Sunday's National Basketball Assn. draft lottery in the Starlight Roof ballroom at the elegant Waldorf-Astoria Hotel was a strangely festive spectacle.
Before more than 100 media representatives, another 100 invited guests and millions watching on national television, NBA Commissioner David Stern did an imitation of a game-show host and opened seven envelopes to determine the order of selection for next month's draft. The big question, of course, was which lucky team would get the right to draft Georgetown's Patrick Ewing.
When Stern dramatically revealed that the New York Knicks were the big winners, it not only caused much commotion from the large contingent of New York media, but also made the day a total success for the NBA.
The league, which recently has received more publicity for drug use among players and the struggles of financially troubled franchises than for what happened on the court, could not have asked for a better vehicle than the lottery idea to hype its product. That the Knicks, who play in the nation's media and advertising center, landed Ewing was an added bonus.
"We were very pleased with the lottery," Stern said, smiling almost as broadly as Knick employees in attendance. "The interest was great. People are talking about the lottery instead of drugs, unauthorized franchise moves or anything else negative. I would say we'll probably keep the lottery system."
Even cynical talk that the lottery was somehow fixed so that the Knicks would pick first didn't spoil Stern's mood.
"If people want to say that (the lottery was fixed), fine, as long as they spell our name right," Stern said. "That means they're interested in us. That's terrific."
Judging from Stern's comments, the lottery will become standard procedure to determine the drafting order, which may be good for publicity, but may not be so terrific for the league otherwise.
Despite the excitement and interest generated by the lottery, many feel the fair way to award the No. 1 draft pick is the old way--to have the worst teams in the Western and Eastern conferences flip a coin.
Had the NBA stuck with its previous system, which had been used since 1966, Golden State and Indiana, each of which finished with a 22-60 record, would have been the teams involved in the coin flip.
Certainly, there wouldn't have been the hype and glamour of the nationally televised lottery, but at least one of the teams that most needed help would have bagged Ewing.
That didn't happen in the lottery. Golden State, unquestionably the NBA's worst team, came up the big loser again. They not only missed Ewing, but had to settle for the seventh pick in the draft. Hearing that, General Manager Al Attles of the Warriors dropped his head and mumbled dejectedly to Indiana owner Herb Simon, who was sitting next to him, "Am I hearing this right?"
If this actually had been a game show, Stern would have asked Don Pardo to tell Attles about the year's supply of Turtle Wax he had won as a consolation gift. Attles clearly wouldn't have been amused. When the lottery was over, Attles left in a huff.
The Warriors will draft a good player with the seventh pick, but probably not a superstar who can turn the team around. Even if the Warriors had lost the coin flip under the old system, they still would have had the No. 2 pick.
"There is the weakness in the lottery," Clipper General Manager Carl Scheer said. "When a team that only wins 22 games has to pick seventh, there's definitely a problem with the lottery. That's something the board of governors has to look into. But after what I saw here today, it looks like we're going to keep the lottery."
General Manager Dave DeBusschere of the Knicks didn't sympathize with Golden State.
"They had just as much a chance to win as anyone else," he said. "We were in just as bad a shape as they were last season. We won only 24 games. We deserved help, too."
No team is as bad off as the Warriors. If the Knicks hadn't won the Ewing lottery, they probably would still be much improved over last season, when an almost incredible string of injuries devastated the team. Center Bill Cartwright, who now will be a power forward, has recovered from a broken foot and Bernard King is expected to recover from knee surgery in time to start the 1985-86 season.
Conversely, the Warriors started journeyman Jerome Whitehead at center and, except for Purvis Short, had little offensive firepower. Only a late-season surge enabled the Warriors to break the 20-win barrier.
"The Warriors needed a big man--real bad," Indiana's Simon said. "They won't get one now."
The problem with parity wasn't the only problem with the first draft lottery. The league's integrity was questioned by many who speculated that it was arranged so the Knicks would get the first pick.
After all, having Ewing in New York will help the NBA in its negotiations with CBS on a new contract. The league's $88-million contract will run out after next season and there was speculation that if Ewing had gone to, say, Sacramento, CBS would think twice before making another lucrative offer.
Both New York tabloids ran stories Monday bringing up the fix question. The Daily News reported that the accounting firm of Ernst and Whinney, which was hired by the NBA to seal the envelopes and ensure that the selection process was fair, also audits the accounts of Gulf & Western. Gulf & Western owns the Knicks. It was not immediately known if any of the other teams in the lottery use Ernst and Whinney.
Asked about any possible foul play, Jack Krumpe, Madison Square Garden president, smirked and said: "Hey, I told them how to fix it 60 days ago. You call up Ernst and Whinney and you say, 'If we don't get Ewing, you're fired.' "
Krumpe was joking--presumably.
Stern didn't joke about rumors of a fix. He seemed to ignore the questions, perhaps hoping they would go away.