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Patrick Ewing the shoo-in: Nothing will ever top the 1985 NBA Draft Lottery

Patrick Ewing the number one pick of the

Patrick Ewing the number one pick of the 1985 NBA Draft with NBA Commissioner David Stern and Knicks G.M. Dave Debusschere at the Felt Forum/Madison Square Garden, June 18, 1985 in New York City. (AP Photo/Kevin Reece) Credit: AP / Kevin Reece

By now, Patrick Ewing has heard it all.

He has heard that the envelope was frozen. He has heard that it was bent. He has heard that former NBA commissioner David Stern wore special laser X-ray glasses. And the truth is, though Ewing doesn't think it's likely that the lottery that gave the Knicks the right to draft him in 1985 was fixed, he would not completely rule it out.

"Look, anything is possible," Ewing told Newsday last week. "I don't think so. But they needed to have a good team in New York. So who knows? I used to watch the X-Files. So I'm one of those guys."

Meaning he is one of the millions of sports fans out there who like a good conspiracy theory. And when it comes to sports conspiracy theories, the one involving Ewing-to-New York tops nearly everyone's list.

Perhaps that is because there has never been a live television moment that unfolded as perfectly as the NBA's tension-laden, tabletop-pounding first lottery.

When it was revealed that the envelope with the top pick had the Knicks' logo in it, it changed the direction of the team for years to come.

It also created a made-for-television spring spectacle that continues to flourish three decades later. On Tuesday, representatives from the Knicks and 13 other teams will converge on New York in the hope of winning the top pick in the 2015 draft in June.

Though there are several big-impact players in this year's draft, the stakes are nothing like the ones surrounding the first one.

A whole lotto intrigue

On Mother's Day, May 12, 1985, representatives from the NBA's seven worst teams -- the Knicks, Pacers, Hawks, Warriors, Kings, Seattle SuperSonics and Clippers -- made their way to the Starlight Roof Ballroom at the Waldorf Astoria.

There were a number of good players in the 1985 draft -- Chris Mullin, Karl Malone, Charles Oakley, Terry Porter and Joe Dumars -- but never had there been such a separation between the No. 1 pick and the rest of the field. In four years at Georgetown, Ewing had taken the Hoyas to three national championship games, winning one.

"For all seven of us, the lottery had the scintillating, titillating prospect of changing your franchise for a generation," recalled former Hawks general manager Stan Kasten, who was his team's representative. "Patrick was expected to have a whole era named after him.''

Adding to the drama was the fact that, unlike today, the lottery was not weighted. Each of the teams had a one-in-seven (14.3 percent) chance of winning the Ewing sweepstakes.

"We were all nervous. It was a crescendo of nerves," Kasten said.

The team representatives weren't the only ones who felt that way.

Stern, who retired in January 2014, was 42 years old and had just finished his first full season as NBA commissioner. Previously, the No. 1 pick had been decided by a coin toss between the worst teams in each conference, with picks No. 3 and beyond decided by inverse order of win-loss record. That method, however, resulted in a race to the bottom in Stern's first draft. In 1984, the Rockets dropped 14 of their last 17 games and got Hakeem Olajuwon with the No. 1 pick. The Bulls lost 14 of their last 15 and took Michael Jordan at No. 3.

So the concept of the lottery was born. Stern decided to make it public, inviting 100 media members and 100 additional guests and getting CBS to televise it. He also charged his staff to come up with an entertaining format. The result was a game show-like format, featuring Stern as the master of ceremonies.

Stern opened the show by methodically picking large square envelopes out of a clear plastic hopper. Each envelope contained the logo of one of the seven teams and was put over a corresponding number on the wall behind him. The teams then were revealed in reverse order.

"I was nervous not so much about the outcome as the fact that I was trained to be a quiz show host," Stern said in a phone interview. "Our guys came up with a plan, and I was the actor to execute it."

Stern used to get upset when asked if the lottery was fixed, typically telling interviewers, "Shame on you." Over the years, he has developed a sense of humor about it.

"Bent, refrigerated, heated. The various theories really are wonderful," he said. "But to all conspiracy theorists' disappointment, it's just what we plucked out of the bin."

Ewing destined to be a Knick

Oddly enough, the man who was the focus of all this hoopla was nowhere near New York. Ewing said he watched the lottery with his coach, John Thompson, at Thompson's office at Georgetown.

"I wanted to go to Golden State because Sleepy Floyd was there, he had been at Georgetown and he was my friend," Ewing said. "My second choice was the Knicks because it was close to Boston and Washington and I had a sister who was living there."

The Warriors had the worst record in the league, meaning that under the previous year's rules, they would have had a 50-50 shot to get Ewing. In this lottery, Golden State, which was represented by general manager Al Attles, had the misfortune of being the first envelope that was opened.

Attles moaned when his team was announced, according to published reports, and he later wrote on an NBA site that his first thought was to "turn over the table" in a fit of rage.

In the years since, the disappointment has waned. "I was upset at the time," Attles said last week, "but we ended up getting a pretty good player in Chris Mullin."

The Knicks were coming off their worst season in 20 years and team president Dave DeBusschere, who died in 2003, knew how much the 7-foot center could mean to their franchise. DeBusschere used a combination of prayer and luck to prepare for the big day.

On his way to the hotel, he stopped at St. Joseph's church in Garden City for the 9:15 Mass.

"I said some prayers like I always do," DeBusschere later told reporters, "and then I thought, I'll be a little selfish and ask for Patrick Ewing in the lottery."

When DeBusschere arrived at the draft, he was met by John Cirillo, the Knicks' director of communications. Cirillo, who previously worked at Yonkers Raceway, gave DeBusschere a horseshoe from On the Road Again, the winner of the harness triple crown. Cirillo had taken the horseshoe to St. Patrick's Cathedral before coming to the hotel. "It was right near the Waldorf and well, there was the Patrick tie-in," recalled Cirillo, who now is the president of Cirillo World, a public relations firm. "You're not supposed to pray for things like that, but I made an exception."

DeBusschere, who later said he never played the lottery or bet on horses, made a point of rubbing the horseshoe before putting it in his pocket and heading to the stage.

'Please let it be New York'

As the lottery opened, DeBusschere sat quietly at the table with his hands folded in front of him. As Stern began opening envelopes and announcing names, DeBusschere became more and more animated. After Seattle got the fourth pick and the Knicks still were alive, he placed his folded hands to his mouth. And after the Clippers got the third pick, leaving only the Knicks and Indiana, DeBusschere covered his eyes.

The screen split to DeBusschere and Pacers co-owner Herb Simon. What wasn't shown was that in Thomp-son's office in Georgetown, Ewing had started doing some praying of his own.

"I was like, 'Please let it be New York. Please let it be New York,' '' Ewing said. "I didn't want to go to Indiana. Nothing against Indiana, but I preferred New York.''

When Stern announced, "The second pick in the 1985 draft goes to the Indiana Pacers," DeBusschere leaped out of his seat and pounded the desk with his fist. In doing so, he cut it slightly, according to Cirillo, but not to the extent that he needed medical attention.

"The horseshoe works," CBS announcer Pat O'Brien said. "Basketball is back in New York City, my friends."

To many observers, the whole show just seemed too tidy, too perfect. YouTube features several videos examining the plastic drum, and much to-do has been made about the fact that Ernst & Whinney, the accounting firm hired by the league to oversee the draft, also audited the accounts of Gulf + Western, which owned the Knicks at the time. Yet Kasten and Attles -- who had every reason to be bitter about how things turned out -- insist that there was absolutely no conspiracy.

Said Kasten: "All you have to do is look at Dave's reaction. He's not that good of an actor. He was overjoyed. It was good fortune beyond belief. Sometimes a good story is just a good story."

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