The Lottery: Behind The Scenes Of The NBA’s Weirdest Tradition – Sports Illustrated

The NBA held its draft lottery in New York City last night, and the Celtics are officially on the clock after landing the No. 1 pick. Meanwhile, the Lakers can breathe easy after remaining in the top three, and the Hinkie pick swaps came through for Philadelphia. I’ve loved the lottery my whole life, and on Tuesday night I was on the scene wandering around the Hilton ballroom in Midtown Manhattan. Here are 12 notes from the dumbest and best tradition the NBA has.

1. Before I got to New York, I was in Boston for Game 7. Milling around the court beforehand, talk turned to the lottery the next night. “This is a hell of a 36 hours,” one executive said. It was delivered with a grin and a shaking head. Even the Celtics have been baffled by what’s happening here. That continued Tuesday night. 

“Game last night, Game 7,” Celtics owner Wyc Grousbeck said. “Tough Washington team, credit to them… Game tomorrow night, tough Cleveland team. And now you squeeze in the lottery, and you win the pick? I don’t know what’s happening here. It’s pretty amazing.”

On Monday, I’d heard that Celtics owners were actually a little bit reluctant to represent the team at the lottery. While Boston obviously had the best odds of landing the No. 1 pick, everyone around the team knew that this was still only a 25% shot. 

Meanwhile, Celtics fans have spent the last four months penciling Markelle Fultz into every lineup of the future. Nobody was in a rush to be the one who went on stage and came away looking like the bad luck charm. Eventually, Grousbeck stepped up and accepted the role.

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Whatever he did, it worked. The Celtics won Game 7, they’re getting ready for the Cavs, and now they have the most valuable asset in the draft. Maybe they’ll trade it for Jimmy Butler. Maybe they keep it and draft Fultz, and instead of trading for Jimmy, they sign Gordon Hayward. I don’t know. This is all getting ridiculous. 

2. As I mentioned, Tuesday was my first time attending the lottery in person. I’ve always loved the event because it has everything that’s dramatic about following basketball—one fluke stroke of luck can reshape the next decade—coupled with everything a little bit weird and silly that makes the NBA more fun than other sports. And I’m happy to report back that the lottery is just as weird and silly in person. 

3. No, I never want to attend a formal event again without at least one Larry O’Brien Trophy, and ping pong ball centerpieces on every table. 


4. Michael Finley didn’t have a good luck charm as he represented the Mavs on Tuesday. He wasn’t worried. “It’s out of my control,” he said. “I don’t have to make a free throw, so I’m good.” Andrew Wiggins didn’t have one, either. “But I’m confident,” he grinned. One GM didn’t have anything, but only because he’d seen others bring out various heirlooms and lose. He didn’t want to make family keepsakes look bad. Meanwhile, Magic coach Frank Vogel gave the most coachtastic answer possible to the luck question. 

“Only my karma down the stretch,” Vogel said. “Trying to win games and honoring the basketball gods—that was my good-luck charm.”

5. At the other end of the spectrum, Sixers President Scott O’Neil was practically weighed downed with good luck. He came equipped with a) a two-dollar bill, b) a prayer card from his wife, c) a little gold angel figurine from one daughter, and d) two letters from his other daughters—one that said, “Never stop dreaming,” and one from his youngest daughter that he wasn’t allowed to open until the lottery began. 

I asked O’Neil whether he ever let himself simulate the lottery on the internet. “I have not done one sim, no,” O’Neil said beforehand. “I definitely couldn’t handle it. We’re doing it live. And I did feel a heavy dose of nausea when I stepped on the escalator to come up here. It’s totally out of your control. There’s a lot riding on tonight.”


Related: most teams involved Tuesday had six or seven representatives at the lottery. The Sixers had 42 seats reserved in the main ballroom where the picks were announced. It was incredible. Whether in Philly or New York, no team goes harder for the lottery than the Sixers. Also, Embiid with the Shirley Temple at the Sixers podium was perfect. 

6. In the room and at the reception beforehand, the cross-section of lottery attendees includes: basketball lifers who work in front offices, league staffers, NBA alumni turned team ambassadors, extremely wealthy people who own these teams, their children running around taking photos, reporters (also taking photos), and then a handful of 19-year-olds who will actually be lottery picks. It’s a strange mix. it’s gotta be weirdest for the players. 

“You think about it,” Jonathan Isaac said, “this night could change everything, really. A team that’s projected to get the fourth pick, they get the first pick, you never know. It’s crazy. It really could change a lot.” 

But the best way to explain the stakes here probably came from Bruce Bowen. As he put it to De’Aaron Fox before the lottery: “You could be riding a bicycle on a sun-drenched beach. Or, you could be riding a snowmobile…”

To his credit, Fox had a solid answer, as he laughed: “They play basketball in a gym. I chose it so that I wouldn’t have to worry about the weather.”


7. Lottery night = best night.

8. The internet has pointed this out on several occasions, but seriously: Rob Pelinka looks exactly like Rob Lowe. In person, it’s jarring. I can’t imagine how anyone ever talks to Rob Pelinka without spending the entire time thinking about how much he looks like Rob Lowe. 

9. The best moment of the night came right before the lottery, listening to Tom Penn call into the ESPN telecast to discuss the Lakers, and watching Magic Johnson forced to listen to him on stage. Penn started by reminding everyone that there was a better-than-50% chance the Lakers would lose their pick. Then he listed off their draft history. Julius Randle at No. 7 in 2014. D’Angelo Russell at No. 2 2 in 2015. Brandon Ingram at No. 2 2 in 2016. And Penn said, “Do any of those guys excite you? Probably not!” 

He continued: “They gotta stay in the top three and pick a guy like Markelle Fultz. Man, do they need somebody like that to build around. Or Ball. Take your pick at 1 or 2. The problem is, it’s a double whammy, if they lose this pick they also lose the 2019 pick. It triggers an obligation to the Magic. Wham, wham, they’re both gone. There’s nothing in the center except the 28th pick, and I don’t know what he’s gonna get there. Then all he has left is $23 million in cap space. But is this interesting enough for him to go sell, to play around these players? It’s not.” 

I don’t know if Penn realized he was being broadcast to an entire room of executives, but it was great. Watching Magic Johnson listen to this rant, stonefaced the entire time, was more entertaining than 90% of the NBA playoffs so far.

10. I’m glad the Lakers kept their pick. The league is more fun with a good Lakers team. It’ll be fascinating watching Magic try to get them there. and he’s got a real shot now.  

11. Until the Lakers are good, all I want to do is watch Magic and Embiid screwing around and making each other laugh on stage. Any stage.

After two hours of waiting, the actual lottery only takes about 5-10 minutes. Embiid and Magic owned the show for basically the entire time. As Magic explained their conversation afterward, “He told me, ‘Don’t worry about it. You guys are going to keep it.’” 

“We have to wait and let it play out,” Magic said. 

Embiid: “No, I’m serious. You’re going to get it.”

And then they kept the pick, and Magic said, “Man, you’re the good-luck charm. I’m carrying you with me everywhere.” That moment—when Joel Embiid and a late-season five-game winning streak willed the Lakers pick into existence—is when they both started cracking up. And then, the Celtics took over. 


12. The Celtics have been theoretically unfair for a while now. They’ve been able to win with an overachieving roster, never worrying about whether it would cost them upside down the line. The Nets picks were the insurance policy. They were the rebuilding cheat code. 

But as unfair as it seemed, most of that was abstract. Basically, the Nets picks were a way for Celtics fans to win arguments on the internet. It never got real until this week; and then in 36 hours, it got very, very real. “It’s the same feeling,” Grousbeck said of the difference between winning a Game 7 and winning the lottery. “It’s all one great feeling of Celtic pride.”

Right now these are the facts: The Celtics have a terrific culture from top to bottom. A great coach. A superstar. Cap space this summer. And the No. 1 pick. Their future is much brighter than any other team in the lottery, and they’re also playing the conference finals right now. All of it is so unfairly great that all you can do is laugh.

At the end of the night, I asked Grousbeck whether he’d been nervous about taking on the lottery responsibilities Tuesday. “Yeah, for sure,” he said. “But somebody’s gotta do it. I gotta take the heat. I’ve sent other people up there before, so this was my turn. Twenty-five percent chance, it didn’t seem like much. But then all of the sudden it hit. It’s pretty good luck.”

I asked if he’d had any good–luck charms, and he said, “Nope. Just my new wedding band, and this ring.” He was pointing to his 2008 championship ring. 

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