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Fran Blinebury

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Winning the Lottery is easy; picking the right player is not

By Fran Blinebury, for NBA.com
Posted May 19 2009 12:49PM

As dozens of lottery millionaires from sea to shining sea have learned, getting the winning combination on the ping-pong balls is just the first step. It's often the decisions that come next that alter your life.

So it is, too, with the NBA Draft Lottery, which will celebrate its 25th birthday Tuesday night in a prime time event that is part sports, part game, part schtick and can be a big ingredient in determining future champions.

After all, would the San Antonio Spurs have four title banners hanging from their rafters if they hadn't won the 1997 Lottery and the rights to draft Tim Duncan? Would the Cleveland Cavaliers currently look like a boulder rolling down a mountain with eight straight double-figure playoff wins if the 2003 Lottery didn't deliver LeBron James? Would Orlando have knocked off the defending champion Boston Celtics to reach the Eastern Conference finals if the 2004 Lottery hadn't made Dwight Howard a resident of the Magic kingdom?

Those are the kinds of grand prizes the 14 participating teams in the Lottery will be clutching their good luck charms to win -- with Oklahoma forward Blake Griffin the consensus jackpot --- in the silver anniversary edition of an event that has grown exponentially over the years.

Before the NBA Draft Lottery and the atmosphere that almost begs for Monty Hall or Bob Barker, the No. 1 pick was determined by a mere coin flip held out of the range of TV cameras and away from the view of millions of worldwide fans. The coin flip involved the teams with the worst records in the Eastern and Western Conferences.

In May of 1983, the coin flip for College Player of the Year Ralph Sampson took place in the office of the late NBA Commissioner Larry O'Brien and was attended by small contingents representing the Houston Rockets and Indiana Pacers and less than a handful of reporters.

O'Brien simply tossed a silver dollar into his the air as Rockets' owner Charlie Thomas's daughter Tracy called "heads" and everyone stepped back. The coin bounced once, twice, rolled across the carpet and wound up landing on its side very close to my foot.

"You won, Charlie," O'Brien said and that touched off an impromptu celebration by the Houston side.

One year later, the Rockets, who had managed only 29 wins in Sampson's rookie season, found themselves back in O'Brien's office again, this time squaring off with the Portland Trail Blazers in the coin flip. Again the Rockets called "heads," again the coin came up in their favor and that time the Rockets selected Hakeem Olajuwon.

The debate of the 1984 Draft always surrounds the decision of the Trail Blazers to choose Sam Bowie with the No. 2 pick over Michael Jordan. The other major story to come of the Draft was the drumbeat from around the league for change to the coin-flip system after Houston won back-to-back All-Star 7-footers.

The campaign for change was led by then-Dallas Mavericks general manager Norm Sonju, who was frustrated in trying to get the still-fledgling franchise up and running and who believed that the Rockets had manipulated --- tanked games --- late in the 1984 season to get back into the coin flip to snap up University of Houston star Olajuwon.

Thus, on the last day of the annual meetings, Sonju had a vote taken on changing the system to a lottery involving all of the non-playoff teams and therefore lessening 1-in-2 odds of a team tanking its way into the top pick in the draft. Sonju saw it as a direct slap at then-Rockets general manager Ray Patterson.

That wasn't how Patterson saw it. In fact, less than an hour after the Lottery was passed, when I asked Patterson if he was disappointed, he laughed and waved his hand.

"Who in their right mind would think that with Ralph and Hakeem we could possibly have the worst record in the West next season?" he sniffed. "But is it out of the question that we might just miss the Playoffs, just make it into the Lottery and maybe get lucky and win it? What would Norm Sonju think if I was sitting here next year with Patrick Ewing, too?"

Ewing, the Georgetown star, was the prize of the first Draft Lottery, held in New York City with much more hype and publicity. When brand new NBA commissioner David Stern reached into the hopper and pulled out the envelope that contained the New York Knicks logo, charges of conspiracy flew from coast to coast. The Knicks' envelope was bent on one corner. The Knicks' envelope had been kept in dry ice prior to the lottery so that Stern could feel the cold.

So silly, so ridiculous, so paranoid. Yet a phenomenon was born, and through the years the NBA Draft Lottery has evolved and grown. In 1992, the envelopes were out and ping-pongs were introduced. Then it changed from individual ping-pong balls to a weighted lottery and today the computers and calculations to pick the winning combination almost require a Princeton math genius.

While the appeal and popularity of the Lottery has grown, what has always remained is the human element. It is one thing to have the first choice. It is something else entirely to make the right choice.

Sometimes it just helps to have the No. 1 pick in the right year. The Rockets, of course, struck gold with Sampson and Olajuwon (though they, too, passed over Jordan) in 1983 and 1984 with the coin flips. When Houston came up a Lottery winner in 2002, the prize was the much-sought Yao Ming from China.

The last time the Sacramento Kings --- who have the best odds of getting the top pick Tuesday night -- chose No. 1, the top prize was Pervis Ellison, who had a journeyman's career. The Kings could have taken Sean Elliott (No. 3), Tim Hardaway (14) or Shawn Kemp (17) -- better choices, but not franchise changers or makers like Olajuwon, Duncan or Shaquille O'Neal.

The Milwaukee Bucks have won the lottery twice. In 1994, they picked Glenn Robinson over Jason Kidd. In 2005, they picked Andrew Bogut over Deron Williams (3), Chris Paul (4), Andrew Bynum (10) and Danny Granger (17).

The Los Angeles Clippers won the lottery in 1998 and made Michael Olowokandi the new face of their franchise, passing over Vince Carter (5), Dirk Nowitzki (9) and Paul Pierce (10).

In 2001, the Washington Wizards got the top spot and used it to select Kwame Brown instead of Pau Gasol.

It is a cautionary tale, one to remember for all of the team representatives carrying the charm of a rabbit's foot or horseshoe or four-leaf clover in their pockets.

It takes sheer luck to win the NBA Draft Lottery. Then the hard part begins.

Longtime NBA writer Fran Blinebury's column appears weekly on NBA.com.

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