Commentary

A tale of what might have been

If the 2008 lottery went by the numbers, Derrick Rose would be playing for Miami

Updated: May 21, 2011, 3:04 AM ET
By Gene Wojciechowski | ESPN.com

CHICAGO -- Derrick Rose should be wearing a Miami Heat uni. He knows it. Pat Riley knows it. Most of all, the Chicago Bulls know it.

[+] EnlargeDerrick Rose
David Dow/NBAE via Getty ImagesDerrick Rose landing in Chicago instead of Miami was a stroke of luck that changed the trajectory of the Bulls.

Rose's Bulls jersey number ought to be changed from 1 to 1.7. That's because the Bulls had a 98.3 percent chance of NOT getting the first pick in the 2008 NBA draft lottery. Or in guy terms, you have a better chance of a Hooters server asking for your phone number than the Bulls did of getting that top pick.

But then came The Miracle In Secaucus.

In the time it took for NBA deputy commissioner Adam Silver to tear open an oversized envelope and say, "The second pick goes to the Miami Heat,'' the shape, form and future of two franchises was forever altered. And so was this Eastern Conference finals between the Bulls and the Heat.

Now, three years after the Bulls cashed the scrawniest ticket in the history of the league's weighted lottery process, the truth can be told. Beginning with …

First of all, then-Bulls general manager John Paxson not only didn't attend the lottery at the NBA's studios in Secaucus, N.J., but he also didn't bother turning on the TV broadcast.

"I had made up my mind that it wasn't worth watching,'' says Paxson, who dropped the GM duties in 2009 but remains the team's executive vice president of basketball operations.

Instead, Paxson was upstairs in his bedroom as his wife, Carolyn, and their two sons, Ryan and Drew, watched the ESPN telecast downstairs. Paxson had work to do, which was one of the reasons he hadn't traveled to New Jersey for the show.

"I'm not one of those who enjoyed being up there in that environment,'' says Paxson, who played on three consecutive NBA championship teams in the early 1990s with Michael Jordan's Bulls. "It usually signals that you've not done very well. I'd been there a few times and had no desire to go back. We were in the middle of draft preparations anyway. Plus, it was 1.7.''

So for the second year in a row, Paxson sent Steve Schanwald as the Bulls' draft lottery representative. The team's executive VP of business operations was joined on the trip by Brandon Faber, a team public relations staffer.

Schanwald had been there in 2007, when the Bulls ended up with the ninth pick of the draft. They later selected Joakim Noah, who made draft night fashion history with his seersucker suit, bow tie, electrified hair, joyful smile and peace sign as he shook commissioner David Stern's hand.

If the lottery odds held up, the Bulls would pick ninth again in the 2008 draft. Miami had the worst record in the league, but best lottery odds at the No. 1 pick (25 percent), while the then-Seattle SuperSonics were second (19.9 percent) and the Minnesota Timberwolves third (13.8 percent).

At stake was a chance to draft Rose, the wondrous point guard from the University of Memphis, or Michael Beasley, the high-scoring forward from Kansas State. Rose and Beasley dominated the mock draft debate about who would go No. 1.

Schanwald and Faber flew from Chicago to Newark, checked into their hotel across the street from the NBA studios and later attended a pre-lottery cocktail party before a briefing by league officials. Nervous? Nah.

"I'm figuring we're going to end up drafting right where we should have: 11th, ninth, something like that,'' Schanwald says. "There wasn't any tension on the part of the guy who had a 1.7 percent chance.''

Schanwald was so relaxed as lottery time approached that he started chatting up Jay-Z, who has an ownership stake in the New Jersey Nets. A friend had texted Schanwald and told him to ask the world-famous hip-hop artist about his line of Rocawear. Never mind that Schanwald didn't know Rocawear from Rocco Mediate.

Paxson Believe me, I sit here a lot and think to myself that this organization somehow got Michael Jordan with the third pick in 1984. Now because of that 1.7 percent chance, we end up with Derrick.

-- John Paxson

Not so calm was the Miami contingent. Dwyane Wade was the official Heat rep that night, but team president Riley was also in attendance, as was Andy Elisburg, Heat senior VP of basketball operations. Riley had coached the Heat to those 15 wins that season.

Schanwald would appear on stage during the lottery telecast, while Faber would represent the Bulls in an earlier, non-televised drawing of the actual lottery pingpong balls. That's where Elisburg would be too.

Some of the reps brought good-luck charms. Timberwolves executive Fred Hoiberg (a former Bulls player) carried a teddy bear belonging to a child who had the same heart ailment as the Minnesota assistant GM. Schanwald had about 50 photos of the children of Bulls employees and friends. Faber, who is from Ohio, brought a buckeye.

A little after 8 p.m. ET, ESPN's Doris Burke began to introduce the 14 team reps to the national television audience. This would be Schanwald's moment to cherish.

Except that Burke called him "Stan'' Schanwald and accidentally referred to him as the executive VP of basketball operations.

"I just laughed,'' Schanwald says. "It's so typical of the story of my life.''

The first five lottery picks went according to their odds. Golden State was No. 14, Portland No. 13, Sacramento No. 12, Indiana No. 11 and Jay-Z's New Jersey team No. 10.

Then Silver announced, "The ninth pick will be made by -- the Charlotte Bobcats.''

Schanwald beamed and pumped his right fist. Somehow the Bulls had completed a probability Hail Mary. At the very least, they would get the third pick in the draft.

Back in suburban Chicago, Paxson heard the screams from his wife and sons.

"I knew at that point we were in the top three,'' he says. "Then I went downstairs and watched the final part of the show. I was a little pessimistic. I figured the best we could do then is [No.] 3.''

Miami, Minnesota and Chicago made the final three. Seattle dropped to fourth. So Wade, Hoiberg and Schanwald were brought to center stage for the final lottery order announcement.

"It's very awkward,'' Schanwald says. "There's not one person in that studio who's rooting for you to win.''

Schanwald, Paxson and the rest of America didn't know how it was going to shake out, but Faber did. He and the 13 other team reps had witnessed the official drawing of the lottery pingpong balls a little more than an hour before the telecast began.

On an entire wall of Conference Room 3A were the 1,001 possible winning combinations to the No. 1 lottery pick. Miami had 250 of those four-number combinations. Chicago had just 17, including the combination of 11, 9, 7 and 13.

"I'm writing down the numbers as they're called,'' says Faber, who left the Bulls only a few days later to oversee the Chicago Blackhawks' PR staff. "I'm thinking, 'At least we got the first number.' And then they said the second number and I say to myself, 'That's really good.' Then they draw the third number and I'm going, 'There's just no way.'

"At this point I'm starting to doubt myself. I'm thinking, 'I'm not doing this right. No way we're going to win the lottery.'''

The Bulls needed the No. 13 pingpong ball to fill out the miracle combination. Moments later, the NBA official pulled a ball from the lottery container and announced, "Thirteen. Chicago, you've won the first pick.''

"We'll take it!'' shouted Faber.

Faber was sequestered upstairs in the conference room. He couldn't have told anyone the results even if he had wanted to -- security officials had taken away his cell phone and sealed it in an envelope.

In fact, when Faber needed to use the restroom, a security guard escorted him from the conference area, into the bathroom and back to the Room 3A. It wasn't until the final results were announced on stage that he and Faber and the other team reps were allowed to leave the conference room.

[+] EnlargeSteve Schanwald
Jesse D. Garrabrant/Getty ImagesSteve Schanwald, also known as "Stan," was the Bulls' lucky charm in May of 2008.

By then, Schanwald had received congratulatory handshakes from Wade and Hoiberg. Schanwald was stunned by the news, but he recovered in time to tell Burke "that operators are standing by now at 312-455-4000 for your season-ticket order.'' Once a businessman, always a businessman.

Schanwald's cell phone vibrated like a tuning fork with calls, messages and texts. It wasn't until later, when he was done talking to reporters covering the lottery, that Schanwald snuck away to a back room.

His phone rang.

"Hello?'' said Schanwald.

"Hello, Stan,'' said Paxson.

Paxson also called Bulls owner Jerry Reinsdorf. ("We were both stunned,'' Paxson says.) Then he called Bulls director of player personnel Gar Forman and director of college scouting Matt Lloyd.

"Somebody was looking down on us,'' Paxson says.

ESPN.com's Chad Ford, in his first post-lottery mock draft, argued that the Bulls should take Beasley because of his low-post scoring ability. And the Bulls, who had initially targeted their draft preparation for possible candidates at the No. 9 pick, thought about it too -- but not for long.

Shortly after the lottery, Paxson's staff met to discuss the top pick. He went around the table and asked each person the same question: If the draft were that day who would they take?

The choice: Rose.

Weeks later, as the draft night approached and the Bulls had completed their research, Paxson convened his staff and scouts for another discussion. Reinsdorf also was in attendance. Again, he posed the same question about the No. 1 pick. And again, Rose was the choice. The vote was unanimous.

"Believe me, I sit here a lot and think to myself that this organization somehow got Michael Jordan with the third pick in 1984,'' Paxson says. "Now because of that 1.7 percent chance, we end up with Derrick.''

They ended up with a Chicago-born star and storyline. They ended up with a humble league MVP who dotes on his mother. They ended up in the conference final against the team that could have, should have won the lottery in 2008.

Riley declined an interview request for this column, but given his appreciation of game-changing guards, it isn't much of a leap of faith to say that Riles would have chosen Rose had the Heat picked No. 1. Instead, they drafted Beasley -- and later traded him to continue working on their roster after signing LeBron James.

"That [lottery] night set the stage for what-ifs,'' Schanwald says. "Derrick would have been paired with Dwyane Wade in one of the great backcourts in history. The irony is he could have played with them against us. Or maybe they would not have been able to sign LeBron and [Chris] Bosh. Maybe it wouldn't have happened.''

Says Paxson: "Had they gotten the first pick and taken Derrick, chances are we'd see a different-look Miami team. Riley completely changed his team into a championship team by going the free-agent route. He did a great job.''

But so has Paxson, Forman and Bulls head coach Tom Thibodeau. The Bulls' league-best 62-20 record didn't happen by accident. Check that -- some of it did.

"It was amazing how it evolved and how lucky we were,'' Paxson says. "I know I sit here seeing Derrick play and I never forget the luck involved. One-point-seven percent. That's remarkable.''

Remarkable. Memorable. Almost unexplainable.

Faber still has the folder full of the notes he kept from that night in Conference Room 3A. But his favorite keepsake is an autographed Bulls jersey given to him by Rose during his rookie season.

Wrote Rose on the jersey: Thanks for playing the lottery.

Gene Wojciechowski is the senior national columnist for ESPN.com. You can contact him at gene.wojciechowski@espn.com. Hear Gene's podcasts and ESPN Radio appearances by here. And don't forget to follow him on Twitter @GenoEspn.

Gene Wojciechowski | email

Columnist / College Football reporter

SPONSORED HEADLINES

MORE NBA HEADLINES