In draft, pingpong balls can seem to go under table

The Baltimore Sun

In the days preceding the 1985 NBA draft lottery, commissioner David Stern practiced drawing oversized envelopes from a clear, spherical drum. Staff members carted the drum into his office, where Stern remembered "rehearsing to a fault," hoping all would go smoothly for the live lottery broadcast from the Waldorf-Astoria in New York.

For the young commissioner with 16 months on the job, the actual event - 6 minutes, 31 seconds - passed in a blur, but the final moments and ultimate outcome remain unforgettable.

As Stern worked his way toward the envelope designated for the No. 1 pick, the nervous energy of New York Knicks fans filled the room.

When Stern ripped open the envelope at the No. 2 slot and revealed the Indiana Pacers logo, the onlookers erupted, knowing New York would receive the No. 1 pick and franchise-player-of-the-future Patrick Ewing.

It was an astonishing - some would say suspicious - turn of events for a league in need of big-time players in big markets.

"New York is going crazy," Stern recalled. "[Knicks general manager Dave] DeBusschere can't believe it. ... My wife and I go get in the car. We pull out from the Waldorf-Astoria and she turns to me while I'm driving and asks, 'OK, how did you do it?' I said, 'I'm sorry, I can't tell you.' She's given me heat for that for 20 years."

Before the conspiracy theorists congratulate themselves, know that Stern was joking. While Dianne Stern, like many observers, questioned the results of the 1985 lottery, there were no frozen, heated, creased or marked envelopes. Commissioner Stern learned long ago to dismiss the urban myths with humor.

"We used to say to ourselves, we think what they're doing is accusing us of a felony, and that's not nice," Stern said. "It was sort of humorous because either [the envelopes] were heated or they were freeze-dried or they were bent or they were marked ...

"Have I been guilty of any criminal conduct in the NBA's affairs? Absolutely not. I was a member in good standing of the New York bar. I wouldn't do that. There's an attribution of power and ability that far exceeds the reality."

In reality, the draft lottery is an imperfect, unpredictable system in its third incarnation, producing upsets almost annually. The Celtics need no reminders about the 1997 lottery, when a 36.3 percent chance of landing the top pick and Tim Duncan turned into the No. 3 and No. 6 picks. The only certainty about the draft lottery is that it can change NBA history.

Tomorrow night in Secaucus, N.J., the odds will favor the Celtics receiving the No. 2 pick, but they could rise to No. 1 or fall as far as No. 5 and miss the chance to draft either Greg Oden or Kevin Durant. Teams at the back of the lottery pack hope to defy the odds and win it all, as the Orlando Magic (with a 1.5 percent chance) did in 1993.

"Rarely does the worst team get the first pick," said Orlando senior vice president Pat Williams, a four-time lottery winner. "I've sat up at that table many, many years. The emotion in there is indescribable. When you think that your future employment hinges on some pingpong balls rattling around in a machine, oh, what an insane way to make a living.

"They have literally spent 20 years fine-tuning this thing. ... But nobody will ever be happy. There are still those who would say do away with it.

"But those of us who were around in '84 will never forget that saga. Then, in '85, we saw [the lottery] unfold for the first time, and it was every bit as controversial as the year before."

In 1984, the Houston Rockets infamously provided the impetus for the draft lottery with a late-season slide designed to land the No. 1 pick and thus Hakeem Olajuwon. Since the NBA did not want teams tanking games for top draft positions, league officials rushed the draft lottery into existence. The system replaced the coin flip between the worst teams in each conference for the No. 1 pick.

Despite the controversial outcome of the 1985 Ewing lottery, the league stayed with its system through 1989. The next year it instituted the pingpong-ball system, in which the team with the worst record received 11 chances out of 66 for the top pick.

Over the years, the NBA has adjusted the odds, hoping to improve the chances of the teams with the worst records. The most recent major modification came in November 1993 when the current lottery ticket-like system took shape. Under the revision, the odds of the team with the worst record receiving the top pick increased from 16.7 percent to 25 percent. The non-playoff team with the best record saw its chances of winning the lottery drop from 1.5 percent to 0.5 percent. Williams proudly refers to the change as "The Orlando Rule."

With the second-worst record in the league, Orlando won the 1992 draft lottery and the right to select Shaquille O'Neal. Williams remembers 11 teams arriving in Secaucus that night with O'Neal jerseys and 10 team representatives stuffing their jerseys back into paper bags once the Magic won the lottery.

After missing the playoffs on a tiebreaker in 1993, the Magic returned to the lottery with just one pingpong ball out of 66. Defying the odds - and likely mortifying league officials - Orlando won for a second straight year.

"When our ball was not selected 11, you knew something had happened," Williams said. "Oh, baby, there was a hush across that room I will never forget. When it turns out our ball has come up - that one little lone ball has emerged - it was a moment for the ages."

Shira Springer writes for The Boston Globe.

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