In the time it took National Basketball Assn. Commissioner David Stern to tear open seven sealed envelopes in a nationally televised ceremony Sunday, the New York Knickerbockers were dramatically transformed from one of the league’s biggest losers into a potential power.
It was the Knicks who came up the big winners here in the first-ever NBA draft lottery between the teams with the seven worst records during the 1984-85 season. First prize for the Knicks, of course, is the right to draft Georgetown’s 7-foot Patrick Ewing, a franchise-altering center whom Knick executives believe can eventually lead the club to its first championship since 1973.
“I think Ewing will make a major impact on the game of basketball,” said Knick General Manager Dave DeBusschere, who represented his team at the drawing. “I don’t know if we’ll win the championship next year, but Ewing is the type of player that comes along maybe every five years. We’re lucky to get him.”
Luck was what the so-called Sorry Seven teams needed most Sunday here at the Waldorf-Astoria, as Stern opened the envelopes in reverse order to determine the selection order in the June 18 draft. After he opened the No. 3 envelope, which had the Clippers’ logo inside, it was between the Knicks and Indiana Pacers for the No. 1 pick and the rights to Ewing.
Pausing for a moment to build the suspense, Stern then ripped open the second envelope and held up the Pacers’ logo. While DeBusschere pounded his fists on the table in exultation, many Knick employees and fans in the audience cheered wildly.
Stern opening the No. 1 envelope was anti-climatic, but it made it all official. The Knicks, 24-58 last season, won the Ewing Sweepstakes. All they have to do is draft him next month and then sign him to a contract that will probably be worth more than $1 million per year.
Those are merely details to be worked out later. DeBusschere couldn’t stop smiling as he held a Knick jersey with Ewing’s name and number (33) on the back.
“I guess this takes the suspense out of who we’ll select (June 18) now,” DeBusschere said.
So, the official order of selection for the top seven picks in next month’s draft will be New York, Indiana, the Clippers, Seattle, Atlanta, Sacramento (nee Kansas City) and Golden State.
“When I heard the second envelope called, I almost broke the table,” DeBusschere said. “I was in shock. It’s a great feeling, a wonderful day. To tell you the truth, I would’ve been happy with anything in the top three.”
Both Indiana co-owner Herb Simon and Clipper General Manager Carl Scheer said they were happy with the second and third draft picks, respectfully, although the expressions on their faces clearly showed disappointment.
The consolation prizes figure to be either Oklahoma’s 6-9 power forward Wayman Tisdale or Creighton’s 7-0 center Benoit Benjamin. Both are considered excellent players, but they aren’t Ewing. Scheer said the Clippers probably will select whichever player Indiana doesn’t.
“There will be some interesting by-play going on in the next few weeks between both the Pacers and ourselves and other teams that might make offers,” Scheer said. “We need a center. We need a power forward. If we can get a center that’s an impact player--we’ll have to take a close look at Benjamin--we will. But Tisdale has more experience as a college player. Either choice will help the two teams.”
Said Simon: “We’re not sure yet who’ll we’ll draft. Either Tisdale or Benjamin.”
However, attorney Ted Steinberg, who represents Tisdale, told Times reporter Thomas Bonk a different story. He said that Pacer officials, including player personnel director Wayne Embry, have assured him that they would take Tisdale with the No. 2 pick, which would leave 7-0 Creighton center Benoit Benjamin for the Clippers.
There is no question that the Knicks will use the first pick to select Ewing. Like the other six teams, the Knicks yearned for Ewing ever since the season ended. As a hunch, Knick public relations director John Cirillo had the Ewing jersey made. Cirillo also handed DeBusschere a horseshoe from prize harness racing pacer On The Road Again before the lottery as a good luck charm.
The NBA, as well as the Knicks, will benefit from Ewing. Having one of the most publicized players in the nation’s top media market also helps the NBA’s negotiations for a new television contract. The league’s four-year, $88 million contract with CBS runs out after next season.
Since Ewing was drawn by New York in New York, there was some cynical talk that the draft order was somehow prearranged.
“I wouldn’t dignify that with an answer,” Stern said. “We took all the precautions beforehand to make sure it was fair.”
Executives of the Golden State Warriors didn’t think the lottery’s concept was fair. The Warriors (22-60) finished with the NBA’s worst record and they received the worst draft position of the seven non-playoff teams.
When Stern opened the envelope under the No. 7 and called the Warriors’ name, General Manager Al Attles dropped his head in dejection and received a pat on the back from Indiana’s Simon. Attles didn’t look like a happy loser, and he left the podium afterward without talking to writers.
“That is the weakness with the lottery,” Scheer said. “It’s a serious problem when the team that wins only 22 games has only the seventh pick. Something has to change.”
Said Simon, whose team lost a coin flip with Houston for Ralph Sampson two years ago and now missed out on Ewing by one envelope: “It was fair. But I felt sorry for Al. He really needed a franchise player.”
While DeBusschere also called Ewing a franchise player, he stopped short of making any bold predictions for the Knicks next season. But if center Bill Cartwright (broken foot) and league scoring champion Bernard King (knee surgery) can return healthy, the Knicks would appear to have a team that could challenge Boston and Philadelphia.
“We can build our team around a player like Ewing,” DeBusschere said. “Cartwright can play power forward. . . . There’s going to be a lot of pressure on Ewing. You can’t expect us to win it right away. Even Lew Alcindor (Kareem Adbul-Jabbar) didn’t win it all his first year.”
Ewing, who watched the proceedings on television at Georgetown’s campus in Washington, D.C., declined to be interviewed by the print media. He did give a brief comment to CBS.
“It didn’t matter which team drafted me,” said Ewing, accompanied by his agent, David Falk. “I was just so anxious to get it over with.”
Ewing was all that was missing from Sunday’s carnival-like spectacle at the Starlight Roof of the elegant Waldorf-Astoria Hotel, which was gaudily transformed into lottery headquarters. The marbled walls and pillars were covered by blue drapes bearing the NBA emblem. On a makeshift stage was a large, clear plastic drum, an easel to hold the envelopes after they were drawn by Stern, and a table where the seven team representatives sat.
More than 100 media representatives from across the nation attended the lottery, and another 100 friends and office personnel from the NBA and the seven lottery participants were in the audience.
DeBusschere said the carnival atmosphere made him more nervous than he was the night before.
“I never want to go through this again,” DeBusschere said. “It was an agonizing experience. I’d rather be shooting the last-second shot in a championship game than watching those envelopes open. You have no control over your fate.
“Well, maybe if I was assured the outcome would be like it was today, I would sit through it again. We just became a very good team.”