In all of professional sports, no league’s draft can change the fortunes of a franchise quicker than in the NBA. Do the math. With just five players on the court at a time and generally fewer than 10 playing per side in any game, the introduction of a transcendent player—perhaps a ferocious leonine shooting guard out of the University of North Carolina named Michael Jordan—to the lineup can put even the worst club on the fast track to the promised land.
In the early years of the NBA, teams selected college players in reverse order of the standings to ensure top talent went to the weakest teams. Before the first round, though, there were “territorial picks.” Aimed at helping the fledgling league drum up interest, clubs could forfeit their first round picks to grab a well-known collegian who had already made his name at a local university. Notable territorial picks made until the rules were changed in 1965 include Hall of Famers Tommy Heinsohn, Wilt Chamberlain, Oscar Robertson and Bill Bradley.
Regardless of the format, fans, reporters and tin-foil hat wearers annually are on the look out for a few recurring things on draft night: Busts, sleepers, traders and conspiracies. The most lasting conspiracy theory centers on the 1985 Draft—the year the league instituted a lottery to determine the selection order in the first round. The coveted prize was Georgetown University pivot Patrick Ewing. Dubbed the “Hoya Destroya,” Ewing led Georgetown to three championship games in four seasons—winning the 1984 title—and was drawing so much interest that the NBA was concerned teams would tank down the stretch just to pick him.
That the most dominating college product in years was awarded to the game’s biggest market (instead of Indiana or Golden State, who each had worse ’85 seasons than the Knicks) caused rumors to swirl that Stern rigged the lottery. Some thought the envelope with the Knicks’ card was frozen, creased or otherwise differentiated from the less populous destinations so that it would be selected out of the plastic lottery spinner.
But Ewing’s arrival in the Big Apple is not the only time a player’s destination has raised eyebrows. When Akron-born high school phenom LeBron James landed with his hometown Cleveland Cavaliers in 2003 , it seemed too good to be true. (And for Cleveland fans it was.) Same goes for the Chicago Bulls landing South Sider Derrick Rose in 2008 when they had just a 1.7 percent chance of lottery success.
With the 2011 Draft finally at hand, these familiar themes are once again grabbing our attention. Is BYU’s Jimmer Freddette the next Adam Morrison or the second coming of Pistol Pete Maravich? Did Commissioner Stern help Cleveland land the top pick to help them recover from James’ departure? Will Minnesota make another draft day maneuver that leaves us scratching our heads?
Chris Greenberg is a freelance writer covering sports and culture from Jersey City, NJ.
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