Follow the Bouncing Balls

Tad Carper poses with the stars of the 2003 NBA Draft Lottery: the winning ping pong balls, the envelope with the No. 1 pick and the famous "JAMES" jersey. Notice the inset: the tag features the old "CAVS" logo.
When the NBA Lottery’s ping pong balls fall on Wednesday night in scenic Secaucus, N.J., there won’t be thousands of rabid Cavalier fans on pins and needles like last year. But one Cavalier fan will be.

Actually, he’s only part Cavalier fan. During his Clark Kent hours, he is Cavaliers VP of Communications, Tad Carper. The moniker is befitting a character of Tad Carper’s magnitude. Some people are “two-namers” and Tad Carper is one of them. He is a man who’s always on pins and needles when it comes to the Cavaliers; a livewire for all things Wine and Gold.

Tad Carper bustles with positive energy and is the perfect point man for Cavaliers communications. He is a perpetual motion machine even when standing still; talking to Tad in the hallowed halls of the Gund is like watching “The Blair Witch Project.” He is not your average VP. While other members of the Cavaliers brass are working on clients or staff during a game, Tad Carper can frequently be found behind the basket, working on Dick Bavetta.

So who better to make the trip to the Garden State for the 2004 NBA Draft Lottery than the man who brought home the No. 1 pick last year? (Tad Carper literally brought it home. See photo, right.)

Most of us remember what we were doing last year when NBA Deputy Commissioner Russ Granik opened the Envelope That Changed Everything. Many of us were at Champp’s Bar and Grill in Valley View and many more were simply glued to the tube, watching each passing pick with baited breath.

Together, we all witnessed one of the greatest sporting events in Cleveland history. No balls were batted, thrown, caught, dunked or spiked, but the local sports scene was about to change irrevocably. Just over a month later, the Cavaliers made good on the worst kept secret in the NBA by selecting high school phenom LeBron James with the No. 1 overall pick.

But only one man can completely tell the story exactly how it happened and from exactly where it happened.

NBA Deputy Commissioner Russ Granik and Cavaliers owner Gordon Gund.
Jesse D. Garrabrant
NBAE/Getty Images
Tad Carper had just taken over the position as VP of Communications a month earlier. Cleveland had made the transition to the new expression of Wine and Gold after the final game of the 17-65 season and what Cavaliers president Len Komoroski called “the perfect storm” was just beginning to appear on the radar.

Before the Lottery, Carper had been accompanying Cavaliers forward Carlos Boozer on a series of appearances and the subject matter was getting a little redundant.

“The conversations Carlos and I were having had grown stale because all we talked about was the Lottery and getting LeBron,” recalls Carper.

When the two saw each other previous to Boozer’s final interview before the moment of truth, he calmly told Tad that the next time they met, the Cavaliers would hold the No. 1 pick. The former Blue Devil told Tad, “You’re gonna get it done.”

On May 22, along with owner, Gordon Gund, and President of Gund Investment and Cavaliers Board Member, Warren Thaler, Tad made his way into 450 Harmon Meadow Blvd., the site of the NBA Draft Lottery. Tad was carrying a briefcase that he had dubbed “the football” -- after the secretive Secret Service case that goes everywhere the President’s agents go.

(The precious content of the briefcase was the now-famous road wine No. 23 jersey with “JAMES” emblazoned across the back. Certain teams chided Tad after the selection for being overconfident. Tad’s response: “We weren’t overconfident; we were just over-prepared.”)

Around 6:00 p.m., Thaler and the other teams’ reps were taken into the room where the actual tumbler dropped the ping pong balls that determined their respective fates. Cell phones were turned off and the door was locked behind them.

By this time, the camaraderie between teams was beginning to splinter and team reps returned to the comfort of their own “island.” (Perhaps they each had a “JAMES” jersey in a briefcase of their own.)

As Granik unsealed the envelopes, Clevelanders – and Carper – held their collective breath. The Knicks were called. Then Chicago. Then the Clippers, Miami and Chicago. Denver, who shared the same odds as Cleveland to land the pick, got the No. 3 selection and it came down to the Grizzlies and the Cavaliers. While Granik was still in the “Mmmm” part of “Memphis,” it was clear that the basketball gods, who had been so cruel to the Cavaliers for so long, were smiling upon the North Coast.

When the envelope revealing the new Cavaliers logo was opened, Carper said, “I just erupted. I felt like a can of soda that had been shaken over and over again since April. When we got the pick, I let it all out.”

After the unveiling and during a commercial break, Tad approached the stage and gave Gordon Gund the infamous jersey. Tad stayed on stage through the commercial, congratulating Gund and basking in the celebration. One of the show’s producers had to “encourage” Tad to leave the stage before the telecast returned from the network break.

At this point, Thaler came bolting out from under the NBA’s lock and key to congratulate Gund and Carper. The joy was palpable and Tad recalls hugging NBA staffers that he’d never met before.

After coordinating some media availability for Gordon Gund (who actually left Jersey that night for a meeting with the Kellogg’s board the next day) Carper went back to his hotel room. He remembers three Cavalier staffers calling him from Champp’s – each call inaudible. He remembers talking to his wife and his kids crying. And he remembers getting on a plane at 5:45 a.m. after not sleeping a wink.

Tad’s nerves were working overtime by the time his bird touched down in Cleveland on May 23. “I literally jogged from the gate at the airport to my car. And I had some trouble keeping it under 80 m.p.h. getting back to the Gund.”

When he walked into the building, employees were bouncing off the walls. Tad walked directly into the office of VP of Ticket Sales and Business Development, Chad Estis, and calmly placed the four winning ping pong balls – that ominously enough added up to “23” -- on Estis’ desk.

Tad Carper said, “I believe you’re looking for these.”

"I believe you're looking for these."
On the eve of the 2004 NBA Draft Lottery, the stakes aren’t nearly as high, but the blood will still be pumping when the ping pong balls start tumbling tomorrow night.

Tad will be in New Jersey again this year, along with Paul Silas and myself. The Cavaliers are lined up to get either the No. 10 or 11 pick, but stranger things have happened. If the basketball gods are smiling on Cleveland for the second straight season, the possibilities, should the Cavaliers sneak into the top three, are endless.

The ride that started just over one year ago hasn’t stopped and hasn’t changed. One day soon, the Cavaliers will be watching the Lottery on TV with the rest of the playoff teams and the general public. That day has not yet arrived.

“As great as this whole thing has been for the franchise,” Tad concluded, “I don’t think we’ll appreciate this until maybe 15 years from now. You can feel the impact, but the perspective is best gained from a different vantage point.”

After Tad Carper had returned to a relatively normal life at Gund Arena, he ran into his pre-Lottery partner, Carlos Boozer near the locker room. In his even-keeled manner, as calmly as he had encouraged Tad before the Lottery, Boozer simply said: “I knew you’d do it.”