The Truth: A 1985 NBA Draft Lottery Flashback

By TERRY LYONS – follow on Twitter @TerryLyons

NEW YORK – NBA conspiracy theorists everywhere, I’m here to tell you the absolute truth about the 1985 NBA Draft Lottery. Yes, I was there 30 years ago as one of about a dozen people charged with running the event on behalf of the teams of the National Basketball Association.

Yes, we the soldiers at the NBA league office worked diligently on behalf of the teams.  We reported to NBA Commissioner David Stern and we toiled for thousands and thousands of long hours and travelled many miles to represent the NBA and its players to fans and businesses around the world. As with most human beings given a good job with definite goals and responsibilities, we took those jobs very seriously and did our very best on behalf of all the NBA. At times, the job descriptions called for us to enforce the rules our employers had signed into the league’s constitution and by-laws or the NBA rule book. Those were the times that were often most challenging because so many of our employers liked to try and bend the rules to best fit their own small world, their own situation, their own roster or their own rather short-term future. Not surprisingly, some of those people – while willing to hold their hands on a bible – swore they’d never toss a game. Instead, they camouflaged their so-called “tanking” by assembling rosters that would fail team chemistry 101 at any college in the land.

It is important to read between the lines of the words I’m writing because, at no time, do I believe the coaches and players walk out to the court with losing a game as a goal. In fact, I believe the coaches and players of the NBA and pro sports, in general, are the most competitive beings in the universe, right up there with thoroughbred race horses.  In my years at the NBA, players like Michael Jordan, Larry Bird, Kobe Bryant, and old-schoolers like Bill Russell, Jerry West and Rod Thorn taught me what the words “mental toughness” meant and how it related to competitiveness and winning games. On the flip side, full team rosters and starting lineups without cohesiveness are destined to fail, no matter how mentally tough or competitive any one player might be.


The NBA teams entered in the 2015 NBA Draft Lottery are as follows: The first three picks in the draft will be determined by the lottery and the remainder of the “lottery teams” will select in positions 4 through 14 in inverse order of their consolidated standings at the end of the regular season.

1st Pick
2nd Pick
3rd Pick
New York
L.A. Lakers
OK City


With that in mind, I give you the lead-up to the 1985 NBA Draft Lottery and, for those not aware of the situation, I’ll provide some background: In 1983 and 1984, the Houston Rockets were amongst the least cohesive and victory challenged teams in the NBA. Under NBA rules in ’83, the Rockets and the Indiana Pacers, as the worst teams in the Western and Eastern conferences of the NBA, participated in a “coin-flip” to determine the first pick of the annual NBA Draft, even though both Chicago and Cleveland had lost more games than Houston that season. The coin-flip was the first legislation to disincentivize teams from losing games on purpose in order to gain a better position in the annual draft and it drew the line of demarkation by conference. Through sheer luck of a “50-50” chance coin-flip, or the luck brought on after Manhattan restauranteur Jimmy Weston bestowed a clock shaped like a map of Ireland upon the Rockets’ staff contingent headed up by the great PR man, Jim Foley, the Rockets won the flip and the right to draft 7-foot-4 college player of the year Ralph Sampson while Indiana was left to select Steve Stipanovich with the second pick of the ’83 NBA Draft.

A year later, a slightly better Rockets team with Sampson and a dysfunctional roster around him were back in the West cellar. This time, with the great Hakeem Olajuwon as the prize, straight out of the University of Houston, none-the-less, the Rockets’ contingent was back at Jimmy Weston’s and the lucky Irish clock was removed from its place on the wall to accompany the Rockets’ group when they ventured to the 15th floor of Olympic Tower to call “heads or tails.” Team owner Charlie Thomas’ daughter, Tracy, had the guts to make the call and only as luck would have it, the coin came up heads and the crew headed back to Houston with the rights to “Dream” tucked into their briefcases. It was an unbelievable thing to witness and, although I was and remain extremely good friends with Foley to this day, I remember feeling quite sorry for Larry Weinberg and the Portland people that May day.

The times moved on and the league quickly adopted its lottery system to be instituted before the 1984-85 season when yet another prized collegian would be the No. 1 choice of the draft, that being Patrick Ewing of Georgetown.

The setting was the Starlight Roof on the 18th floor of the Waldorf-Astoria and the challenge of the event was the fact the NBA and the folks who televised “At the Half” for CBS Sports were contractually bound to wait until the wee hours of the morning of June 18, 1985 to load-in, then build-out the set and properly place cameras and equipment. While the conspiracy theorists, still somewhat ignoring the unbelievable luck incurred by the Rockets, conjured up the ridiculous vision of a “freeze-dried” envelope, the truth of the matter was that the people involved were deeply focused on the physical aspects of installing the set, cabling television cameras up 18 floors and getting a clear broadcast signal from trucks parked on the Eastside of Manhattan to the CBS Broadcast Center of the Westside of the city.

While some people might remember the “lucky horse shoe” from the great Canadien-born pacer “On the Road Again,” brandished by Knicks GM Dave DeBusschere when he took to his spot on the set, I remember flying cross country on a Red-Eye after Game 1 of the Western Conference Finals to join my colleagues in New York to conduct the very first NBA Lottery. I remember watching the calmness of Rick Welts, the head of our group, as he orchestrated the event plans. Rick, by the way, hails from Seattle where he started his career in sports as a ballboy for the Sonics, and he is now running the Golden State Warriors franchise. I remember watching Ed Desser planning the television aspects with set-designer Hugh Rasky and CBS Sports producers, like Bob Mansbach. Ed, by the way, hails from Los Angeles and had worked for the LA Lakers before joining the NBA staff as Director of Broadcasting. I remember assisting the great Brian McIntyre as we credentialed an ungodly number of interested media types from all corners of the USA. McIntyre ran the NBA media operation, just as he runs his life and family, with great honest, dignity and trust. Brian, by the way, hails from the great city of Chicago and cut his teeth in pro sports selling game programs for the Bulls and Black Hawks before the Bulls hierarchy was smart enough to hire him full-time in their small front office.

There were a number of others, all equally dedicated to the job at hand. Some of them grew up in New York but others, like Rob Levine, grew up as a Celtics and Red Sox fans in Sharon, Mass while still others hailed from Oakland, Denver or San Diego. So, while critics of the league office thought there might be a New York bias, the truth was quite the opposite, as the staff took on a decidedly nationalistic demographic as Stern tapped the shoulders of talented workers from different places to help him polish the gem that was the NBA in the early ‘80s. At the time, the NBA was a gem tarnished by years of mismanagement or non-managment, really, but, it was ready to burst-on to the international sports scene in ways never imagined by anyone, once polished and properly positioned to a legion of new fans.

The focus on the day of the 1985 NBA Lottery was actually so very basic, it took on more of a cry of hope to “not screw it up” rather than a form of any planning for after-the-fact. Yes, there were plenty of rehearsals, usually utilizing the team logo cards which were printed to be placed on the respective team table-tops at the draft, staged those years at The Felt Forum, adjacent to Madison Square Garden. The late Jack Joyce, a retired FBI agent who was a confidant of the late Larry O’Brien was in charge of the NBA’s security department and he was charged with spinning the drum on the lottery set, as his assistant, a NYC detective, Horace Balmer, kept a watchful eye on the process.

Levine, who was one of Welts’ top aides, made the suggestion to secure each envelope with a sticky, gold seal he purchased at a local stationary store on Madison Avenue which gave the look of a classy invitation to the otherwise plain envelopes. Levine was the last person to touch the envelopes before they made their way to the stage for all to see Joyce, Mr. Jack Wagner and David Stern conduct the actual event in front of the bright lights. There was no refrigerator. There was no dry ice. There were no bent envelopes or anything else that would have made any of us lose the very high level of credibility we all treasure and value to this day.  And, as Stern has noted on occasion of interrogation from inquiring minds, we were not in the practice of committing a punishable felony of fraud anywhere or anytime, never mind in front of television cameras for all the world to see as we represented the league and worked so hard to enforce its rules and procedures – on and off the court.

Looking back after all the years, I was fortunate enough to witness unbelievable acts of athleticism and, literally hundreds of hotly-contested, high-pressure feats, such as Julius “Dr. J” making his incredible reverse, under-the-basket and off-the-backboard lay-up in the 1980 NBA Finals against the LA Lakers, Michael Jordan’s “spectacular move” driving to the hoop a few years later against those same Lakers. I saw Magic Johnson whipping crisp passes to James Worthy or lobbing them into Kareem Abdul-Jabbar who would sink his patented sky-hook. I even watched Vince Carter jumping over Frederic Weis at the 2000 Sydney Olympic Games but, to this day, there were two episodes that really stood out and I truly could not believe that I witnessed during my NBA career.

One was the first time the “Dream Team” took the court at the Basketball Tournament of the Americas and the other was the palpable tension that built up about “two envelopes” into that ’85 Draft Lottery. No one could’ve properly planned or really anticipated the magnitude of either one of those moments in time.  They were just truly incredible moments in sports history.

Now, after 30 years, I have mixed feelings about all that’s been stated about the ’85 event. My reactions to the conspiracy theorists were, in fact, much like Stern’s. My first thoughts were just amazement at their concept and imaginations and an honest hope that someone with that mindset is on the right side of the law. Then, some anger and resentment that so many – more informed people – would call our decency and credibility into question. Then, a return to amusement at the continued sillyness and ridiculousness of the length new media would actually go to continue such a stupid and wrong myth. And, then, a return to anger at the sheer longevity of the accusations. I try not to take it personally, but, deep down it still hurts.

Overall, I was happy to see the league take action steps over the years to instill more sense of fairness for the lottery teams. In 1986, the competition committee influenced the league’s Board of Governors to make adjustments to the system and the NBA decided the lottery would determine the order of selection for the first three picks only. The remaining non-playoff teams would select in inverse order of their regular-season records. Therefore, the team with the worst record would be assured of picking no worse than fourth, the team with the second-worst record no worse than fifth and so on. In 1993, the NBA board approved a modification of the system effective with the 1994 lottery, to again increase the chances of the teams with the worst won-loss records to gain one of the top three picks in the draft while decreasing the chances of the teams with the best records. The new system increased the chances of the team with the worst record drawing the first pick from 16.7 percent to 25 percent, while obviously decreasing the chances of the team with the best record amongst lottery teams. In ’95, the NBA adjusted the lottery with the addition of the Toronto Raptors and Vancouver Grizzlies (now Memphis) franchises and in 2004 the system was adjusted to make room for the return of Charlotte to the NBA and the probabilities set to what they are this week when the NBA stages the lottery in New York City, once again.

All of those adjustments in the rules were intended to balance fairness in the process to re-stock teams in desperate need of talent upgrades against the improper “tanking” of games by the front office personnel of teams seeking to position their franchises for an upcoming draft. To this day, I’m not sure there is a solution that can make it a perfect science, but I do applaud the NBA for consistently tweaking the system over the years and for focusing on the issues while seeking new and possibly better mechanisms to fairly disperse the never-ending talent pool entering the league.

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