NBA's new reality TV show: Live Ping-Pong balls

How can the NBA prove the LeBron James lottery isn't fixed? Pull Ping-Pong balls on live TV.
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Originally Published: December 16, 2002
By Marc Stein | ESPN.com

If it wasn't clear before last Thursday night, it should be pretty obvious now: LeBron James and Le Lottery to determine the No. 1 pick in next June's draft will be one of the three biggest lottos in league history.

David Stern, Patrick Ewing and Dave DeBusschere
Conspiracy theorists still believe the Knicks' winning of the Patrick Ewing sweepstakes in 1985 was fixed.
Bigger than Tim Duncan's in 1997.

Up there, in terms of anticipation, with 1992's Shaquille O'Neal sweepstakes and the inaugural made-for-TV extravaganza in 1985 that -- surprise! -- put Patrick Ewing in New York.

No surprise, then, that next May's lotto might also be an all-timer for format reasons as well, to finally hush the conspiracy theorists who are already bleating about the Knicks being guaranteed to snare the modern-day LBJ.

After letting a few writers behind closed doors last May to squelch speculation first-hand about a Yao Ming international fixing incident, the league is indeed examining the possibility of televising the new-age lotto process from start to finish this time.

"It's something that has come up before and something we'll look at again," NBA senior vice president of basketball communications Brian McIntyre said. "We're always looking to keep it fresh and exciting."

Since the lottery has long since stopped being either one of those, and with fix accusations sure to be louder than ever given where LeBron has nudged the hype meter after his national-TV debut, this is certainly the time to show the world exactly how the team that gets the No. 1 pick actually gets the No. 1 pick.

Even if the whole process takes less than five minutes.

Mind you, there are obstacles that still make the NBA hesistant. The increasingly numbing spectacle of Jerry Krause and Co. watching envelopes opened from No. 13 to No. 1 is undeniably safer.

There is the fear that the plexiglass Ping-Pong ball hopper will break down on the air, on live TV, which would certainly be an embarrassment. Not that such fears ever stop state lotteries all over the country from airing their lottery draws.

The bigger concern is that the NBA lottery is a good bit more complicated than your standard lottery, which could confuse a TV audience. There are 14 balls in the hopper, with 1,000 combinations assigned to the 13 lottery teams. It's not like most Saturday nights, where the lotto-ticket holder at home can know instantly if they've won or lost. A TV broadcast would have to be able to link the winning combinations with the appropriate team quickly, for the viewer's sake.

Jerry Krause
A new TV format for the lottery would not show Jerry Krause's priceless reactions.
The biggest difference, though, would be the order in which the picks are announced, and it's a drastic difference. The (allegedly) drama-building method of counting from No. 13 down would have to be scrapped. The way it happens in real life, four-ball combinations are pulled out of the drum to assign the top three picks, in order from No. 1 to No. 3. The next 10 spots are determined by a team's record, which is why the team with the league's worst record can't do worse than No. 4. If that team fails to claim one of the top three picks in the Ping-Pong portion, the worst team automatically gets the fourth spot.

So ...

All the TV drama would thus be instantaneous, especially when the draft pool offers such an overwhelming favorite for No. 1. The first combo of numbers would produce the lottery winner, with the team sporting the worst overall record assigned only 250 of the 1,000 possible combinations.

But ...

The potential benefits are huge. People will still cry "fix" no matter who gets LeBron, but their cries will be hollow.

This isn't like the Ewing lotto, when David Stern was accused of reaching in to grab the magical, mythical frozen envelope containing the Knicks' logo. You can't mess with the hopper. You can't add weight to four Ping-Pong balls in favor of the Knicks or anyone else, because the same four would rise to the top for all three picks. With a representative from Ernst & Young right there on the screen as lottery auditor/referee, that would be two major companies putting its reputations on display.

At the very least, given the heights of LeBron Mania long before he ever made it onto ESPN2, league officials will be obliged to let a few writers back in to witness the most celebrated Ping-Pong bounces in sports. Here's hoping they follow through on their considerations for going the extra and overdue step of showing everything.

Would it totally fix the inevitable nuisance of having to hear "It's fixed" reactions? No, not totally. Nothing could.

It'd be the next best thing, though. Which seems appropriate for the draft that's going to feature Le Next Best Thing.

Marc Stein is the senior NBA writer for ESPN.com. To e-mail him, click here.

Marc Stein | email

Senior Writer, ESPN.com
• Senior NBA writer for ESPN.com
• Began covering the NBA in 1993-94
• Also covered soccer, tennis and the Olympics

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