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.
I'll let you be the judge: