TSN Originals: David Stern, the Knicks, Patrick Ewing and the 1985 NBA Draft Lottery conspiracy theories
Was the deep exhalation a revealer, was the envelope tossed in a particular way into the drum a clue? There was no way, at least for the spectators, to discern the temperature of the envelopes in the drum. Maybe this NBA security guard made a “change” of envelopes, would that be possible?
It was well beyond speculation before the 1985 NBA lottery, the first in league history: the NBA was in trouble, with a capital T and rhyme with P representing Patrick.
“It could be argued,” The Sporting News wrote in an op-ed a few weeks earlier, “that a shot at Ewing is more enticing than a spot among 16 playoff prospects.”
As difficult as it may seem today, as we wait for this year’s draw, the NBA was on a bad streak in the mid-1980s.
MORE: The moment the NBA draft changed forever: New York Knicks, Patrick Ewing and the 1985 lottery
Flames licking the league included declining attendance, franchises bleeding money and a cocaine problem so widespread that a Los Angeles Times history in 1982 claimed that 75 percent of NBA players were drugged.
Things were so bad that the league came close to disbanding more than a quarter of its teams, six out of 23.
Against this backdrop, the NBA’s four-year, $91.9 million television contract with CBS was set to expire after the 1985–86 season. Ewing in the Big Apple? Huge, a major market complement to Bird in Boston, Jordan in Chicago and Magic in Los Angeles. Ewing in, say, Sacramento? Not really.
The lottery arrived in 1985 as the first anti-tank effort implemented by a major sports league – no small feat – after Clippers owner Donald Sterling loudly declared the game calm of the old NBA draft format: “We can win by losing.
While the early playoffs were sparsely watched in Philadelphia, Detroit and Denver, The Sporting News said, “The NBA suspects this lottery for losers will have more pulling power on television than the advertised playoffs. Therefore, the purse ceremony will take place with all the fanfare that can be mustered during halftime of a nationally televised playoff game.
By the time 100 accredited members of the media and 100 guests had joined league and team officials at the Starlight Roof on the 18th floor of the Waldorf Astoria in midtown Manhattan for the NBA’s first lottery, the whispers had begun.
The fix is here: Patrick Ewing at the Knicks.
“There is a strong feeling among league officials and TV advertising executives,” The New York Times wrote, “that the NBA will benefit the most if (Ewing) ends up in a Knicks uniform.”
It was Sunday, May 12, and the clock was ticking past 1:30 p.m. ET as halftime of the Sixers-Celtics game approached.
Statistically, the new lottery, in its first iteration, gave the Knicks (24-58 in 1984-85) and six other teams involved – the Atlanta Hawks (34-48), Golden State Warriors (22-60), Indiana Pacers (22-60), Kansas City Kings (31-51), Los Angeles Clippers (31-51) and Seattle SuperSonics (31-51) – the same 14.3% chance of winning.
The stress in the room was palpable.
“It was very, very tense,” emcee Pat O’Brien recalled to Sports Illustrated’s Chris Ballard. “I’ve been in courtrooms and murder trials that weren’t that tense.”
The coverage went live around 1:45 a.m. Stern took the stage moments later and explained the process. Seven envelopes, drawn one at a time and placed in order, from 1 to 7, representing the peak of the 1985 draft.
“What happened next,” Ballard wrote, “has since become Zapruder’s sports movie, watched and re-watched on YouTube and dissected by conspiracy theorists.”
So if you watch “Did David Stern Fix the 1985 NBA Draft” (1 million views) or “The Frozen Envelope that Rigged the NBA Draft” (2.5 million views), here’s what you’ll see:
Jack Wagner, a white-haired gentleman from the accounting firm Ernst & Young, begins tossing the envelopes, one by one, into the transparent plastic drum. On envelope No. 4, he pauses for a moment and then bangs it oddly hard into the drum, crumpling a corner of the envelope. Three more envelopes are sent out and Jack Joyce, the NBA’s chief security officer, spins the drum five times.
Stern visibly exhales – just a cleansing breath at a tense moment, isn’t it? – and grabs the first envelope, the one that will send Ewing to the lucky NBA team. Stern fumbles for a while, grabbing and turning the envelopes, then lifting the one that happens to have a wrinkled corner (and some claim it was frozen to make it easier to find in the drum).
A few minutes later, as the envelopes are opened, from the seventh slot (the Warriors) to the second, the teams – the Kings, Hawks, Sonics and Clippers – fall by the wayside until only the Pacers and Knicks are in contention. The envelope of the second slit opens, not without a struggle.
Stern: “The second pick in the 1985 NBA Draft…goes to the Indiana Pacers!”
Immediately, Knicks general manager Dave DeBusschere banged his fist on a table in celebration, a roar rose from the New York crowd, and O’Brien exclaimed, “Basketball is back in New York, my friends !
The following week in The Sporting News, Chicago-based columnist Bernie Lincicome wrote, “New York’s victory in the Ewing contest had the unmistakable flavor of a hometown decision.”
New York columnist Dick Young replied, “Cynics are convinced that the NBA’s thrilling televised lottery for Pat Ewing’s draft rights had to be rigged for the Knicks to win. With Ewing playing in New York, the NBA has a strong negotiating position for the renewal of his TV contract with CBS, skeptics point out. Knicks general manager Dave DeBusschere says such speculation is far-fetched, and I agree. But I disagree with Dave’s logic that you couldn’t pull off such a sleight of hand in front of TV cameras.
Ten years ago, writer Patrick Hruby asked magician Richard Kaufman to watch one of the YouTube videos – Kaufman points to where a change of envelopes could have been removed as they were placed in order after being drawn – to check for any potential sleight of hand. . He observed, in short, of course, it is possible. But did it happen? Hard to say.
In the movie “Conspiracy Theory,” Mel Gibson‘s character, Jerry Fletcher, puts it this way: “A good conspiracy is unprovable. I mean, if you can prove it, that means they screwed up somewhere along the line.
Ewing, who was watching from Georgetown in Washington, had no way of knowing and said so — with a smile.
Stern firmly, year after year, sometimes his patience waning, said there was no solution. He took that position with him to the grave in 2020, after seeing the NBA boom.
Tonight, when the lottery balls are drawn (FYI: the Knicks have a 1.5% chance of drawing the first overall pick), NBA fans across the country will be watching. And that is the genius of the lottery, the one Stern understood.
The drama surrounding and attention to this 1985 lottery, that year and years after, helped make it an annual American sports spectacle. Stern had caught people’s attention. Thirty-seven years later, they still are.