2019: A lottery night of hope, disappointment, and more hope
The date was Tuesday, May 14, 2019.
I might write about the Knicks and occasionally travel to Madison Square Garden to cover them, but I've always lived in New Jersey about an hour away from the city. That said, I'm never really opposed to going into Manhattan, especially to meet up with some friends, and especially when it's Knicks related.
But on a Tuesday of all days. Even before I had lost my job in the city a little over a month prior, Tuesdays were always my work from home day. It takes quite the event to get me into my car, drive to Secaucus, park, hop on NJ Transit and find my way to Penn Station.
Let me just say: regardless of the result, the 2019 draft lottery was worth every second.
That night marked the third meetup that I had helped plan, joining the forces of Posting and Toasting, Locked On Knicks, Knicks Film School, Knicks Fan TV, The Knick of Time Show, Gotham Sports Network and the It's a Hard Knicks Life podcast together for a cross-promoted night of drinking and watching the Knicks. Or, in this case, watching the fate of the Knicks' draft fortunes unfold.
This draft lottery was extremely important for the Knicks, and despite their tanking efforts not going fully realized with the prize of Zion Williamson (or Ja Morant), I'm not sure everyone realizes just how lucky the Knicks got to not fall any further than the third overall pick. It's easy to forget, but the Knicks actually had a 47.9% chance to end up with the fifth pick, the overwhelming betting favorite among potential outcomes. Their chance of staying inside the top three was 40.1%, and individually, finishing third was a 12.7% outcome.
But anyway, more on that in a moment. The scene was Slattery's Midtown Pub, about three blocks away from Madison Square Garden. I got to the party a little early to meet up with some of my compatriots, as well as prepare to sell some raffle tickets for a 50/50 to benefit charity.
Did I mention that ESPN and SNY had both dispatched crews to cover this thing, by the way? Yeah, that happened (thanks to an assist from Jeffrey Bellone, then with Knicks Film School, now with Daily Knicks), and word started getting out via social media.
What would ensue was one of the more chaotically beautiful nights I've ever been a part of, and one that I was certainly very proud of having helped plan and promote. Slattery's reached capacity, the first time I've ever seen that happen in a Manhattan bar, and had to start turning people away at the door due to occupancy maximums (my Locked On Knicks co-host Gavin Schall had to pull rank and say he was one of the hosts just to get in the building over a half hour before the lotto even began).
While I was once able to go around and sell raffle tickets (I think I got in about $100 worth?), my hulking frame and active claustrophobia suddenly felt like a rather large sardine in a can a few sizes too small. I would eventually find my way towards the back of the bar, where I met up with CP from Knicks Fan TV and Andrew Claudio and Jeremy Cohen, then of GSN.
From there, we hunkered down together (really, really close together, I can't stress that enough) and waited to see how the lottery gods would treat the Knicks.
First came the loud groan in the room when the Lakers were passed over at their projected 11th spot. This again? Really? The Lakers have probably moved up in the draft order more times than the Knicks have moved down all-time, and that's really saying something.
Next came the Grizzlies getting passed over at eighth, with the Hawks taking their place – almost the worst possible outcome for Atlanta, who possessed the fifth-best odds. Oh no, OK, this was not good. Things were getting scary. The room began to buzz.
Not one team later, the Pelicans moved up as well, with the Bulls taking their place – again, nearly reaching their worst possible outcome with the fourth-best odds. Only one open spot in the top four now, and the Knicks could very well end up with the fifth pick (which, again, was actually the most likely outcome).
Pick six came up... the Suns, who had the third-best odds. Pure bliss and pandemonium in the room, but still a sense of tension. Now for the moment of truth, the fifth pick, right before commercial... and it's the Cavaliers. The Cavaliers! The Knicks made it! People blocks over probably could have heard Slattery's, the cheering was absolutely deafening.
So, a commercial break. Two minutes to cool off. But the Knicks made it into the top four. Anything was possible now! For fans that just want destiny to once, just once, look on them kindly in the worst way, it felt like things might be about to break right for once.
Then, back from commercial. NBA Deputy Commissioner Mark Tatum gets right into it and starts off. And, with the fourth pick... the Lakers! The damn Lakers! LeBron isn't going to get Zion as a running mate! The east coast is getting some love again! The Knicks are gonna...
Oh. The Knicks just got the third pick. As quickly as the room erupted when the Lakers were announced, all of the air got sucked out of the room in even less time.
Very quickly, the room started clearing out, with ESPN still running their coverage up front. But even in a moment of defeat, Knicks fans realized what this meant – at least they'd still probably end up with RJ Barrett. And so that's what they chanted at the ESPN cameras: "We want RJ!" and "R-J-Barrett!"
And therein is why I think the 2019 draft lottery was probably the most memorable for me. Not just the huge watch party, which was undeniably awesome, but the sheer resilience of the Knicks fandom's spirit. The Knicks didn't win the lottery? That's OK, because guess what? The Knicks also didn't fall as far as they could have. Things could have been worse, and so the silver lining was immediately found, and Knicks fans braced themselves to welcome a new prospect, and with him, a renewed sense of hope that this could be the time that things go right for the Knicks.