(Editor’s Note: While we cover the NBA as obsessively as we can around here, there are still numerous ancillary parts of the NBA experience that we want to uncover and explore. Being involved with the NBA can mean everything from coach in the minor leagues to trying to catch the game one frame at a time. We will delve into these angles of the NBA as part of our regular — and perhaps a bit irregular — All Ball series, NBA Behind The Scenes.)
NEW YORK – On Thursday night, the Cleveland Cavaliers hold the first pick in the 2014 NBA Draft. But how did we come to that? I went behind the scenes at the NBA Draft Lottery last month to find out how the lottery actually goes down.
The first thing to understand is that the draft lottery you see televised in prime time on ABC — with the NBA deputy commissioner dramatically unsealing envelopes and withdrawing large cards festooned with the winning team’s logos — is not the actual lottery. What you see is a made-for-TV event. The real lottery takes place off-camera earlier in the evening, in a sealed room populated with lawyers, accountants, public relations people, team owners, security staff and journalists. The results are uncovered, and then the information is delivered about an hour later to the masses via the tube. In the time in between, the select few who know how the lottery turned out are sequestered, holders of a great secret that they aren’t allowed to share.
(Which begs the question: Why not televise the actual draft lottery? Watch the video above and compare it to the televised broadcast and it’s pretty clear which version works better as a TV spectacle.)
On this night, we were not all witnesses. Of the several hundred journalists at the lottery, there were five souls invited to watch the draft lottery live, including me. At 6:45 PM, almost two hours before the lottery results would be unveiled on live television, ace NBA PR man Michael Wade escorted our cabal of writers from the media headquarters in the Best Buy theater, up an impossibly steep escalator, across 44th street and over to the ABC studios.
We had to fight our way across Times Square, right in the middle of rush hour, weaving in and out of gaggles of tourists, avoiding the pudgy guy in a Bane costume begging folks for money for photos, past the sidewalk vendors guarding tables stacked high with YOLO snapbacks, dodging the stand-up comedians searching for people who like stand-up comedy, and finally under the huge ticker scrolling headlines and ads for ABC, until we finally reached the studio door.
Just inside that door was a freight elevator big enough to drive a car into, usually used to transport visitors from the ground floor to the second floor. Why is the elevator so large? Perhaps better to fit the egos of some of the celebrity guests on “Good Morning America?” Wade avoided this elevator and instead led us up two flights of stairs. I wondered if he was attempting to spike our blood pressure and disorient us before the lottery began, the better to control the information.
Where it all happens
On the second floor we were led through a maze of hallways to a rectangular room, which is usually used as a green room for “GMA.” Black cloth was draped over the back wall, and the curtains were drawn tight across the windows overlooking 44th Street. On the far end of the room was a makeshift display of basketballs and jerseys from the teams involved in the lottery. In front of that was the actual lottery machine, a series of clear Plexiglas tubes and bowls, a terrific contraption that looked like something Willy Wonka might design for a pet rodent. Next to that was a large paper tablet where the winning combinations would be recorded. It was all very lo-fi considering the fortunes of a team could be riding on this evening. Then again, perhaps lo-fi was the best way to make sure the results stayed in the room until the official announcement.
Eight easels displayed six oversized posterboards that listed the various number combinations assigned to each lottery team. Filling most of the room were four tables set with three chairs apiece, ready for the dozen team representatives in the room. In the back of the room was a round table prepped for five, for the journalists in attendance, as well as another table for the overflow PR people and league staff. To keep us all sated, there were two large trays of crudités, cookies, waters and sodas.
Upon realizing that we were about to be locked in this room for close to 120 minutes, the Boston Globe‘s Baxter Holmes and I thought we better hit the restroom for a final time. We stepped into the hallway and were immediately intercepted by a security guard, who told us we couldn’t go anywhere without an escort. The guard, a woman, then announced that she would take us to the bathroom, leading us down a labyrinth of hallways, past a series of control rooms and offices, until we finally reached a men’s room. The security guard leaned against the wall and told us she’d be waiting for us. I have never felt as much pressure to perform.
Finally, just after 7 p.m., with everyone in the room and accounted for, we were each presented with a comically oversized manila envelope and a Sharpie. All of our electronic communication devices were to be sealed in the envelopes and then tagged with our names. These packages would then be collected by security and confiscated until we were released from the room.
I am not a regular watcher of “Law & Order,” but I must admit that it felt alarmingly like we were being processed into lock-up.
From this point we were, for all intents and purposes, muted from the world. I’m sure if something terrible happened our loved ones could have found a way to get in touch with us. But the important thing in this moment was that we weren’t able to get in touch with anyone else. Because those of us in this room would know who won the NBA draft lottery before anyone else.
A member of the NBA legal department stepped to the front of the room to talk us through the proceedings. Standing quietly behind the machine were Lou DiSabatino, the NBA’s vice president of events and attractions, and Kiki Vandeweghe, the NBA’s senior vice president of basketball operations. The ping-pong balls were dropped into the hopper one by one, and the machine gurgled to life with an electronic hum as the balls ricocheted around. Next to the machine was a hollowed-out basketball, suitable for chips or dip. We were informed that in case of a malfunction with the machine, the party-platter basketball would be used instead and balls would be drawn one by one. Not nearly as exciting, sure. But you had to admire the versatility of that basketball.
In the middle of the room stood Kyle Yelencsics, an associate coordinator with the NBA. Yelencsics had his back turned to the podium and a stopwatch in his hand. After allowing the balls to percolate for 30 seconds, Yelencsics raised his other hand, DiSabatino opened a hatch atop the machine and a ball popped to the top. Vandeweghe reached over and withdrew the first ball, announcing, “Number 13.”
I immediately realized why this part of the draft process isn’t shown on television: A lottery taking several minutes is not exciting TV, unless maybe Yolanda Vega is involved. And for all his many talents, Kiki Vandeweghe is no Yolanda Vega.
Twenty seconds later, a second ball was withdrawn: “Number 7.”
With two of the four numbers known, I started scanning the number combination sheets in front of me. We were each given sheets listing all of the available combination, with the teams to which they were assigned. For instance, combination number 207 was 1-6-7-12, and belonged to Milwaukee. The sheet was several pages long and covered with numbers, and looking at it was like staring into The Matrix.
As the numbers were announced, everyone scanned the sheets madly trying to find the winner. This was like playing BINGO for geniuses — because the numbers were not drawn in order, it was nearly impossible to find the winning combination until all four numbers were called.
The third number was drawn: “Number 9.”
There was no way to tell who or what team was in the lead.
The fourth number came to the top, and as Vandeweghe plucked the ball from the machine, DiSabatino switched the motor off. If this was a low number, the pick would probably belong to Milwaukee, Philadelphia or Orlando, the teams with best chances at getting the first pick. If it was a high number, all bets were off.
“Number 14,” Vandeweghe called. The highest number available. What did this mean? Could it …
“Cleveland!” one of the NBA’s lawyers cried out.
“Congratulations, Cleveland,” said Vandeweghe. “You have the number one pick.”
All eyes went to Cleveland’s representative, Jeff Cohen, the team’s vice chairman, sitting at one of the tables in the middle of the room. I was sitting almost directly behind him, and all I could see was his shoulders dip, and both of his hands go to his head as if in disbelief.
The Bucks, who finished the season with the worst record, had been assigned 250 of the 1,001 possible combinations that existed between the 14 ping-pong balls. But the four numbers pulled out were one of the 17 — seventeen! — combinations assigned to the Cavs. Cleveland had a 1.7 percent chance of winning the lottery. And they had just done it, again, snagging the No. 1 overall pick for the second year in a row and the third time in the last four years.
Cohen stood and, shaking his head, accepted hollow well-wishes from the other team reps, who presented braves faces while all trying not to show their disappointment at not getting the top pick.
This was Cohen’s fourth rodeo in the sealed lottery room, and he was basically batting an unprecedented .750. After posing for a few pictures holding a jersey and the lucky ping-pong balls, Cohen spoke about the power of positive thinking — he had come into night repeating a phrase from what he termed “a book of isms” that promised, “You can believe it when you see it.” So as the ping-pong balls ricocheted around the machine, Cohen tried to visualize the Cavs’ winning numbers being drawn.
Like the rest of us, he wasn’t exactly sure where the Cavs stood as the numbers were called. But he deduced as it went along that the higher the numbers called, the better Cleveland’s chances became.
What happened was some combination of luck and insanity. What happened happened. Like it or not.
Back to the real world
Close to an hour after the drawing had finished, we were still locked in the room, and I guess that’s when madness began to set in. I had made small talk with several NBA team executives, but honestly, none of them wanted to talk all that much, as they were still dealing with the sting of defeat.
I started to wonder what would happen if something catastrophic happened in the world outside and we were all trapped in this room. Would it devolve into a “Lord of the Flies” situation? My fever dream was broken around 8 p.m. when the draft lottery started airing, and someone flipped on the two TVs in the room and tuned them to ESPN. All of us in the room drifted toward one of the two TVs and stood watching. Some of the writers started talking about the upcoming draft, mostly as a way to fill time, wondering who the Cavs would draft, which teams would try to trade up, which teams would move down.
Meanwhile, Mallory Edens and the Bucks were winning the night on social media. In the back, where we were still in forced Luddite mode, we had no idea any of this was happening.
When it got to the final three and the broadcast went to a commercial break, the envelopes with our personal effects were distributed to us, along with a warning from Clifford Cooper, the massive security guard blocking the door, that we were not to open our envelopes yet “under penalty of death.” I’m pretty sure he was just joking. Nobody dared to find out.
Eventually we stumbled down a few hallways and into the television studio, where the broadcast was just wrapping up. Everyone in the studio seemed to be as amazed as the rest of us about the Cavs winning that top pick, even though we’d had an hour to process the results.
One day after the draft lottery, when the NBA tweeted out a link to my news story from the event about the Cavs winning the lottery for the third time in four years, I was inundated with tweets.
I’m here to tell you that nothing untoward happened. The draft lottery may have been surprising. But fixed? Not at all.
It was just luck. And sometimes, that’s exactly enough.