When people ask why I adore the lottery, my first thought is the basketball with the top cut out. The lottery is this ultra-serious thing that can alter the course of entire franchises, with elaborate rules, observing accountants and sequestered attendees who must hand over their phones and Apple watches.
It is also a human man plucking a ping-pong ball from a tube, and handing that ball to another human man who recites the number adorned on the ball. Repeat that four times, and you have a distinct four-number combination. That combination belongs to one of the 14 teams in the room. That team wins the lottery. Repeat the same procedure at least two more times to designate teams picking No. 2 and No. 3.
If the machine in which the balls bounce breaks down, the NBA has a contingency: dump all 14 balls into a basketball with a hole cut out of the top. A league official closes that hole, shakes the basketball, opens it up, and picks out the balls. The league has not had to use said contingency. If it ever does, and I am there, I might retire on the spot.
Some other observations from the secret drawing room:
• The first three numbers drawn were, in order, 9, 12 and 6. High numbers put more teams in play. In general, the teams with the best lottery odds — Phoenix and Memphis — have most of the four-number combinations with 1s and 2s. In that moment before the drawing of the fourth ball, a bunch of teams held combinations featuring 6, 9, and 12 — including Orlando, Cleveland (via Brooklyn), and Sacramento. I don’t say this facetiously: The tension in those 10 seconds was very, very real. Out popped a “1,” and the Suns had their first No. 1 pick in history — a massive moment for a rebuilding franchise that hasn’t yet derived much from three recent top-eight picks (Dragan Bender, Marquese Chriss, Alex Len).
The next two four-number combinations also belonged to Phoenix; the league scrapped those and drew again. “I don’t know if I have any luck left,” said Jim Pitman, the chief financial officer of the Suns (and GM of the WNBA’s Phoenix Mercury). He has worked for the Suns since 1992 but never before been tapped for the lottery backroom. Why now? Pitman has won prize money (in the name of Phoenix Suns Charities) several years in a row in a closest-to-the-pin contest held as part of the Phoenix Open. Penny Sarver, wife of Robert Sarver, the Suns owner, considers this golf success proof that Pitman is lucky, he said. He got the job.
Pitman brought two good-luck charms: an autographed photo of Brittney Griner and Diana Taurasi, both of whom the Mercury selected No. 1, and a gold medal Griner won in the Russian professional league last winter.
• Josh Jackson, Phoenix’s representative on the dais, told me he wore lucky underwear. I gently asked if I should inquire as to why they were lucky. Jackson’s response: “Probably not.”
• Jackson smiled when reflecting on a whirlwind rookie season: coach (Earl Watson) fired after three games, late-season injuries, lots of losing leading into this lottery. “My experience is a little more … broad than most rookies,” he said.
• His goal for the offseason: get stronger. “Eating and lifting,” Jackson said. “Eating and lifting.”
• The Kings leapt from No. 7 to No. 2, and it took less than two minutes for representatives from multiple teams to joke about the Suns threatening to select Luka Doncic as a method of leveraging Vlade Divac’s (alleged) preference for players from the former Yugoslavia against him. How much might the Kings pay to move up one spot? (The Kings are reportedly fine picking whoever is there, but that didn’t stop the jokes.)
• The Kings made that jump only because they lost a “coin flip” (actually a separate drawing) in April with the Bulls. Had that coin flip gone the other way, Chicago owns the four-number combination in question and is picking No. 2. Atlanta similarly won Tuesday night by losing a coin flip with Dallas, which fell to No. 5.
Brock Aller, the Cavs’ senior director of strategy, reminisced about how a similar coin flip “win” cost Cleveland a chance to draft Anthony Davis in 2012. Jason Hillman, the Cavs’ chief of staff, traveled to New York in 2012 to observe that tiebreaker. Six years later, the Cavs’ front-office staff still gives Hillman grief, Aller said: “How can you screw up a coin flip?”
• Aller was under a lot of lottery pressure replacing Jeff Cohen, the former vice chair who represented the Cavaliers in the drawing room during each of their three — three! — lottery wins in 2011, 2013, and 2014. It was a Gale Sayers/Sandy Koufax-level run. Cohen is perhaps the most decorated all-time lottery drawing room participant. Aller told me afterward he felt no pressure filling the shoes of a legend who might also be a warlock. I don’t believe him.
• Leave it to Jami Gertz, the actress and wife of Hawks controlling owner Tony Ressler, to sum up the absurdity of the event — for which Gertz represented the Hawks on the dais. “So much is weighing on something I can’t do anything about,” she told me. When Ressler nominated her, Gertz thought she might actually be the one picking out the ping-pong balls, she said. She hosts Bingo games at fundraisers for a nonprofit she and Ressler cofounded, so overseeing the lottery drawing would have been a natural transition, she said.
• It’s always fun watching the televised lottery in the locked-down drawing room, already knowing the results. You wait for people to have their hearts broken on live television. This year’s highlight: the camera zooming in on Gertz after the Hawks moved up. She leaned back, triumphant, and mouthed, “Oh, yeah.” The room erupted. One person yelled, “This is the best part of being in this room!” Afterward, Gertz was thrilled to hear that.
“I love it,” she told me. “I was so excited, I’m glad other people got to see that!”
• Fun post-lottery moment: Ressler approaching Rich Gotham, Celtics president, and joking he would have given up and sold the Hawks on the spot had the Celtics snared the No. 2 or No. 3 pick (via the Lakers and Sixers).
• Gotham looked legitimately upset that Boston hadn’t moved up, even though the odds were minuscule: The Celtics had just a 2.9 percent chance. “I didn’t come here to lose,” he told me. He was not joking.
• By the way: Gertz does not mind if you ask her about her iconic “spare a square” role on “Seinfeld.” She says multiple women over the years have spotted her in restaurants, waited for her to go to the bathroom, raced into the stall next to her, and asked if she might “spare a square.” People are nuts. Gertz is a good sport.
• Mike Zarren, Boston’s assistant general manager and drawing room representative, brought the green Starter Celtics jacket he has been wearing to Boston home games — and nowhere else — since he was a kid as his good-luck charm. One twist: He refused to wear it. He kept it in a gray bag. “Wearing it here on a game night might have upset the game gods,” Zarren said. “Particularly on the night of a home game.” Did the lottery gods punish the Celtics because of Zarren’s fealty to the game gods? Or did the game gods reward them?
• Weirdly, the Celtics and Sixers might have wanted the same outcome stemming from their split-up of the 2018 Lakers and 2019 Kings picks under the terms of the Jayson Tatum–Markelle Fultz pick swap. To review: Boston would have received the Lakers’ pick this June only had it fallen anywhere from No. 2 through No. 5. (The Lakers pick entered the lottery at No. 10, and finished there.) Otherwise, the Celtics receive the Kings pick next season — unless that pick lands at No. 1 or the Sixers are worse than the Kings, in which case Boston gets Philly’s 2019 pick.
Boston probably valued the certainty of a top-five pick this season. Philly probably valued the possibility of snaring a much higher (than No. 10) Sacramento pick next season — plus the extra cap space it would have derived this summer by virtue of not having a pick. I guess they both lost?
• Sacramento moving up to No. 2 impacts that Philly-Boston trade, too. The Kings will add a good player, raising the (slight) possibility that they might not be the preferred (from Boston’s perspective) level of horrible.
• Tuesday night’s drawing gives two down-on-their-luck Western Conference teams a lifeline. Just what the league needed — more help for Western Conference teams!
• Chris Wallace, the Grizzlies’ GM (and drawing room rep) who once worked for the Celtics, said his favorite lottery good-luck charm ever was the partially smoked cigar Red Auerbach sent him ahead of the 1998 lottery. Auerbach was then living in Washington, D.C., Wallace told me. The Celtics mailed him an envelope with a return address, and instructed him to light the cigar, take a couple puffs, put it out, and mail it back.
He did. Wallace stuck it in his suit pocket. “It stunk to high heavens,” Wallace said. “The whole stage smelled.” The Celtics didn’t move up or down that year, but Paul Pierce fell to them at No. 10, so Wallace concluded the cigar worked.
• His charm this season: a pink pen a local Catholic church in Memphis gave out at Mass on Mother’s Day. Wallace took one even though, as he put it, “I don’t qualify as a mother.” Memphis fell from No. 2 to No. 4. Wallace was happy, anyway. After all, the Grizzlies could have fallen to No. 5 had a third team (in addition to Sacramento and Atlanta) moved up. “We were lucky in a way,” Wallace said. You just cannot kill the hope within Chris Wallace.
• The league’s GMs, or their surrogates in some cases, met before the lottery to discuss league business. Among the topics that generated the most debate: the end-of-season play-in tournament I detailed here. LeBron denouncing the idea stalled its momentum, but the win-or-go-home game between Denver and Minnesota reinvigorated it.
• Sign I am old: I got annoyed noticing even the black briefcase in which the lottery balls are carried into the drawing room has branding — State Farm — emblazoned on it.
• Michelle Leftwich, the Hawks’ vice president of salary cap administration and their drawing room rep, wore a Hawks-red dress over a “True To Atlanta” T-shirt for good luck. Leftwich worked at the league for more than 20 years, and for most of that time, she was in charge of writing out the selected four-number combinations — and the teams to which they were attached — on a giant white sheet of paper atop an easel.
Remarkably, that role still exists. Leftwich during her time lobbied for the league to digitize it. “I was beginning to feel a little Vanna White-ish,” she said.
• Other lottery nostalgia, going back to the very first drawing and its infamous conspiracy theory: Steve Mills, the current Knicks president, worked for the league in the 1980s and 1990s, and said Tuesday that he set up the room where the so-called “frozen envelope” drawing happened (granting the Knicks the right to draft Patrick Ewing). A half-decade later, the league switched from envelopes to ping-pong balls. Mills and Joel Litvin, the NBA’s former president of league operations, were in charge of testing out the new balls, they both recalled.
They started by numbering them. Some teams complained that balls with double-digit numbers would weigh more, perhaps impacting the odds somehow. Mills and Litvin switched to team logos. Teams objected that a logo-based system might bring the same issue. Never let a team executive tell you fans are nuttier about conspiracy theories than they are.
• Buzz Peterson, the Hornets’ assistant general manager and drawing room rep, told me he received a simple and blunt text message before the event from Michael Jordan: “You better move up.” Gulp.
• The most bored person in the room: the representative of the team with the best record/worst lottery odds. That team gets five of the 1,001 possible four-number combinations. You barely notice them on the giant list of combos. This season, that person was Tim Connelly, the Nuggets’ GM. “I didn’t even look at the sheet once,” he told me afterward, laughing.
• The most anxious person: Micah Day, the NBA’s director of event management, making his debut as timekeeper. His job: stand with his back to the proceedings, and raise his right hand every 10 seconds after the first ball of each combination is sucked out — the signal to pick the next ball. He even got to choose the color of his stopwatch, from among red, black, blue, and purple. (He picked red.) He practiced a lot. Should he raise his hand after 10 seconds has elapsed, or a beat before, so that his hand would be up precisely at that 10-second mark?
“I was nervous,” Day told me. “You have to get that right, or else the Ernst & Young guy is going to yell at you.” He started the night facing the stage but was instructed to pirouette into his position when Kiki Vandeweghe, the league’s executive vice president and our drawing room emcee, introduced him.
You better believe Day practiced that spin. It turns out, you can pirouette on your heel, or on your toes. Day worked on both. In the end, he doesn’t even remember which one he used.