THE EWING THEORY WAS THE MAGIC ENVELOPE CREASED? OR WAS IT FROZEN? THIRTY YEARS AFTER THE KNICKS LANDED GEORGETOWN'S BIG MAN, THE FIRST DRAFT LOTTERY REMAINS A SEMINAL MOMENT IN NBA HISTORY—AND THE DAY THE STARLIGHT ROOF BECAME SPORTS' VERSION OF THE GRASSY KNOLL
This is an article from the May 18, 2015 issue
"You mention the 1985 lottery to me, and the first thing I think of is conspiracy."
--STAN KASTEN, former Hawks GM
IN THE beginning, before the talk of frozen envelopes and creased corners and all the rest, the first NBA draft lottery had a simple goal: Stop Donald Sterling.
The year was 1984 and NBA teams were tanking with a Hinkie-esque gusto, but none as publicly as the San Diego Clippers, who were owned by Sterling, a 50-year-old real estate magnate who preferred his employees subservient and his shirts open to the navel. Two years earlier, as his Clippers trotted out increasingly inept lineups, Sterling had proclaimed, "We've got to bite the bullet. We can win by losing."
The problem was, he was right. The draft order was determined by inverse order of finish, with the top spot hinging on a coin flip between the sorriest franchise in each conference. It was a tanker's paradise: The worst the worst could do was the second choice. But the Clippers weren't even the best at it. In 1982--83 the Rockets ripped off a series of stirring losing streaks and then won the coin flip for Ralph Sampson. A season later Houston set to work again, losing 20 of its last 27 games to overtake—who else?—the Clippers on the final day of the season. (Late in the season Rockets coach Bill Fitch played the 38-year-old Elvin Hayes 52 out of a possible 53 minutes in an overtime game. Hayes, perhaps still gassed, retired a week later.) Houston won the flip again. This time, the reward was Akeem Olajuwon.
Owners and league officials were, as then 76ers general manager Pat Williams recalls now, "beside themselves with anger and frustration." David Stern, the league's young, ambitious (and recently installed) commissioner, was determined to do something. There was no time for task forces or committees. Instead, at the board of governors meeting in June, the lottery was introduced and approved.
The hurry was understandable, for the 1985 draft promised the most exciting, and potentially lucrative, prize in decades.
TO UNDERSTAND just how coveted Patrick Ewing was 30 years ago, you have to forget what you know about the NBA in its current incarnation and return to a time when big men ruled the league. And not since Lew Alcindor left UCLA in 1969 had there been a giant as dominant as the 7-foot, 240-pound Ewing. In four years at Georgetown, Ewing took the Hoyas to three NCAA finals, winning one. He offered the total package. He could score in the post, defend, rebound and knock down an 18-foot jumper. In Ewing, teams saw not just talent but salvation: ticket sales, playoff runs and, most of all, relevance. He was, as this magazine put it at the time, possibly "the most recognized athlete ever to enter a major professional league."
The seven nonplayoff teams each had an equal, 14.3% chance at Ewing. They ranged from the truly downtrodden (the league-worst Warriors, out of the postseason since 1977) to the temporarily stumbling (the Hawks, who had barely missed the playoffs, some believe on purpose). The Seattle SuperSonics had Jack Sikma, a power forward masquerading as a center, and not much else. Clippers GM Carl Scheer sent letters of apology to the team's season-ticket holders after a 31--51 season. The Pacers still resembled the ABA team they once were, while the Kings had recently fled Kansas City under a downpour of boos for the pasturelands of Sacramento, the NBA equivalent of witness relocation.
And then there were the Knicks, coming off their worst campaign in 20 years. Star forward Bernard King missed 25 games; center Bill Cartwright was out the whole season. Many nights, Madison Square Garden had been half full.
If there was a perfect landing spot for Ewing, it was New York, the league's biggest market. We consider the 1980s an NBA heyday, but it's easy to forget that most of that growth came in the second half of the decade. In the spring of '85, Michael Jordan was still a rookie on a bad Bulls team, the modern Lakers-Celtics rivalry was still blossoming, and the NBA was dogged by dwindling attendance, money-leaking franchises and a cocaine problem so widespread that an '82 Los Angeles Times story reported that 75% of the players were on drugs. Just two years earlier the league had come close to disbanding six of its 23 teams.
Now, the NBA's four-year, $91.9 million TV deal with CBS was set to expire after the season. Ewing in Sacramento did not move the TV needle. But Ewing in the Big Apple? Wrote The New York Times before the lottery, "There is a strong feeling among league officials and television advertising executives that the NBA will benefit most if [Ewing] winds up in a Knicks uniform."
Others took it a step further. Stan Kasten, then the GM of the Hawks, recalls attending a college tournament in Hawaii a few months before the lottery. "I was sitting with a couple of NBA guys," says Kasten, "and I remember one high-ranking team executive, who I will not name, was a million percent convinced of what was going to happen. 'He's going to the Knicks,' he kept saying. 'He's going to the Knicks. It's all arranged.'"
Kasten pauses, chuckles. "I didn't believe him at the time."
DAVID JOEL STERN never lacked for ambition. Both street smart (he learned people skills watching his father run a successful New York City deli) and book smart (Columbia Law), he was promoted from his position of NBA executive vice president to commissioner in February 1984, at 41. Instituting the lottery was one of his first acts and, most agreed, a necessary move to protect the league's integrity. But what he did next was equally novel: He decided to televise it.
This may seem obvious now, but this was a pre--Kiper Jr. age, an era blissfully bereft of 24-hour hot takes. Half the NBA playoff games weren't even on national TV at the time, and the draft had aired on the USA Network, on a weekday, in the afternoon. What's more, interest was so low that, according to Stern, the NBA actually paid USA $40,000 to carry the draft one year.
The lottery? It was basically a glorified drawing of straws. Nonetheless, Stern was determined to leverage it. Any buzz was good buzz.
So it was that on the morning of the lottery, Sunday, May 12, CBS reporter Pat O'Brien arrived early at the Waldorf Astoria in midtown Manhattan. Then 37 and brilliantly mustachioed, O'Brien had written out a handful of lines, depending on which team got the first pick. Most involved the phrase "Basketball's back in...."
The NBA had credentialed more than 100 media and invited another 100 guests, all of whom crowded into the Starlight Roof on the 18th floor. Once one of the city's hippest nightclubs, hosting Duke Ellington and Glenn Miller under a retractable roof, the Starlight had temporary blue walls bearing the NBA emblem. And there, on the stage next to a podium, sat what appeared to be a bizarrely large, transparent beach ball.
The ball—a plastic drum, really—was the brainchild of Rick Welts, a 32-year-old rising star in the NBA office whom Stern had deputized to design a lottery that would be both fair and, against all odds, entertaining. So they'd turned to Hugh Rasky, a set designer known for working on presidential debates. After rejecting a number of ideas, they settled on using the drum to shuffle seven envelopes, each one a square foot.
In retrospect it seems a peculiar decision. Square objects don't exactly roll inside a circular container like, say, Ping-Pong balls. But the NBA had its reasons. For one, "we were afraid of having the thing pop open and all the balls fly out," says Brian McIntyre, who was head of the league's then minuscule media relations staff. The hope was also to make the ceremony seem dignified, and everyone agreed that Ping-Pong balls felt more like a circus (or an actual lottery). More important was to get the team logos on the cards inside the envelopes to pop on the 20-inch TV sets of the day. And if they were going to be placed in order on a shelf, they needed to be square. So: giant envelopes. At the first dress rehearsal, in Stern's office, an envelope came flying out of the drum, "much to our horror," says Welts.
The event was to take place at halftime of a Sixers-Celtics playoff game. By 1 p.m., a little under an hour before the show went live, the Starlight Roof was packed. At least one reporter, if not more, had flown in from every lottery city. Three Atlanta stations were running live remotes.
Even so, O'Brien remembers it being eerily quiet. "It was very, very tense," he says. "I've been in courtrooms and murder trials that weren't that tense." On stage, representatives from the seven teams fidgeted in their seats. Back home, Seattle was hosting a St. Patrick Ewing Day, while the Clippers had arranged to open their switchboards on that Sunday for the deluge of season-ticket requests. The Kings were holding a party at the site of the new Sacramento Arena that included two psychics. Meanwhile, Knicks GM Dave DeBusschere had a horseshoe from prize harness racer On the Road Again. He also later admitted that earlier that morning, at the 9:15 Mass at St. Joseph's near his home, he may have been "a little selfish" during his prayers.
Around 1:45 the playoff game went to halftime. From the Waldorf, O'Brien prepared to go live. As both an inside joke with a friend and an homage of sorts, he had decided to host the event as if he were David Brinkley. So, to lighten the mood, he stated with mock gravity that the security guard was unarmed.
Moments later Stern took the stage. What unfolded next has since become the Zapruder film of sports, watched and rewatched on YouTube and dissected by conspiracy theorists. Stern explaining the process. A white-haired man from the accounting firm of Ernst & Whinney, Jack Wagner, tossing seven envelopes into the plastic globe one at a time, pausing for the briefest of moments—perhaps to adjust his aim?—before dumping in the fourth, which bangs off the interior of the drum, creasing the corner. The NBA's head of security, Jack Joyce, spinning the drum five times. Stern exhaling visibly and reaching in for the first choice, the one that will determine Ewing's fate. Stern fumbling around for a moment, grasping and turning the envelopes, then lifting out the lucky one—which just so happens to have a creased corner.
After choosing six more, placed in order behind the first envelope, Stern began the reveal, counting down from the final selection. "The seventh pick in the 1985 draft," he announced in that nasal voice, "goes to the Golden State Warriors!"
And with that, the camera panned to Al Attles, the proud, stoic face of the Bay Area franchise, a GM and former coach whose team had finished with the worst record and, just a year earlier, would have been guaranteed at least the No. 2 choice. "He looked," recalls Williams, the Sixers' GM, "like he got hit in the face with an ax handle." Sitting next to Attles, Kasten reached out and patted his arm, as if comforting the bereaved. Attles's face sank and then rose in disbelief. "It was," recalls Los Angeles Times NBA writer Sam McManis, "like watching a man go through the five stages of grief right there on stage."
Meanwhile, Stern continued opening envelopes—the Kings, Hawks, Sonics, Clippers. Finally, it was down to Indiana and New York: One would get Ewing, the other Creighton center Benoit Benjamin or Oklahoma power forward Wayman Tisdale. Stern yanked and clawed, but the envelope refused to open. Finally, he broke through the Scotch tape that Ernst & Whinney had used to seal it. He looked up. "The second pick in the 1985 NBA draft ... goes to the Indiana Pacers!"
A tremendous roar arose from the crowd, including the New York media, and three things occurred simultaneously: Pacers co-owner Herb Simon stood up and then sat back down in a daze, like a man unsure of his purpose; DeBusschere pounded the table with a fist ("I thought he was going to break the table," says McIntyre); and O'Brien near-shouted, "Basketball is back in New York City, my friends!" a line fans would parrot back to him for decades.
Over the next two hours the Madison Square Garden ticket office received more than 1,000 calls. Knicks fans bought rounds of shots in New York taverns, and in Washington the press-shy Ewing granted a pair of interviews, one to CBS and one to SPORTS ILLUSTRATED.
The young commissioner was elated. "We were very pleased with the lottery," Stern told the press. "The interest was great. People are talking about the lottery instead of drugs, unauthorized franchise moves or anything else negative."
It did little to dampen the mood in the NBA office when, a day later, a New York tabloid reported a curious fact: Ernst & Whinney just happened to also be the auditing firm for Gulf & Western, which just happened to own the Knicks. Asked by McManis about the possibility of a fix, Madison Square Garden president Jack Krumpe responded, "Hey, I told them how to fix it 60 days ago. You call up Ernst & Whinney and you say, 'If we don't get Ewing, you're fired.'"
As McManis wrote at the time, "Krumpe was joking—presumably." Meanwhile, an Indianapolis TV station used a freeze-frame to point out that the corner of the Knicks' envelope was bent. Other reports surfaced claiming the envelope had been placed in a freezer, so that it would be colder to the touch and easy for Stern to pick out.
Stern brushed off questions about a rigged outcome. "If people want to say that [the lottery was fixed], fine," he said. "As long as they spell our name right. That means they're interested in us. That's terrific."
THREE DECADES later the Ewing lottery lives on, in ways small and large. Most obvious, it has inspired a generation of giddy skeptics. Go online and you'll find their work: a short documentary on YouTube titled "The Big Fix"; dissertation-length message-board discussions; a 2012 story by Patrick Hruby, who watched the lottery video with a professional magician in hopes of discovering sleight of hand. (The evidence was inconclusive.)
But to focus solely on the conspiracy theories is to miss the larger impact of that first lottery. It was the first antitanking effort implemented by any major sports league—no small feat. In the years that followed, the league fine-tuned the system, tweaking it in 1987 so that the worst team was assured no worse than the fourth pick. Today the process is imposingly complicated (and open to just a handful of invited journalists). Four of 14 numbered Ping-Pong balls are drawn from a drum three times, allowing for 1,001 possible numerical combinations that determine which teams get the top three picks. None of this has stopped teams from tanking (cough, cough, Sixers), but the system is the best in the four major sports. More important, when first installed, the lottery restored a much-needed measure of credibility to the league.
Then there are the basketball ripples. On the day of the lottery, DeBusschere said, "We just became a very good team." (In reality it took years, and the arrival of Pat Riley, and then Jeff Van Gundy, for the Knicks to flourish with Ewing.) But the team most affected by that first draft lottery may have been the Warriors. Under the old rules they would have had a 50-50 shot at Ewing. Instead, Golden State got the seventh pick. The Warriors did well enough, drafting future Hall of Fame swingman Chris Mullin, but the franchise would still spend the next, oh, quarter century desperately in search of a bona fide big man.
There are other interesting what-if scenarios. Imagine Ewing and Reggie Miller together in Indiana. Or Ewing and Dominique Wilkins in Atlanta. Then again, the lottery teams could have helped themselves plenty if they'd just chosen better. That 1985 draft class was full of gems: Detlef Schrempf, Charles Oakley, Karl Malone, Joe Dumars, Terry Porter. Instead, in a testament to the bias of the day, four of the top six picks were big men, and three of them—Benjamin, Jon Koncak and Joe Kleine—amounted to little.
The greatest lasting impact of that lottery, however, may have been cultural. "It really was one of the [NBA's] first genius marketing moves," says McManis. "Stern was such a ham. I might have written at the time that he was like Pat Sajak, but he was more like Vanna White, turning over these letters. It was great theater." Indeed, within a few years the lottery was drawing higher ratings than the games for which it served as halftime entertainment.
Stern would build on the lottery model, ambitiously elevating spectacle whenever possible. Publishing, events, licensing, home entertainment, international TV deals, All-Star weekend: Stern wanted in on all of it. In his first seven years the league set attendance records every season, licensed merchandise sales increased 437%, salaries rose 177%, network television fees jumped sixfold and franchises tripled in value.
Today, the lottery remains appointment viewing for NBA fans. There is actually a YouTube compilation, widely viewed, of the top 10 draft lottery moments. They're about what you'd expect. Envelopes opened. Clippers representatives making weird faces. Deputy commissioner Russ Granik looking serious. Lots of Grizzlies finishing second. It is strangely compelling.
In each case the drama arises from the stakes and the humanity. Owners and GMs spend years, and hundreds of millions of dollars, to put their team in the best possible position. They use cutting-edge analytics to gain the tiniest advantage. And yet the most important moment is often determined by pure, ruthless luck. Unlike MLB and the NFL, where stars can help a team, in the NBA stars are the team; 18 of the last 24 champions have had Michael Jordan, Kobe Bryant, Tim Duncan or LeBron James. "When you're up there, your heart is beating, your palms are sweaty," says Williams, who is something of a lottery whisperer, having won it four times, once with the Sixers and three times with the Magic. "Back home, you're expected to win it, like you have some control over it. It's a fragile way to make a living."
BUT WHAT if the bounces those plastic spheres take are preordained? Or the balls somehow weighted? Which brings us back to the conspiracy theories. They cropped up again when expansion Orlando won two years in a row, and then when the Wizards won in 2001 after Michael Jordan became a part-owner. And, most recently, in '12 when the New Orleans Hornets, in the process of being sold by the league to Tom Benson, snagged the first pick.
Still, nothing resonates like that first lottery. Year by year, the myth grows, fueled by the Internet and social media and the sports equivalent of birthers. Those who lived through it have varying reactions. "It's pretty funny to the people who were actually involved," says Welts, now the president of the Warriors. "I'll tell you to the day I die, one thing we never even talked about in the weeks leading up to the lottery is what we'd do if New York won. We were more focused on the process than the outcome." He laughs. "But no one's going to believe me any more than they did that day...."
Ed Desser, who co-produced the event, echoes that sentiment. "It was hilarious when all the conspiracy stuff started," he says. "Like, Oh, really? We were just worried about the things not falling out of the drum. We couldn't have been clever enough to think about freezing cards or bending cards." Others became annoyed. "At first we tried to defuse it with humor, because it was such a ridiculous supposition," says McIntyre. "Then we started to get a bit ticked, then we just said nothing." O'Brien says he's asked about that lottery, reliably, every year. "Did it happen?" he asks. "Here's the thing about David. He's smart enough to pull that off. He's also smart enough not to do it."
If DeBusschere, who died in 2003, was in on it, he never fessed up, according to his son Peter. O'Brien says he tried to pry it out of DeBusschere: "Dave was a good friend, and we'd go drinking together in New York. I'd say, 'C'mon, what's the deal?' And he said, 'I was as surprised as anybody.' And if you look at it, you can tell."
Even the GMs who lost out aren't buying in. "It's just not that easy to keep conspiracies quiet," says Kasten, now the president and part-owner of the Dodgers. Williams laughs. "A frozen card and David felt around in there till he found the cold one. Can you imagine? On national TV?" He pauses. "I don't think the NBA office is that smart."
This is not to say there aren't believers. It's just that they are careful with their words. Even now, in retirement, Stern holds sway. In talking to people around the NBA, I heard all manner of theories, but very few for attribution. Things like: "The league wouldn't do that now, but back then? They were desperate." And: "The feeling remains very, very strong around the league that it happened, about three in 10. There are people who believe Stern would have done anything back then."
And then there are those who see it practically. "Yeah, I can see him doing it," says one prominent agent. "But so what if he did? It worked out. He helped save the league."
Of course, only one man really knows.
IT IS a warm morning in New York City, almost 30 years to the day since that draft lottery, and Stern has agreed to discuss it. The original idea was to meet in person, perhaps go back up to the Starlight Roof, but Stern is busy, even in retirement. So instead we speak on the phone.
This is a fitting time to talk. The lottery is approaching, and the Knicks have a 19.9% chance of winning it, second only to the Timberwolves' 25.0%. Peter DeBusschere, still a big Knicks fan, has said he plans to wear the baby-blue striped necktie that his father wore that fateful day in 1985. Maybe it will provide a spark of luck.
Now, when asked about the specifics of the lottery, Stern claims, "I can't remember that much," but as he's prompted, the details come back. He talks about what mandated change ("There was too large an incentive to lose"); about the ad hoc nature of the process ("We didn't do regression analyses, we just decided to throw a bunch of envelopes in a circular bin"); and his visible nervousness that day ("I wasn't a television personality"). He claims, a bit dubiously, that he hadn't thought about what would happen if the Knicks won ("We were totally focused on not tripping up ourselves"). And he declines to take credit for the lottery's ongoing success ("It wasn't planned, it wasn't programmed").
Asked about the "as long as they get our name right" quote, he laughs. "Just shows that I was a wise guy then," he says.
Eventually, inevitably, I ask about the conspiracy theories. In the past Stern's responses on the subject have been, shall we say, unpredictable. Sometimes he has joked, cracking, "We have the loot from the Brink's robbery and the Great Train Robbery as well" (to Ian Eagle of CBS). Other times he has been dismissive, as when he told Harvey Araton of The New York Times in 2012, "It's crazy, ridiculous." Occasionally he has bristled, asking if his questioner really wants to accuse him of a felony (as he did to Frank Isola of the New York Daily News). Then there was the time, in 2012, when Jim Rome asked Stern, "Was the fix in for the lottery?" Stern was not happy. "I have two answers for that," Stern said. "I'll give you the easy one, no. And a statement: Shame on you for asking." When Rome kept pushing, Stern fired back: "Have you stopped beating your wife yet?"
On this morning Stern's guard is not up, at least not that high. He compares the theories to a "gossip column of sorts" and notes how the Internet has fueled the believers. As for the Rome incident, he says, "I so enjoyed that [interaction]. The fact is, I was using the metaphor of, 'Are you still beating your wife' to say, 'Ask me a no-win question.'"
Maybe it's retirement, but for whatever the reason, at 72, Stern seems to have mellowed on the subject. He is presented with an admittedly digressive hypothesis: What if conspiracy theories—true or not—are actually good for the league? If we definitively knew the answer to whether Jordan got banned for gambling or Stern fixed the lottery, we'd stop wondering. And isn't belief the root of fandom? We want to believe in possibility. At the same time we also crave excuses. A rationale. We want to believe that the playing field isn't level, or otherwise we'd have to confront the fact that maybe, just maybe, our team isn't that good. In the end, then, isn't mythology the most powerful force in the sports world? No doubt the year after the Ewing lottery many people tuned in just to see if something peculiar would happen again, and then again the year after that and the year after that. Wasn't that Stern's aim throughout his career: to get people to pay attention?
There is a short pause on the other end of the phone. And then Stern says something unexpected: "That's correct."
He continues, "The mythology extends to whichever team loses the game, saying, 'Oh, it's the referees.' It's perpetual, it really is. That became sort of another lure [of the league]. Like the idea that we banned Michael Jordan."
It brings to mind something Stern said a few minutes earlier: "It's all drama." It was meant dismissively but it can be interpreted another way. What if, in the end, the most convincing act Stern put on wasn't that day on stage at the Waldorf Astoria, 30 years ago, but the one he maintained all those years after?
Was the lottery rigged? Most likely not. Then again, it's possible we'll never know for sure.
And maybe, deep down, that's just how Stern likes it.
The other lottery teams in '85 had mixed results—with the last team to pick faring best
Every month, SI.com's Longform will feature a story on the best year in sports, 1985. Check them out at SI.com/1985