NBA Retro Zapruder Of The 1985 NBA Draft Lottery
In the 80's hit movie Stand By Me, there's a scene where the four main characters, teenage boys (including a young Corey Feldman!), are sitting around a campfire and one of them (Gordie) tells a story about a fat kid named Lard Ass participating in a blueberry pie eating contest at the county fair.
As the story goes, Lard Ass is so fed up with the teasing he gets about his weight that he decides to exact revenge on the town by chugging castor oil before the contest, and after consuming a truckload of pies, vomiting on the other participants.
Perfectly executed, the plan then results in the "watching someone vomit" effect overtaking the crowd and everyone at the event ends up puking on each other in a big nuclear explosion of purple vomit.
Completely satisfied and beyond proud, a content and puke covered Lard Ass just sits back and watches the carnage he created unfold.
Oftentimes, I wonder if anyone still alive with the Houston Rockets in 1984 watches the NBA Draft lottery the same way Lard Ass watches the county fair puke-fest.
As anyone who either loves the NBA and/or was a self-aware Rockets fan back in 1984 knows, a big reason (perhaps the biggest) that the NBA decides which team will select first in the NBA Draft by using a lottery format is because of the comical degrees to which tanking took place at the end of the 1983-84 NBA season by teams (the Rockets chief among them) trying to jockey their way into one of the top two picks.
Back then, the draft order was decided completely by reverse order of won-loss record, except the top two picks, which were the worst teams in each conference facing off in a coin toss with the winner picking first and the loser picking second. In short, unlike today, where successful overt tanking gets you, at best, a 25 percent chance at the first pick, back then it got you a 50 percent chance at the first pick and a 100 percent chance at a top two pick.
Of course, the 1984 draft class was thought to be one of the best and deepest coming into the league in years: Houston center Akeem Olajuwon, North Carolina duo Michael Jordan and Sam Perkins, and Auburn's Charles Barkley were among a group of players that was as heralded as any maybe in draft history to that point (and in retrospect, throwing in some players from later in that draft like John Stockton, might still be the most heralded in retrospect as well).
So while the Eastern Conference race for futility was deciding itself with three horrific sub-30 win teams (Indiana, Chicago, and Cleveland, two of whom had actually traded their picks), the Western Conference also required some serious attention to detail in order to lock up a spot in the coin toss. Ultimately, only one Western Conference team would wind up with under 30 wins.
Your 29-53 Houston Rockets!
Ultimately in the West, the difference between 29 and 30 wins was the difference between picking first and picking fifth in that 1984 draft, so thank God the Rockets put their worst foot forward down the stretch (3-14 in their final 17 games), otherwise the Hakeem Olajuwon Era takes place somewhere else.
SIDE BAR: Or does it?
Philly, who had the 30-52 Clippers' first round pick that season, wound up taking Charles Barkley with the fifth pick overall, a decent consolation prize, obviously, for a team who had Moses Malone, Dr.J, Andrew Toney, and Mo Cheeks. But playing a Bill Simmons style "what if" for a minute, and in Simmons NBA book the 1984 draft is the subject of his number one "what if" in NBA history, what if the Rockets had won a couple more games that season and finished, say, 31-51. The Sixers wind up in the coin toss for the number one pick.
What happens if the Sixers end up winning the coin toss with the Clippers first round pick that season? Well, the 1984 NBA Draft would've looked something like this:
1. Philadelphia: MICHAEL JORDAN Jordan was already being touted as the next Dr. J, including a picture of him on the cover of The Sporting News in a surgeon's outfit. Pairing him with Dr. J would have been a no brainer. According to Simmons, from his book, the Sixers were actually shopping Dr. J to try and move up and get Jordan.
2. Portland (w/ Indiana's pick): AKEEM OLAJUWON Clyde and Hakeem (nee Akeem) united in Portland a decade sooner than it eventually happened, although Simmons brings up the possibility of Portland moving this pick and Clyde to the Rockets for Ralph Sampson, which would have made Hakeem and Clyde both Rockets a decade earlier! My head is spinning! (And it's about to get crazy. Keep reading....)
3. Chicago: SAM PERKINS Thought to be the next best player on the board at the time. I'm guessing that a Perkins-led nucleus doesn't go on to win six titles in the 90's. My hunch.
4. Dallas (w/ Cleveland's pick): SAM BOWIE Dallas had Mark Aguirre and Rolando Blackman, a center made sense here. Of the five teams in this "what if" scenario, the Mavs are easily the least effected.
5. Houston (w/ San Diego's pick): CHARLES BARKLEY Holy shit! Hakeem, Clyde AND Barkley as Rockets!! in 1984!! How great would that have been? Instead, we got the Legends Tour version in 1997. Oh well. I guess we can take solace in the fact that Barkley and Drexler probably would have strangled each other by about 1987 anyway.
Wasn't that fun?
SIDE BAR OVER.
So we had teams losing games openly and intentionally to close out a season. David Stern, fresh into his first year on the scene as the NBA commissioner hated this to no end. Compounding the problem was the fact that the first pick in the 1985 draft would be Georgetown uber-center Patrick Ewing, who was right there with Sampson and Magic Johnson as the most highly anticipated NBA entrants over the last decade.
You almost had to be growing up in that era to know how fearsome Ewing was. I was a teenager living in the Big East footprint, and when you talk about "sports scary," the early 80's Georgetown Hoyas were the epitome of that for many reasons -- swagger, athleticism, defiance, a tinge of dirtiness to their game, and the whole cat-and-mouse, thinly veiled racial tension that followed them around, much of it not their doing.
Basically, Ewing was a beast, and I mean that in the most complimentary way one can mean it.
So if tanking was that overt to get into the top two of a five or six player draft in 1984, how badly would teams be tanking to get into the top one of a one player draft in 1985?
As Barkley would say "Rully, rully baaaad."
Bad enough to where there's a decent chance we would have seen a women starting for one of the teams jockeying for a spot in the coin toss. And when a team started one woman, another team would have started two, until finally the Clippers would have been starting five women. (Somehow, a five woman combo would have probably ended up actually winning games for the Clippers. Back in the 80's, they couldn't even tank correctly.)
(By the way, the next five picks after Ewing in that 1985 draft were Wayman Tisdale, Benoit Benjamin, Xavier McDaniel, Jon Koncak, and Joe Kleine, who all appeared in a combined one All-Star Game. So...yes...tanking.)
So Stern's solution was to give all the non-playoff teams (only seven back then) an equal shot at the brass ring (in this case, Ewing) by dropping all seven enveloped logos of those teams into a hopper and picking them out randomly on live television, Price is Right style.
If nothing else, it made for incredibly dramatic and compelling television, which knowing what we know now about Stern, may have been a bigger goal of his than worrying about the integrity of some March and April games involving the San Diego Clippers and Atlanta Hawks.
Indeed, kids, back before the lottery was all decided behind closed doors via weighted percentages and thousands of permutations of ping pong balls, it was all done out in the open on live television. And still, to this day, given who won that first lottery, Stern is called into question about whether or not Ewing was signed, sealed, and delivered to New York before the lottery and the actual drawing itself was just a front for the Fedex delivery.
Mini Zapruder time:
0:01 -- The envelopes are dropped into the bin, and the conspiracy theories typically start with the fourth envelope. As you can see, it's thrown into the bin in an entirely different fashion than the others, corner-first and with some velocity directly into the wall of the bin, as opposed to the six others which are dropped in fairly gently. It appears to be deliberate enough to where intent could be easily construed.
0:20 -- By the way, we'd be remiss not to give 1985 Stern a quick once over, right? With the slicked down, highly pronounced side part and his jet black hair, Stern could just as easily be an undertaker as he could be the NBA commissioner. Seriously, he looks like Paul Bearer after the most successful lap band surgery of all time. Also gone from the '85 Stern look, his signature mustache, which was on full display at the previous year's draft. To this day, Stern opting to let go of the 'stache is still the most tramautic utilization of the "amnesty clause" in league history.
0:34 -- The drum is turned and anyone with half a brain throws out the "folded corner" theory, as the envelopes all bang hard against the side of the lottery bin, presumably folding several corners.
0:44 -- The bin itself looks like it was designed by the same aliens that designed the Death Star in Star Wars. Same exact spherical shape and the hatch is exactly where the lasers that blow up entire planets shoot from. Very 80's!
0:47 -- The envelope for the first pick is taken from the bin (yes, the corner is fairly mangled), and it's crazy to think that this methodology is deciding the fates of entire franchises, people's careers, legacies of GM's and coaches. The enormity is mind boggling. (Also, this is the right time to point out the second conspiracy theory, that one of the envelopes was kept in a freezer and was significantly colder than the other six. I don't know all of the laws of condensation and soggy paper, but that sounds patently absurd.)
0:56 -- Conspiracy theorists would tell you that New York Knicks' general manager Dave Debusschere is putting on an Emmy worth performance as he crosses his fingers. (Jalen Rose might even call it "Pulitzer worthy.")
1:16 -- I have no idea who the Indiana Pacers guy is in the split shot with Debusschere, but as soon as the first pick is revealed he gets a look on his face like the guy who wants to reach over and slap the dealer after losing ten straight hands of black jack. Think about it, the 1983 and 1985 drafts were both essentially one player drafts (Sampson and Ewing) and the Pacers picked second in both (Steve Stipanovich in 1983 and Tisdale in 1985), and in the one draft with multiple players, they had traded their pick (second overall again!). They'd even wind up picking second in the Danny Manning draft in 1988 (Rik Smits, yo!). Trust me, Susan Lucci had nothing on the Pacers.
1:30 -- Crowd shot of the media...lots of mustaches, beards, and big hair. The 80's!
1:49 -- Debusschere and Stern whisper to each other:
Debusschere: You think they bought it?
Stern: Who cares...
3:06 -- The Clippers' general manager (who believe it or not, at one time, was not Elgin Baylor) says that he's still excited to be picking third because they will "get a good player." If Twitter were around back in 1985, this is the point in the lottery where "LOL" would have been trending.
3:12 -- The fat Pacers guy is Herb Simon, co-owner. Mystery solved. And he's still pissed about the dealer at the "NBA draft black jack table" not busting for the previous three years. He tries to act like he's not, but he's the worst liar of all-time.
3:44 -- The broadcast closes with news of Patrick Ewing refusing to do an interview with CBS. Indeed, in so many ways -- the rise of Stern's Sith lord type dominance, the hair, the suits, the Clippers' presence, and the defiance of young Pat Ewing -- the 1985 draft lottery was a perfect microcosm of mid-80's NBA.
Listen to Sean Pendergast on 1560 Yahoo! Sports Radio from 3 p.m. to 7 p.m. weekdays and nationally on the Yahoo! Sports Radio network Saturdays from 10 a.m. to noon CST. Also, follow him on Twitter at http://twitter.com/SeanCablinasian.
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you’ll never miss Houston Press' biggest stories.
- Top 10 Super Bowl One-Hit Wonders (w/ VIDEO)
Sun., Feb. 7, 7:00pm
Wed., Feb. 10, 6:00pm
Sat., Feb. 13, 2:00pm
Wed., Feb. 17, 7:00pm
- Sheriff Hickman Shoots the Messenger, Pushes Back on Chron Jail Series
- Super Bowl 50: Five Best Prop Bets And Prediction