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Nervous energy, phone withdrawal and a waiting period: Inside the 2022 NBA Draft Lottery drawing room
Fieldhouse Files was one of several media outlets invited into a sequestered ballroom where the drawing happened. Allow for me to take you inside the process.
CHICAGO — There were 1,001 different ping pong ball combinations and drawing one of 105 would have resulted in the Pacers securing a top-four pick in next month’s NBA Draft. Every single one of the 105 combinations, the fifth-best odds among 14 lottery teams, included a ‘3.’
For the fourth year in a row under the current format of the draft lottery, the three teams with the worst records all had the same chance of scoring the top pick with 140 combinations. The Thunder, in fourth had 125 combinations.
A ping pong ball was drawn 20 times — including a combination of four that was wiped away because the Houston Rockets were already slotted in third — and Pacers general manager Chad Buchanan was eagerly waiting to hear a ‘3’ called.
It happened just once among the 20 numbers; it was the final number drawn for the third overall pick. That pick went to Houston.
Going into the night, the Pacers had a 42.1% chance of leaping into the top four and a 19.6% chance of selecting sixth.
They will select sixth.
“You’re always hopeful,” Buchanan said of how he felt beforehand. “You don’t want to be in that room very often, but you’re hopeful when you are. Going into it, I feel like there’s a certain level of players in this draft that we like and we still feel very good about where we ended up.”
Inside Room W192 in the McCormack Place Convention Center in Chicago, about 40 individuals were sequestered inside the drawing room — where the actually lottery goes down. What you see on TV is a formality. It’s entertainment and for show.
Eight reporters were invited inside to witness the drawing, including two local beat writers. I was one of them, along with Jonathan Feigen of the Houston Chronicle.
This is unfamiliar territory for the Pacers having not had a single-digit selection since 1989, so I wanted to see the process through for the first time and be there to potentially witness history.
At 5:30 p.m. CT, we eight reporters walked from the media room down to room W192. Security was tight, having to scan my credential before entering a wing of the convention center. We then walked about 200 hundreds yards and hung a right, where we signed in and put any technology in a manilla envelope. That meant no phones, Apple Watches or digital recorders. (We were allowed to have a pen and paper.)
Something several of us were wondering: How long until we have tech implanted? A chip in our ear or arm? I looked down at my left wrist, normally home to my black Apple Watch. It was clearly missing, evident by my nasty tan line.
At 5:41 p.m., I fired off one last tweet, put my blue iPhone 13 Pro Max in the envelope and then walked through a magnetometer and into the room.
I finally got my phone back at 8:00 p.m. CT, after the lottery show, so I went 140 minutes without any tech. That’s a lifetime for me. Whew!
Like the most of us in the room, Buchanan filled the time with conversation. For example, Dewayne Hankins was promoted to team president by the Trail Blazers last November. Buchanan, like Kevin Pritchard, spent nearly a decade working in Portland. But they had never met.
“I got to talk to him for a while and get to know him a little bit,” said Buchanan. “I didn’t realize he was an Iowa State grad so we have some connections. Just a chance to meet some people that you don’t have a chance to interact with very often. You’d love to have your phone, you feel like kind of naked without it. But at the same time, it was fine. I was prepared for it because I have done this before.”
My one mistake was not bringing a classic watch inside. There were no clocks in sight, just like you’re in Las Vegas.
But around 6:15 p.m. CT, the procedures for the room were given by Jamin Dershowitz, the NBA’s assistant general counsel.
Behind a podium at the front-left of the room, Byron Spruell, the president of league operations, got the cue from the TV production — recorded and later shared for transparency — and then we’re off. “Welcome everyone,” Spruell began.
The 14 team representatives ranged from executives, like OKC’s Sam Presti and and New Orleans’ David Griffin, to Sacramento minority owner John Kehriotis and Orlando’s chief communications officer Joel Glass. In the middle of the room, there were three rows on a platform with five individuals sitting in row 1, including Buchanan.
Spruell was directly in front of him and perhaps for good measure, Buchanan went up to him and said ‘hi’ moments before we got underway.
Meanwhile, outside of this locked-down room, NBA officials and team personnel began to arrive outside the ballroom where the show would be held. Pritchard & Co. had a drink, a toast of good luck beforehand. That had to help calm the nerves.
Inside the room, Buchanan looked at ease to start, though he was fiddling his thumbs in his lap. (Did you know he doesn’t drink coffee? How? Most of us seem to live on it.) There was a half-full bottle of Aquafina water in front of him.
He had a lucky item with him, but declined to share. He had promised someone that he would keep it private, even if they had jumped to No. 1 for the first time in franchise history.
Buchanan was sharply dressed in a dark suit with a blue dress shirt underneath. We all had two papers in front of us: 1) the list of teams with their records and lottery probability and 2) the “look up table” with all 1,001 combinations.
Fourteen ping pong balls, numbered one through 14, were removed from a black briefcase, shown and then placed inside a clear glass drum. Get this: Beforehand, they were weighed, measured and approved for the big show by Smartplay, a company that designs and manufactures lottery equipment.
Before each drawing of four ping pong balls, the machine was turned on and balls mixed together for exactly 20 seconds. Micah Day, from NBA event management, stood next to us media — about 15 yards from the drawing and facing away. With an old-school stopwatch in his left hand, he raised his right hand at 10-second intervals to cue the drawing of each ping pong ball in the set.
This was a well-oiled machine by the NBA and their partners. Each individual understood their responsibility on this night and executed smoothly and without any hiccups. They did conduct a run-through beforehand.
After each four-ball combination was drawn, there were eight giant boards stage left. Dershowitz walked up and down to find the right combination of four numbers, then announced the team assigned the numbers.
14 | 1 | 13 | 6
There wasn’t much reaction when the Magic were announced as winners of the No. 1 pick. Glass shook hands with the team representatives to his left and right — Pistons’ assistant GM George David and Rockets’ general counsel, Clay Allen — and the process carried on without interruption.
Beforehand, Glass wasn’t shy about sharing his lucky items. He had the winning ping pong balls from the three previous times they landed the first pick: 1992, 1993 and 2004.
2 | 7 | 14 | 9 was the combination for No. 2, going to the Thunder.
1 | 12 | 6 | 3 was the combination for No. 3, going to the Rockets, who finished a league-worst 20-62.
The combination for the fourth draw also went to the Rockets — 2 | 10 | 1 | 12 — so they put the ping pong balls back inside the drum and drew once more.
Still optimistic for the fourth pick, Buchanan leaned forward with a pen in his hand for the final draw.
4 | 7 | 9 | 10 was one of 75 combinations belonging to the Kings, who jumped from seventh to fourth. Not a huge leap, but a notable one. I couldn’t help but think of how Domantas Sabonis, their on-stage representative, would react to this successful move on stage.
After 13 minutes, the process was complete. Some stood up and offered congratulations to their peers. It was around 6:30 p.m. and were in the room another 90 minutes. We know the order, but it stays within Room W192 until lottery show airs.
The only one permitted to leave was Peter Rosenbaum, a partner at Ernst & Young, and he was escorted by the NBA’s head of security. But first, the team cards were stuffed in the appropriate envelopment and then sealed with a gold sticker to show that they had not been altered.
Now we wait.
This was a fascinating exercise because all tension had been removed and we knew the results, but couldn’t do anything with it. Glass couldn’t call Magic officials to let them know and we reporters had to sit on good information. It’s more difficult than it sounds.
There was food and drinks in the back. Water was gone quickly, Gatorade and soft drinks remained. I chose a lemon lime Gatorade, easily the best flavor. There were several trays of grilled chicken breast sandwiches that went mostly untouched, pasta salad and cookies.
Daniel, an NBA Entertainment staffer, pulled me and several others aside, one at a time, to ask a few questions about our experience.
Throughout the night, I looked for the time on my wrist many times, only to be reminded. Oops. Also, it was a strange feeling to not be able to document where I was, what I was seeing and more with my iPhone like usual. Even if I don’t share a photo, I often use snapshots to remember the setting and later describe it in detail.
For instance, Kings minority owner John Kehriotis mostly remained in his row two seat. Several times, a reporter went over and chatted him up since the Kings had a successful night. He happily displayed the most unusual lucky charm — it was a mini, awkward-looking character with blue fuzzy hair, glasses and green shoes. My first thought was that it looked like a Chia Pet.
Kehriotis explained that this character, named “The Man,” was among the many items sent to the team before the 1998 draft, and he has kept ever since. Fans had mailed in all kinds of things, but this one stuck and they ended up drafting “White Chocolate,” Jason Williams.
What a world.
NBA officials rolled out a TV cart to the front of the room, adjusted the volume and like the rest of NBA fans, we gathered around to watch the results be announced on ESPN.
After we exited the drawing room and I grabbed my phone, Buchanan and I discussed the experience.
“Optimistic, hopeful, good positive thoughts all day,” he said of his emotions. “It’s been two months it feels like since we’ve known we’re gonna be in this room so you kind of put it off and just focus on the day-to-day of things.
“We were hopeful it would be a good night and I’m not going to be disappointed that we have the sixth pick in the draft. It’s a great chance to add something to our team that could really help us moving forward.”
Buchanan had been in the drawing room before, a decade ago when he was with the Trail Blazers. Although during that experience, in 2012, he had twice as many lottery picks to be concerned about — theirs with a chance to get another pick. And they did, landing the sixth pick via Brooklyn, which they then used to select now six-time All-Star Damian Lillard.
“It’s kind of an odd experience because there’s really only one person who is really happy at the end of the night,” he acknowledged. “Some of the people are happy to different degrees, but you’re competing with everybody in the room. But at the same time, you trust that we’re going to have a good player come on to our team this year.
“I’m not discouraged at all. A slight disappointment initially, but I’m excited about what the sixth pick could bring to us. The player could bring or the other opportunities the pick could bring to a team is exciting for us. Picking where we’ve been picking, it’s a different opportunity.”
What if I told you the Pacers got lucky and did move into the top three for the draft? That was true … for rehearsal, held more than three hours before the presentation you saw on ESPN.
During rehearsal, the Spurs jumped from ninth to first, the Pistons from third to first and the Pacers from fifth to third.
If only it was the real thing…
They had individuals sit in the seats like they were team representatives. ESPN draft analyst Mike Schmitz, standing stage left, even interviewed a person as if they were with the Spurs and just had an incredible night.
Those were the sights and sounds I observed around 5:00 p.m. CT, about a half-hour before taking off my Apple Watch, slipping my iPhone into an envelope and being disconnected from the outside world for over two hours.
Watch the drawing for yourself in the media player below: