By Jeff Dengate

SECAUCUS, N.J., May 24, 2005 – Conference Room 3A: Better known to conspiracy theorists as professional basketball's own Grassy Knoll. Known in basketball circles as the place where the ping-pong balls bounce.

Every spring, NBA fans sound off about their teams “getting robbed” or crying "fix" when their teams slide in the order of selection. To debunk any such claims, the NBA welcomes a select handful of media members to witness the actual lottery drawing being conducted, the results of which are broadcast around the world.

The fate of 14 draft picks lie in as many white balls.
Jesse D. Garrabrant/NBAE/Getty Images
What goes on behind the closed doors? I was one of the fortunate few to be invited to watch the winning combination drawn, determining the top three picks in the 2005 NBA Draft.

Join me as I recall the experience.

First, a quick history lesson for those unfamiliar with how the lottery came to be. Gone are the days of coin flips and territorial picks, cast aside in favor of a weighted system of 14 ping-pong balls with 1,001 possible outcomes.

In the NBA’s infancy, teams could forfeit their first-round pick and select a player from their immediate geographical area – commonly known as a “territorial pick”. One such pick, Holy Cross’ Tom Heinsohn, was taken by the Celtics in 1956, a team he helped lead to eight NBA Championships during his nine-year career.

The system was revamped in 1966, leading to a coin toss between the last place finisher in each of the NBA’s two divisions to determine who would get the first overall pick. Still short of perfect, the system witnessed a young Magic Johnson as the steal of the 1979 Draft for the Los Angeles Lakers. In that draft, the Chicago Bulls had called “heads,” the result being “tails,” and the first pick was awarded to the New Orleans Jazz. The Jazz, however, owed the Lakers three draft picks, one of them being – you guessed it – one of the 50 Greatest Players in NBA History.

An ever evolving process, the lottery now determines only the top three selections, with the remaining teams picking in inverse order of their regular season record. The 14 certified, weighed and sized white balls, numbered one through 14, are placed in a drum similar to those used in state lottery contests. Four balls are drawn, comprising the winning combination, without regard to their order of selection.

But we’re not in school, so enough with the history; let’s go behind the locked doors.

To gain access to conference room 3A, one must first surrender all forms of communication with the outside world and take a vow of secrecy. All right, the truth is you’re simply locked inside the conference room until the No. 1 pick has been revealed to the rest of the world, preventing you from playing the role of spoiler.

A sign on the outside of the entrance offers a stern warning: NO ADMITTANCE AFTER 7:10 P.M.

What it should have read is: “Please visit the restroom now because it’ll be a long time until we let you out.” A fair enough warning for those soon-to-be detained.

Once inside, placards reserved spaces at the assembled tables for the 11 team representatives in attendance – the Lakers and Timberwolves only sent an on-stage participant while Cleveland was not a participant in this year’s lottery, having given their first-round pick to the Bobcats via Phoenix, in exchange for selecting Jahidi White in last summer’s expansion draft.

I take my seat alongside Sekou Smith (Atlanta Journal-Constitution), John Reid (New Orleans Times-Picayune) and David Scott (Charlotte Observer) – writers covering the three teams with the best shot at winning the lottery.

The ping-pong balls ricochet around the lottery machine for 20 seconds before the first number is drawn.
Jesse D. Garrabrant/NBAE/Getty Images
Shortly before 7:00 p.m. ET, the room became crowded as all on-stage and lottery-room participants filed in for roll call and a brief summary of the lottery rules.

Jamin Dershowitz, the NBA’s general counsel, ran through the process for all in attendance. Highlights among the rules include:

  • The 14 ping-pong balls are deposited into the machine and allowed to tumble for exactly 20 seconds, at which point the first ball will be extracted. Subsequent balls will be withdrawn every 10 seconds repeatedly until four balls have been removed.
  • For the purposes of the lottery, the order the balls are drawn has no bearing on the result, thus 1, 2, 3, 4 is the exact same as 4, 3, 2, 1.
  • In the event the machine breaks down, there is a second machine in an adjacent room. In the event both machines break down, there is a power failure or another unforeseeable event, the balls will be drawn manually from a basketball which has been lopped in half. Thankfully, none of these disaster scenarios will be necessary tonight.
  • If more than one ball pops out of the machine at any one time, only the first ball will be official and any others will be returned to the tumbler.

At this point, the on-stage participants – those whose reactions you watched on ESPN’s telecast – were excused and the doors were locked. Two hours later, they would learn the outcome at the same time as the television audience.

Meanwhile, for those of us left inside the conference room, it was time to determine the draft order.

The ping-pong balls made their first appearance of the evening just past 7 p.m. as they were removed from their protective case and stacked in the machine’s chute in sequential order. The tension in the room mounted as Executive Vice President of Legal & Business Affairs, Joel Litvin, removed the balls one-by-one, held each up for the assembly to see, called out its number and placed it in the chute.

Then it's time to let the balls drop.

Mike Kordonsky, the event’s official timer in charge of calling shot-clock violations on the ping-pong balls, turned his back on the proceedings, remaining an impartial participant in the lottery process. Standing, eyes trained on the stopwatch in his right hand, Kordonsky’s focus never wavered from the timing device as he raised his left hand at the 20 second mark and each successive 10-second interval.

The first ball squirted out the top of the cylindrical machine: 5.

The No. 5 ball was held up and announced to all in attendance.

Ball two: 10.

As each ball is withdrawn, Dershowitz repositions himself along the team-look-up tables, which are posterboard sized signs with all the possible combinations lined along one wall of the room, hovering in the general vicinity of a possible winner. How quickly his position changes.

With a quick rattle and a dull thud, the third ball rises from the machine: 7.

The event, at this point, is a bit pedestrian because few people – even the most experienced lottery participants – can calculate, on-the-fly, those teams which have been eliminated from contention and which team needs what ball to surface to get the first pick. We’ll look back at those after we see the final ball and the winner of the No. 1 overall pick in this year’s NBA Draft.

Ball four … drumroll please: 14. The winning combination: 5—7—10—14.

“Milwaukee,” Dershowitz rings out.

“Whoo, unbelievable!” rejoins Bucks Director of Community Relations, Skip Robinson.

Larry Harris was all smiles when he finally learned the Bucks would select first on June 28.
Jennifer Pottheiser/NBAE/Getty Images
The Milwaukee Bucks defeated the odds, despite holding only 63 of a possible 1000 combinations, and claimed the first overall pick in the NBA Draft for the first time since taking Glenn Robinson in 1994.

The Bucks, however, had already beaten the odds by the time the first three balls – 5, 7 and 10 – were drawn. Any ball numbered eight or higher (six of the remaining 11 balls) would make the Bucks the cream of the crop. Anything six or lower and the pick would have gone to Atlanta (1), New Orleans (2), Charlotte (3), Utah (4) or Portland (6).

There was very little time for those not loyal cheeseheads to react, however, as the balls were immediately returned to the machine and cycled again to bring forth the winner of the second pick in the draft.

The next combination brought forth: 1—5—7—14. The Atlanta Hawks claimed the second overall pick in the NBA Draft – down one spot from their regular season finish.

The process is repeated for the third pick, but one of Atlanta’s 250 combinations surface again. The balls are returned to the tumbler and redrawn, similar to what would have happened in the event the 1,001st combination, 11—12—13—14, not assigned to a team, had surfaced.

The fourth drawing produces the third and final winning combination: 4—10—12—14. The Portland Trail Blazers join Milwaukee and Atlanta in the win-place-show grouping, despite holding only a 10.64 percent chance of winning the third pick.

And with that, the excitement is over. All that remains are congratulations to the winners, the No. 1 ping-pong ball as a souvenir for Skip Robinson and a table of food to tide us all over until Bucks General Manager Larry Harris looked around the NBA Entertainment studio two hours later as if to say, “Me? We won?”

For Robinson, watching the announcement a second time, the thrill remains. “It’s still exciting.”