New York Knicks vice-president Dave DeBusschere sat sweating in the harsh glare of the television lights Sunday, waiting for the first NBA draft lottery in history to begin. "I don't know, Lenny," he called to Seattle G.M. Lenny Wilkens. "What am I doing holding a horseshoe?" Minutes later, the answer became apparent as the Knicks broke a 12-year streak of frustration and won the right to pick 7-foot center Patrick Ewing in the June 18 draft. Knick fans were in ecstasy, and why not? Ewing took Georgetown to the Final Four three times in his college career, and is expected by many to make a Bill Russell-like impact on the NBA.
The lottery itself seemed to be a mix of religious ritual and game-show gimmickry: commissioner/high priest David Stern presiding amid the glitz of the Starlight Roof of New York's Waldorf-Astoria Hotel, altar attendant/NBA assistant director of security Horace Balmer taking the sealed envelopes as Stern pulled them from a Plexiglas drum and placing them beneath the numbers one through seven, for each of the NBA's seven lost tribes. At last came the moment of truth. When Stern opened the sixth envelope and announced that the Indiana Pacers had won the No. 2 pick, only the Knicks hadn't been called. DeBusschere raised a fist in triumph. Usually cynical New York reporters leaped in the air. No one should have been surprised. On The Road Again, the horse whose shoe DeBusschere held, had broken his own track record at Yonkers Raceway the previous night. DeBusschere said afterward, "I was in shock. I'd rather take a last-second shot in a championship game any day. You have some control over that. This, you don't."
The inevitable joking about a big-city fix began almost immediately. Jaded observers were quick to point out the obvious financial advantages to the NBA of having Ewing in the nation's largest media market, particularly with CBS-TV's $22 million-per-year league contract due to expire after next season. When Stern opened the envelope that contained the Knicks' logo, it might as well have been filled with network cash.
Ewing's value to the Knicks should be equally great. The team's failure to get a first-rate center since Willis Reed retired in 1974 has been a constant source of disappointment to fans who used to pack Madison Square Garden. Injuries and illness this season to centers Bill Cartwright and Marvin Webster, respectively, caused the Knicks to finish with their worst record since 1963-64. Moreover, star forward Bernard King underwent surgery April 1 to repair cartilage and ligament damage in his right knee and is having a difficult rehabilitation. Nevertheless, Ewing is the dominant center around whom championships are made, one who'll fit perfectly into coach Hubie Brown's trapping defenses.
Once the giddiness of the moment subsides, however, the Knicks will be sobered by Ewing's contract demands. No one doubted before the lottery that his price would be high. Now that the Knicks are the target, the sky's the limit. David Falk, senior vice-president of the sports marketing and management firm ProServ, is Ewing's agent, and—as his negotiations on behalf of Adrian Dantley, James Worthy and Michael Jordan attest—he drives a hard bargain. Responding to reports that the bidding for Ewing would begin at $1 million a year, Falk said, "We'd probably want to start at a different parameter and work down."
The Knicks won't be alone in the wooing of Ewing. Falk expects a crush of other interests trying to lure his client into the holy state of endorsimoney. Sneakers, basketballs, kneepads, cars, fast food, soft drinks, brokerage houses and, of course, T shirts ( Ewing would prefer to continue wearing his trademark T shirt but NBA rules say no. Stay tuned for later developments)—these are just a few of the products Patrick might be pitching. Despite having been shielded from the press and public at Georgetown, Ewing may be the most recognized athlete ever to enter a major professional league. How much will the bidders pay for such a celebrity? Falk thinks Ewing can at least match his rookie salary in endorsement income.
For the Knicks, he'll be a bargain at any price.