The NBA still owns the Hornets for another couple of months, so the conspiracy theories were inevitable on Wednesday night when New Orleans beat the odds — a typical outcome over the last 20 years, by the way — and snagged the No. 1. pick. Adrian Wojnarowski of Yahoo! Sports documented the grumbling that followed:
“It’s such a joke that the league made the new owners be at the lottery for the show,” one high-ranking team executive told Yahoo! Sports. “The league still owns the Hornets. Ask their front office if new owners can make a trade right now. They can’t. This is a joke.”
The reaction of several league executives was part disgust, part resignation on Wednesday night. So many had predicted this happening, so many suspected that somehow, someway, the Hornets would walk away with [Anthony] Davis. That’s the worst part for the NBA; these aren’t the railings from the guy sitting at the corner tavern, but the belief of those working within the machinery that something undue happened here, that they suspect it happens all the time under [commissioner David] Stern.
As I wrote Wednesday night, the league conducts the real lottery in a closed-off room an hour before the television broadcast. Every lottery team has one representative in the room — a different person than the one who represents it on television later, so that the televised suspense is legitimate. The league also allows three or four media members to watch the process, and on Wednesday, I was one of them. I described the drawing process in detail in that post: the air-powered machine, the scrambled ping-pong balls, the precisely timed intervals between the sucking up of each ball, the Ernst & Young accountant watching it all, etc. Click on that link if you want the full blow-by-blow of how the real thing works.
For now, let’s say this: If the process is actually rigged, the league does an incredible job of hiding it. Rigging the drawing would involve somehow tinkering with the machine (or the balls) so that it is more likely to suck up a particular four-ball combination out of 1,001 possibilities. I’m honestly not sure how the NBA could do that, or how the official drawing the balls at the prescribed times could actually pull off the trick of picking the right one in each instance.
I’ll also say this: If there were a conspiracy, the people in the room didn’t seem to give much thought to it. They were genuinely nervous. Representatives from teams with conflicting lottery interests were joking with each other about the tension in the air and the uncertainty of the looming outcome. Every representative was frantically scouring his sheet of lottery ball combinations as each one came up, checking to see if his team were still in the running.
Even more revealing: After the drawing ended with the Hornets’ winning, the representatives in the room openly and loudly kidded New Orleans general manager Dell Demps about how the fix had been in. They were joking with him, mocking the ridiculousness of the idea that the league had rigged the machine. Demps asked a league official if he might open up the machine to remove the four winning balls as souvenirs — hardly something Demps would request, or something that the league would allow, if the balls had been doctored. A rival executive even shouted across the room that one of the balls was surely weighted, and that Demps should be careful to conceal it from the rest of the group.
Everyone laughed, and that’s telling. People who believe they are victims of a conspiracy — people whose franchises had just been dealt a significant blow — would not immediately back-slap each other and generally share a good laugh about the whole thing. Or at least I don’t think that they would. I know I wouldn’t. I’d be angry — perhaps not angry enough to publicly criticize the very powerful Stern, but certainly angry enough to sulk in the corner and fire off some furious emails to friends.
Anything is possible, of course. Gamblers and players have conspired to fix games in basketball and other sports. Even figure skating judges have been bought off by outside interests. Tim Donaghy exists.
But it’s very hard to be inside that room and come out with even a sliver of belief that the NBA fixes the lottery. Maybe the league should televise that process.