might be a good opportunity for them to see where Dad came from. If it wasn't for my children, I would not have done the piece."

He spent about eight months in several locations with the crew, he said.

While he said he had no idea how the tone of the piece would end up, the finished product was a fair and complete representation of his entire career, not just the one slice everybody remembers.

A significant portion of the documentary focuses on his time at Kentucky. It recounts his successful freshman and sophomore seasons before examining the play that started what would become a string of leg injuries for him.

"I thought they did a wonderful job of almost defending me," Bowie said. "I couldn't have written a better script of telling my story."

He helped write it, however, with candid on-camera interviews. He discussed his outsized ego in high school, how he remained silent at Kentucky and at NBA Draft evaluations about the true level of his injury, and how he feels about his career looking back.

"Sam didn't hold anything back," co-director Tom Friend said.

The piece goes beyond just basketball, however, as it examines his ties to horse racing. Bowie talks in the documentary about the parallel he sees between horses and himself - both tall creatures with skinny, fragile legs. He spent time at the track that was therapeutic while he recovered from his first injury in college.

It also delves into his low-income upbringing, examining parts of the relationship between his father and mother that he said he didn't know about growing up.

In one of the more poignant parts of the film, Bowie visits his father's gravesite and cries.

"When they filmed that, I thought I would be strong enough because cameras were going to be there," Bowie said. "But emotionally, you are what you are."

And his story is what it is. Bowie said he was "disappointed" that one of the first reviews of the film focused entirely on his less-than-completely-honest answers to the Portland Trail Blazers during pre-draft interviews.

He said he hopes the public gives the full documentary a chance to tell the complete story.

"I'm elated this documentary and this film is going to get out," Bowie said. "Because I think it will answer a lot of the questions people had about Bowie being drafted in the second pick."

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