Are you a conspiracy theorist? If not, do you know someone who is?
Most of the time, I’m not one. Most conspiracies are so wild and far-fetched that they just can’t be taken seriously. Many involve life forms that have may not exist, and it’s hard not to laugh. But there is one completely Earth-bound conspiracy that I believe so strongly that I’m almost willing to bet money on it.
The NBA – especially the draft lottery – is fixed.
NBA fans will remember that a few years ago, a referee was busted for attempting to fix games. College and pro sports of all sorts are littered with point-shaving scandals, where those involved in games are paid handsome sums to ensure that games ended with scores based on what the Vegas oddsmakers predicted the margin of victory would be.
That’s not the kind of fixing I’m talking about. I believe the NBA is fixed in that the league directs which players go to which teams.
Are you already inclined to dismiss me as a lunatic that needs to be in a room with striped sunlight, padded walls, and no corners, wearing a jacket with no sleeves? That’s fine with me. At least keep reading in hopes of being amused.
In the early 1980s, the NBA hired a slick, brilliant lawyer named David Stern to be the new commissioner. The NBA was dying. Fan interest was so low that CBS was running the championship series on tape delay at 11:30 PM on the East Coast. There were 23 teams, but the LA Lakers, Boston Celtics, Philadelphia 76ers and Houston Rockets were the only true championship contenders, and those 4 became 3 after all-world center Moses Malone left Houston to sign with Philly as a free agent in 1981. The NBA players threatened to strike, which probably would have meant the end of the league.
Stern acted on behalf of the owners and negotiated a new collective bargaining agreement with the players and expanded the playoffs from 12 to 16 teams. He negotiated a new TV deal that included live broadcasts of playoff games. Best of all, a collection of some of the best players most people had ever seen were taking college basketball to new heights, giving hope for the NBA. Players such as Michael Jordan, James Worthy, Hakeem Olajuwon, Clyde Drexler, Ralph Sampson, and Patrick Ewing were coming to join new stars Larry Bird and Magic Johnson to bring some excitement to the game.
In the 1981-82 season, the Rockets dropped to a 14-68 record after losing Malone. This gave them the #1 draft pick, which they used on Sampson, a 7-4 center from Virginia. Things got a tad better the next year, but they still ended the 83-84 season as the league’s worst and used another #1 pick to land Olajuwon. It seemed very obvious that Houston was not trying to win so they could get their hands on these exceptional players. This roster-building method became known as “tanking.” Stern was having none of it. With Ewing set to be the #1 pick, Stern instituted the draft lottery for the 1985 draft. Seven gigantic cards bearing the logos of the 7 teams to miss the playoffs were put in envelopes. The envelopes were sealed, placed in a big, clear drum, which was spun a few times. Stern then picked the envelopes up and put them on a big board to represent the 7 draft slots. He then opened each one, starting at #7, revealing the draft order.
(Over time, the NBA would refine the process of picking slots, moving to a machine picking numbered orbs similar to how many lotteries drew winning numbers, to a more complex number draw, to only having a lottery for the top 3 picks, to having a lottery for the top 4 picks.)
Sounds OK, right? The very first reveal of the very first lottery gave the first sign that something stunk.
The Golden State Warriors, who had the worst record by several games, were in that 7th slot. I vividly remember Stern’s words, followed by CBS NBA reporter Pat O’Brien’s response.
Stern: “The 7th pick in the 1985 NBA draft goes to the Golden State Warriors.”
O’Brien: “And the first team to hate the lottery.”
The New York Knicks, not close to the worst team in the league, won the lottery. As good as Sampson and Olajuwon were, Ewing was expected to go on to be one of the 20 best players of all time, which he did. So he gets to go to the #1 media market in defiance of the odds. That’s the second thing to stink.
More stinks ensued. Boston and Philly were in the 1986 lottery because they had traded players for draft picks. These two pillars of success got the top 2 picks. (Unfortunately, Boston would draft Len Bias #2 only for him to die of a cocaine-induced heart attack 2 days later.)
San Antonio, a small city but quite the tourist trap, would win the lottery in 1987 and get all-world center David Robinson. The NBA expanded, adding teams in tourist traps Orlando and Miami, the large, untapped Minneapolis market, and a white-hot business city in an untapped market, Charlotte.
There were no super-players to fix the lottery for the next 3 years, including 1991, when Charlotte won the lottery and drafted Larry Johnson. But there was a transformational player available in 1992, Shaquille O’Neal. Orlando, a new team in a tourist trap city, conveniently wins the lottery. (The Hornets did unexpectedly jump to #2 that year, and got Alonzo Mourning, who would team with Johnson, Kendall Gill, and 5-foot-3 Muggsy Bogues to lead the Hornets to relevance, if not championship contention.) Another tourist trap city had the sun shine on them in 1997, as San Antonio won the lottery again, which gifted them the legendary Tim Duncan. After getting Orlando to the NBA finals, O’Neal bolted the first chance he got, signing with the Lakers.
By the turn of the millennium, Charlotte was in trouble. The 23,088-seat Charlotte Coliseum was built in the city’s southwestern suburbs as an attempt to become the permanent home of the ACC basketball tournament. No one considered Charlotte as a potential NBA city at the time. It was only when George Shinn showed up at the NBA expansion committee meeting and blew the doors off the other cities’ presentations that the pro sports world was headed this way.
But a new type of sports arena was on the way. In 1988, the Hornets second-ever game was a road game at Detroit, in their new arena in the suburb of Auburn Hills. After the first game was a 40-point annihilation by a good Cleveland team, the Hornets managed to keep the team that would win the NBA title that year to only a 9-point margin of victory. But that wasn’t the major head-turner that night. Hornets GM Carl Scheer would say years later, “as soon as I walked in, I knew we had made a mistake.” The Pistons home had a middle level of special suites that offered exclusive amenities on a protected arena level that kept the high-dollar occupants separated from the great unwashed. The Pistons charged insane money for these suites and sold all of them. This gave them more local revenue than almost every other team.
Two years later, the Baltimore Orioles used this concept on their new downtown baseball stadium. The Pittsburgh Steelers used it on their new downtown football stadium. This began a 20-year run of new downtown buildings in all 4 major team sports. But there were the Hornets, in a suburban arena with only 12 suites that was built to attract a college basketball tournament. Shinn began crying poor. Citing revenue restrictions, he traded Mourning to expansion-rival Miami and sold part of the team to a co-owner, Ray Wooldridge, who just about everyone in town found easy to dislike because of his bristly personality. He lobbied local and state officials for money to either upgrade the Coliseum or build a new one in the central business district (referred to as “Uptown” in Charlotte because it is at a higher elevation than the surrounding neighborhoods). The officials – and citizens – told him to go pound sand, expecting him to use his own wealth to build a new building. The team was somewhat in purgatory, always good enough to make the playoffs but never good enough to get past the second round. Fans got bored of the product, tired of Shinn’s cries of poverty, and totally dismissive of the smarmy co-owner.
In 2001, some civic activists put together a referendum to finance not only a new arena but several other arts and entertainment projects that would be funded by a special sales tax. A vote was scheduled for June. The referendum was crushed, 59%-41%. Shinn ordered Wooldridge to start looking for a place to move the team. He found a very willing partner in New Orleans. Shinn announced that after the 2001-02 season, the Hornets would move to New Orleans.
I’ll finish this up in the next post.