Sam Bowie was 18 when he arrived at the University of Kentucky in 1979. It didn't take long for him to smell the Blue Grass.

"I found I really liked horses," the retired NBA player and Lebanon, Pa., native said in a telephone interview Friday. "Since I was 7-foot-1 and 250 pounds, nobody was going to put me on top of a thoroughbred. But I went over to the Red Mile [harness track in Lexington] and got into one of those carts, and away we went. I was hooked."

Since then, Bowie has owned hundreds of standardbreds, purchasing his first in 1984, his rookie season in the NBA. But it wasn't until another visit to the Red Mile, 23 years later, that he finally scored a slam dunk.

It was March 2007 when Bowie spotted Before He Cheats, his 4-year-old trotting phenom. The gelded son of Valley Victor won 21 of 28 races last year as a 3-year-old and tomorrow will compete in the $250,000 final of the Maxie Lee Memorial at Harrah's Chester Casino & Racetrack.

Bowie, who has lived in Lexington with his wife and three children since retiring from the NBA after the 1994-95 season, was at the Red Mile that day watching a simulcast of an otherwise insignificant trot from Balmoral racetrack in Chicago.

"I saw this gelding who finished third but who had some trot to him and a whole lot of try," he said. "I called the trainer [Dirk Simpson] who owned him and said I'd like to buy him. He wanted $60,000, but I told him that if he'd take $50,000, I'd wire him the money right away."

Bowie got the horse. And Before He Cheats, named for the Carrie Underwood song, has made him a living ever since, earning nearly a half-million dollars in purses. His 21 wins in 2007 tied a 9-year-old trotter named Swanee for the most victories by a horse in North America that year.

His original owner, Earl Foster, died when the horse was a 2-year-old, so the horse went unraced until he was 3.

Last week, with driver Tim Tetrick, he won a Maxie Lee Memorial elimination at Harrah's Chester.

"That horse," Tetrick said at the time, "is just a beast."

Tetrick has a conflict this weekend. He also drives Buck I St Pat, the race's 7-5 morning-line favorite. So Brian Sears will be behind Before He Cheats, who is the 8-5 second choice.

Bowie will be in Lexington tomorrow. His oldest daughter, who will attend Vanderbilt in the fall, graduates from high school. Indeed, he's seen his horse run in person only once, on May 2, when it took the Su Mac Lad trot at the Meadowlands in a career-best 1 minute, 52.4 seconds.

"He's won about 24 races since I've had him and I've been in one [winner's circle] picture," he said. "My kids are real involved, and since I'm lucky enough to be retired, they come first. But that night, they had nothing doing, so I went to the Meadowlands to watch him run.

"It's great," he said of the experience of owning a winning horse. "It's a little like hearing David Stern call your name out all over again."

Basketball fans need no reminding that Stern called Bowie's name second in the 1984 draft, sandwiched between Hakeem Olajuwon and Michael Jordan.

Dogged by injuries, and the ignominy of being the man the Portland Trail Blazers took instead of Jordan, Bowie still had a pretty fair 10-year career, averaging 11 points and eight rebounds for Portland, New Jersey and the Los Angeles Lakers.

"You know, I feel like there are a lot of similarities between my story and this horse's," he said. "Because in both cases, whether you're talking about getting to the NBA or being a great trotter, it takes a lot of good fortune.

"I was raised in government-cheese and food-stamp poverty in Lebanon," he said. "But I was lucky enough to reach the NBA, where I made tens of millions of dollars. And every year, there are tens of thousands of foals born. Not many get to Before He Cheats' level.

"It's a thrill to have a horse like this after all my years around the sport. When I was playing in New Jersey, I'd go to the Meadowlands a lot. I'd come home and my wife would ask me how I did. I'd say, 'You know, I almost hit a trifecta.'

"And she'd say, 'I meant how did you do against the Celtics.' "

Contact staff writer Frank Fitzpatrick at 215-894-5068 or ffitzpatrick@phillynews.com.