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Legendary lottery

Behind the scenes of the Oden-Durant sweepstakes

Posted: Wednesday May 23, 2007 3:00AM; Updated: Wednesday May 23, 2007 11:32AM
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The NBA essentially created the NBA lottery because of Patrick Ewing.
The NBA essentially created the NBA lottery because of Patrick Ewing.

SECAUCUS, N.J. -- Strange, the situations you can find yourself in by wandering around the halls at the mini-circus that is the NBA draft lottery. In a cramped waiting room outside the TV studio set, for example, with Patrick Ewing leaning against a wall near a coffee machine and Larry Bird sitting atop a counter next to a water cooler. Almost like you stumbled upon the filming of an episode of The Office, recast with members of the original Dream Team.

Big Pat and Larry Legend were killing time with a few NBA staffers before entering the studio where, about an hour later, the 2007 draft order would be unveiled. The teams they represented were likely irrelevant to the Greg Oden-Kevin Durant sweepstakes, the reason for all the nervous energy pervading the building. Ewing's Knicks had traded their pick to Chicago, and it was most likely staying in the hands of the Bulls; Bird's Pacers had only a 0.8 percent chance of hitting paydirt.

On a night where a dominant center and a prodigious sharpshooter were the grand prizes, however, the two NBA greats -- whose own draft destinations heavily impacted the history of the league -- were especially relevant. Not often since '85, when the lottery was instituted to prevent teams from tanking to obtain Ewing's rights, and the fate of a struggling New York franchise was altered by a card David Stern drew out of a plexiglass hopper, had this event been such a highly-anticipated spectacle.

Ewing talked about watching it on TV, 22 years ago: "I was in Washington, in coach [John] Thompson's office [at Georgetown] -- me, coach and [agent] David Falk, just waiting to see where I was going to go."

The 7-foot ex-Hoya, who played his high-school ball in Cambridge, Mass., turned to Bird and said loudly and in jest, "I wanted to go to the Celtics, but Larry Bird blocked [the trade]. He told me, 'We don't want any great players from Boston playing on our team.'" Holding his hands up to receive an imaginary post feed, Ewing said, "Just drop 'em off, baby. I'm ready."

"I would've broke your fingers with my passes," Bird snapped back.

"I ended up in the Mecca instead, Nuevo York," said Ewing. "I was happy -- very happy. When the Knicks won the lottery, they sold a lot of season tickets that day."

Bird, on the other hand, pre-dated the lottery and did not care about the draft itself when he was selected in '78. "I was informed about [being taken by Boston] on the golf course." Bird said; he had still been hanging around the Indiana State campus in Terre Haute and was planning on staying in school for another year. "I was coming in, and some guy had seen it on TV. It wasn't that big of a deal back then."

Tuesday night in New Jersey, in a non-descript NBA Entertainment office building next to a shopping mall and down the road from a Sam's Club, the drawing was a major deal. Oden, a man-child of Bird's old college town, Terre Haute, and the next great center after Ewing, Shaq and Tim Duncan, hung in the balance -- as well as a consolation prize, the superhumanly skilled Durant, who would go No. 1 in any other year. "Those players," Bird said of the duo, "are just as talented as anybody I've ever seen coming out of here."

It was just before 9 p.m. when the draft cards were unveiled in the studio and on national TV, with the real drawing having taken place more than an hour beforehand, in secret. And the grand prize did not go to Bird's old Celtics, who had limped to a 24-58 finish in hopes of reviving their franchise with Oden or Durant, and had sent TV color man Tommy Heinsohn as a good-luck charm representative.

Nor did it go to the Memphis Grizzlies, the team that had the best chance of landing a No. 1 (at 25.0 percent) and was represented by Jerry West, in one of his last acts as outgoing GM. He was shaking his head in disgust, the lucky golf trophy he brought to his studio seat having failed him, when the winners were revealed.

Seattle, with Lenny Wilkens in attendance and two fans -- winners of a contest to attend the lottery -- wearing old Shawn Kemp jerseys, shorts and headbands, in the audience -- scored No. 2 and with it, most likely Durant.

And Portland, the recently moribund franchise known more for the criminal habits of its players than its basketball prowess -- but back on the rise under new GM Kevin Pritchard -- was the last team standing. Oden, it is expected, will be relocating from Columbus to the Pacific Northwest.


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