SECAUCUS, N.J. –
Twelve years ago last week, I stood wobbling on a pair of inline skates and eating a slice of pizza at U.S. Blades, a once-trendy skating rink in my hometown of West Bloomfield.

I can remember the scene as if it were yesterday. My eyes were fixed on a high-mounted television near the arcade games, which I couldn’t have cared less about at that particular moment. After all, the NBA Draft Lottery was underway.

Now, my 10-year-old self had never heard about the lottery before, much less watched it live. But with my Pistons coming off a disappointing 20-62 season, I considered it my duty to witness the unveiling of the Pistons’ position in the June draft.

Deputy Commissioner Russ Granik opened up the No. 3 envelope to reveal a card displaying the Pistons’ logo. Detroit ultimately used the pick on Duke’s Grant Hill. And while Hill never led the Pistons to greatness, he arguably initiated the series of fortunate events that brought the team from the league’s basement to its highest peak 10 years later.

The rest, as they say, is history.

I’ve tried to watch the lottery every year since, to the point where my friends and family consider me strangely obsessive. So when I was presented with the opportunity to travel to the NBA Entertainment Studios to see this year’s lottery in person on May 23, I found it difficult to decline the invitation.

Since the teams included in the lottery are, by definition, squads that failed to make the playoffs, their representatives are usually characterized by mixed emotions. Philadelphia 76ers President and General Manager Billy King, for example, was excited about the possibility of adding a tremendous talent to his roster, but he was less than thrilled with his current players’ underachievement.

“As I walked in, I said, ‘This is not a place I want to be,’ ” said King, who acknowledged that traveling to the lottery made him “very” uncomfortable.

John Paxson, the Chicago Bulls’ Executive Vice President of Basketball Operations, exhibited a considerably brighter disposition. The Bulls were the only lottery team that participated in postseason play. Thanks to a 2005 trade that sent Eddy Curry to the Knicks, Paxson and the Bulls own New York’s first-round pick. The Knicks’ 23-59 record gave Chicago the second-best shot at the No. 1 selection, behind just the Portland Trail Blazers.

“I feel very fortunate to be picking this high in this draft,” said Paxson in perhaps the biggest understatement of the night. The Bulls ended up with the second overall pick, behind the lottery-winning Toronto Raptors.

The most misleading quote overheard at the lottery came courtesy of Trail Blazers President Steve Patterson. Though Portland was the team most likely to pick first, Patterson had to settle for the No. 4 selection, mathematically the worst possible spot for his team (since the top three positions are the only ones determined by the bouncing ping-pong balls).

“The probabilities were actually highest that we get the No. 4 pick,” Patterson said.

While it’s true that Portland had a 25-percent chance of picking first, a 21.48-percent chance of going second, a 17.72-percent shot at No. 3 and a 35.8-percent chance of selecting fourth, Patterson wisely avoided mentioning – or perhaps remained oblivious to – the fact that the Blazers had a 64.2-percent chance of picking higher than their actual spot.

Watching the proceedings from the studio revealed far more than the narrow confines of a television screen allow.

I was among the fortunate few who observed Patterson rehearsing his acceptance speech before the show began in case the Trail Blazers won the lottery (and perhaps jinxing his team’s chances in the process). I saw host Dan Patrick warn five members of the 14-member group of team representatives that they would be asked questions during air time in what would appear to be random, off-the-cuff queries to the national TV audience (not coincidentally, these individuals were the only ones wearing clip-on microphones). I watched Ernst & Young partner Martin Shannon walk down the hallway four times, looking as wooden as Pinocchio, until the producers were satisfied with his attempt at tucking the sequential envelopes under his arm for the shot ESPN showed upon returning from a commercial break.

If you’re looking for some inside information as to who Toronto will take with the first choice, I can give you this much: Before the cameras rolled, Patrick verified the pronunciation of top prospect Andrea Bargnani’s name with Bryan Colangelo, the Raptors’ new President and General Manager. Might this mean Toronto is leaning toward the Italian youngster? It’s hard to say.

What I do know is that on lottery night, the NBA Entertainment Studios seemed eerily similar to the ESPN offices on those famous SportsCenter commercials. At one point, I found myself watching Game One of the Pistons-Heat Eastern Conference Finals a table away from Orlando Magic vice president Pat Williams, Seattle SuperSonics GM Rick Sund and Seattle coach Bob Hill (I had to stifle a laugh after a badly missed Shaquille O’Neal free throw when I realized Williams had drafted Shaq in 1992). Rookie of the Year Chris Paul, Commissioner David Stern and Knicks legend Willis Reed were among the long list of prominent guests scattered throughout the media tent and buffet line. I even had a conversation with Hall of Famer Gail Goodrich in the NBAE cubicles.

But despite the unprecedented access and the star power on hand, I would have had nearly as much fun watching at U.S. Blades over a slice of pizza. Such is life for a lottery junkie.

– Edelson can be reached at gedelson@umich.edu.

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