Publish date:

A Grand Prize For A Lucky Loser

When the NBA's Sorry Seven cast lots on Mother's Day, one will come up a winner with the draft rights to Patrick Ewing

We can be fairly certain of what won't happen on May 12. Boston Celtics president Red Auerbach won't, much as he would like to, unearth some obscure NBA bylaw that gives his team territorial draft rights to all 7-foot centers hailing from Cambridge, Mass.

NBA commissioner David Stern, upon opening the last of seven envelopes, won't break the tension by revealing the corporate logo of Fruit of the Loom and announcing that Patrick Ewing will take a full-time job modeling gray T shirts.

John Thompson, Ewing's coach at Georgetown, won't call a press conference to say, "I don't believe it would be dignified for Patrick to begin his professional career in a warehouse," then announce that his collegiate Player of the Year center, rather than join the Sacramento (né Kansas City) Kings in their temporary arena, will sit out his rookie year while a battery of lawyers mounts an antitrust challenge to the NBA draft.

What will happen is uncommon enough: Some chronic loser will finally win. And in winning the NBA's first-ever lottery—known, of course, as the Ewing Lottery—for the No. 1 pick in the college draft, either Atlanta, Golden State, Indiana, New York, Sacramento, Seattle or the Los Angeles Clippers will have its fortunes irrevocably changed.

In a short, televised ceremony at New York's Waldorf-Astoria Hotel on Mother's Day, the fates will award one non-playoff team a player to build a franchise on. Stern will reach into a see-through container and draw seven envelopes, each with a team logo' sealed inside. A lieutenant will place them, one at a time, on easels marked No. 1 through No. 7. Then Stern will work backward, first opening 7, then 6, then 5 and so on, until the one team lucky enough to win the right to sign Ewing—negotiations should start at $1 million a year—is revealed. It will be the most meaningful game any of these teams will have played in months. "It'll be like the Miss America Pageant," says Clippers vice-president Arn Tellem, "with David Stern as Bert Parks."

As the day approaches, the league's ugliest clubs are primping, preening and contriving to get Lady Luck on their side. Tellem, Clippers president Alan Rothenberg and G.M. Carl Scheer joke about enlisting 33 Hasidic rabbis to chant Ewing's name in unison. Ewing's Georgetown uniform number was 33.

"I've thought about parapsychologists, mediums, tarot cards and Ouija boards," says Tom Newell, player personnel director for the Indiana Pacers, who lost a two-team coin flip—the lottery's precursor—for Ralph Sampson two years ago. Maybe with Ewing around to get the team some exposure, people might finally learn what Pacer coach George Irvine looks like.

Golden State plans to have employees manning the ticket-office phones on lottery day just in case. Still, Warriors owner Franklin Mieuli has understandably opposed the lottery. If the pre-1985 system were still in effect, the Warriors and Pacers—each with 22-60 records, the worst in their conferences—would be flipping a coin for the rights to Ewing. Says the team's assistant general manager, Hal Childs, "[The lottery] destroys what the draft was meant to do—give the weakest teams, in order, a chance to strengthen. It laughs at parity." So do the Warriors, who have been out of the playoffs since 1977.

Some 90 miles away in Sacramento, the fans haven't yet had enough time to become long-suffering, and acquiring Ewing would certainly spare them the experience. Some 8,200 season tickets have already been sold for the Kings' 10,400-seat temporary new home, which isn't actually a warehouse, though it's zoned as one.

Atlanta owner Ted Turner plans to attend the ceremony as much for the satisfaction of getting his mug on CBS-TV as to lend his considerable aura of good luck to the proceedings. Meanwhile, Hawks G.M. Stan Kasten has sounded the only note of candor among the Sorry Seven. "For the first time," he says, "I can honestly say I'm ambivalent [about not having made the playoffs]." Knicks coach Hubie Brown is playing it cool. "Why worry," he says, "when it's going to be like bingo at St. Mary's cathedral."

And in Seattle, Sonics management had to deflect criticism aimed at center Jack Sikma, who suddenly went down for the season on March 20 with tendon and ligament problems in the ring finger of his nonshooting hand. Sikma had missed only seven games in seven years. His absence surely cost Seattle a playoff spot, but did help the Sonics get a bingo card.

Would Sikma have sat out if the Sonics had had a chance for the championship? The possibility of teams intentionally losing games for a chance at Ewing is the very reason the lottery was instituted in the first place. "As long as there are advantages attached to being worst, there will be things written and said," allows Stern, who insists he would not tolerate even the appearance of tanking. "We have confidence in our players and management." While the odds of winning a coin flip are a tantalizing 50-50, a spot in the playoffs, the thinking goes, would always be preferable to the slim (1 in 7, or roughly 15%) chance of winning a lottery for even a franchise-maker like Ewing.

Only a hopeless cynic would point out that the one club to rally its way into the playoffs this season—the Cleveland Cavaliers—had traded its No. 1 pick to Dallas in 1981. Or that the Sonics had already bartered away their No. 1 pick for 1986 to Boston, thus putting themselves in more of a now-or-never position in the '85 draft. Besides, said a Sonics team physician, Dr. Richard A. Zorn, Sikma could have suffered "permanent injury, deformity and loss of function" in his left ring finger had he played the final 14 games.

Sikma's damaged digit aside, it would hardly behoove a team to tank its way into a drawing with such long odds. If 15% really were a substantial sum, millions of people wouldn't leave it as a tip in restaurants every day. "Talk to teams in the lottery," says the Pacers' Newell, "and you'll find they're all thinking about who they'll take at numbers 2, 3, 4, 5, 6 and 7."

Let's hope that's because everybody's No. 1 pick is a given, and not because the lottery teams aren't playing to win. Some team's going to win. Some team's got to. In spite of itself.