Chapter 10: The LeBron Lottery
Editor's note: In this excerpt from the forthcoming book "The Franchise," LeBron James is the prize in a very high-stakes lottery.
The franchise-shaking moment occurred in a normally quiet and unassuming four-story beige building tucked into a faceless office park just off the New Jersey Turnpike. It was between a busy Wal-Mart and a Courtyard hotel, at the NBA Entertainment structure in Secaucus, N.J., that LeBron James became a Cavalier. For 364 days each year, the facility operates in relative anonymity. One night each year it comes alive with excitement during the NBA draft lottery. And on May 22, 2003, it was where the Cavaliers franchise was reborn. On that night at somewhere around 7 p.m. in conference room 3A, four ping-pong balls with the numbers 6, 2, 3, 12, bubbled up and delivered LeBron James to his hometown team.
That night was perhaps one of the most anticipated events in Cavs history.
|COVERING THE KING|
There have been a handful of times when the draft lottery became a must-see event because the top player available was wildly coveted by the league. The two most memorable such occasions were in 1985 when Patrick Ewing was emerging from Georgetown, and in 1992 when Shaquille O'Neal was coming out of Louisiana State. It was known on the night of those draft lotteries that the winner was going to take the obvious grand prize.
James' big lottery night held equal intrigue, not just because most knew he'd be the draft's top pick for the year, but because he was the first high school senior to generate such buzz. If most basketball fans hadn't already seen James play or his highlights from national television games with St. Vincent-St. Mary, they certainly heard about him on lottery day. Just the night before, James struck a history-making deal with Nike for nearly $100 million over seven years. It was such a shocking figure, especially for an as yet unproven 18-year-old, that it led newscasts across the country. It was as if Nike was saying James would be the next Michael Jordan, the next Tiger Woods--and betting a fortune on being right. Even basketball people were stunned by the shoe contract, as most estimates and rumors had it in the $20 million range, certainly no more than $40 million. All that for an 18-year-old who'd never dribbled a basketball beyond the high school level.
The big shoe money just turned the burners up higher on the lottery hype. ABC had the rights to televise the lottery and knew the demand to find out James' destination was so strong, that for the first time the network decided to build an entire show around the lottery. Normally it was a swift affair shown during halftime of a playoff games, sometimes on a lazy Saturday afternoon. With LeBron James turning pro, business never was as usual from the moment he appeared on the Sports Illustrated cover as a high school junior. Everything was on fast forward. This lottery became the LeBron Lottery. It was a primetime television special before Game 3 of the Eastern Conference Finals between the New Jersey Nets and Detroit Pistons. Ironically, that game was taking place just two miles away across the North Jersey swamplands at Continental Airlines Arena. But it seemed a world away to many of the teams who came hoping for luck and a basketball savior.
Cleveland GM Jim Paxson's top three were James, Carmelo Anthony and Dwyane Wade--in that order. He had Anthony a close No. 2 to James.
"It's possible if we had the third pick and Anthony and LeBron were gone, we might have considered trading it," said Paxson. "I liked Wade a lot, but I don't think anyone knew he'd become such a great player."
• Book Excerpt 1: The $hoe Deal
• Book Excerpt 2: The LeBron Lottery
• Bron Breakdown: From phenom to icon
Paxson said he believed the draft would have James and Anthony as the first two picks, Darko Milicic being No. 3. Paxson had scouted Milicic in Europe and was totally underwhelmed. He projected the 7-footer as exactly what the Cavs didn't need--a project requiring patience and lots of work. After Wade, he had Chris Bosh and Kirk Hinrich, in that order.
"Bosh was intriguing, but he still had a thin frame and could probably have used another year in college," said Paxson. "Wade was a combo guard. Was he better as a point? Or a shooting guard? He was just a very good guard. The top player was LeBron."
Cavs owner Gordon Gund wanted to be sure that James was more than a local legend. More than once, he asked Paxson about James.
"That's because Jim was not from the market," said Gund. "He would not be swayed by public opinion. He could evaluate LeBron in a cold, hard-nosed manner. And he was convinced about LeBron being special, that it had nothing to do with LeBron being a hometown favorite. He would be a great player."
A great player from the Cavs backyard in Akron?
It really seemed too good to be true for a franchise where most of the breaks weren't just bad, they were compound fractures.
While Gund would be in New Jersey for the lottery--flying in after his Kellogg meeting--Paxson stayed home in Cleveland. His wife, Candice, was receiving cancer treatments. He took her to chemotherapy, and this was a brutal procedure where they "put the chemo directly into the spinal fluid of her brain ... I'd sit and talk with her, then take her home. She was so tired when we got home that she had to rest. I went out and washed the car. I got some groceries. I was just trying to keep busy."
Before they parted in a hallway outside the studio, Warren Thaler could see his boss and mentor was visibly nervous and shaky about the gravity of what was about to take place. Thaler tried to reassure Gund that the results weren't all that important in the grand scheme of life.
"You know, Gordon, this isn't like finding the cure for blindness," Thaler said, referring to Gund's lifework to search for a cure for the disease that took his sight as a young man. Gund froze and gave an answer that caught Thaler off guard. "It's pretty damn close," Gund said.
Upstairs Thaler and the 12 other team representatives were stripped of all their cell phones and any other communication devices, and placed into lockdown. On the wall and on charts provided to each rep were 1,001 numeric combinations. Each team had a certain number assigned to them.
Over the years this process has been scrutinized by conspiracy theorists. But the NBA has had objective third parties run the proceedings and has even let media members in to observe the process, which only takes a matter of minutes.
Thaler, usually a staid and composed man, felt his chest pounding. Tall and thin with sandy hair and wire-framed glasses, he fits the cliché of an Ivy League grad. Calculating and intelligent, Thaler had worked his way up to become one of Gund's most trusted advisors. He, too, was armed with a host of lucky charms. There was one of his daughter's favorite dolls, a blue tie he and his wife bought in Egypt, and others.
When the fourth ball was revealed, Thaler scanned the paperwork to see if the Cavs had the lucky number. Before he could confirm it, the lottery's winner was announced: the Cleveland Cavaliers. Thaler pumped his fist in singular excitement--everyone else in the room was either disappointed or disconnected. It was a moment captured on film and now hangs on the wall inside Gund's offices.
In the studio, the waiting was agonizing. The audience tensed as ABC went live on air. The hosts went through highlights and analysis as the players on stage shifted in their chairs. After a commercial, Granik started opening envelopes to reveal the draft order in reverse, from 13 to 1. The studio, despite its buzzing lights and rather large audience, was nearly silent. The sound of Granik breaking the crisp seal on each filled the room.
|ABOUT THE BOOK|
|In a new book, award-winning sports journalists Terry Pluto (Cleveland Plain Dealer) and Brian Windhorst (Akron Beacon Journal) take an in-depth look at how a team and a city are being rebuilt around superstar LeBron James. In the chapters excerpted here, they describe how as a high-school senior James led savvy sneaker-company executives on a high-stakes chase that resulted in a record payday ... and how the 2003 lottery unfolded in thrilling fashion.|
The first seven placards were in perfect order, as far as the Cavs were concerned. No surprises. That changed when Granik got to the Memphis Grizzlies, who were in the No. 6 spot with just a 6 percent chance of winning. They were skipped, revealing they'd jumped into the top three. Team president Jerry West, in the midst of a grand rebuilding project of his own, flashed a grin as the room buzzed for the first time. When Granik revealed the Miami Heat and Toronto Raptors as having picks five and four, the Cavs, Nuggets and Grizzlies remained as ABC headed to a break. At this moment, all three were winners. Their numbers came up, getting them into the top three.
As Thaler comfortably watched from the sealed room, the tension maxed out during the three-minute break. West moved next to Gund, who smiled and exchanged small talk with Nuggets owner Stan Kroenke, although they weren't truly wishing each other luck.
"Because of my blindness, I have light sensitivity," said Gund. "I don't just see dark. I see colors whirling, mostly white, when I'm exposed to a lot of intense light. That's why I keep my rooms dark. It's easier for my eyes. But on a TV stage like that with all the light, it was like a kaleidoscope. In fact, that kind of light increases the degeneration of my eyes, but I was not about to wear dark glasses on the set. I tried not to concentrate on all the specks of light floating around, or it would drive me crazy. It seemed like it took forever for those last three picks."
Back in Akron at the Radisson, James' hotel suite was pulsing as all considered the options. With big cities like New York, Chicago and Los Angeles out of the picture, staying home looked very attractive to James' friends and his family. Still, James wasn't sure.
"I went to a lot of those games the year before I was drafted and I saw how they played," James remembered thinking as the final three became clear. "It was home, but at first I wasn't really sure if I wanted to be a part of that team after what I'd seen."
The fans gathered across Northeast Ohio were sure it was the right move and were waiting to discharge plenty of years of frustration. So was the man sitting in the second chair in Secaucus. Granik eyed the director next to the camera, who gave him the signal to resume. He quickly revealed the third pick ... the Nuggets. The Cavs had beaten the opponent with the same odds to win.
Which ushered in the moment all had been waiting for. The pressure was enormous. Gund was so close to landing the franchise-changing player he'd dared to dream about for months. West and the Grizzlies fans were facing an all or nothing situation. They had traded their pick to the Detroit Pistons six years earlier, for Otis Thorpe, and only got to keep it if they won the No. 1 pick. It was the crown jewel or the sidelines for Memphis.
"When Denver came up third, I was so emotional sitting there with Candice,'" said Paxson. Could it really happen? Could the gamble of tearing down the team to build it up again with someone such as James really work? Would the Cavs actually beat those 22.5 percent odds? As the enveloped opened, Granik pulled out the red and green logo of the Grizzlies, meaning they'd won the No. 2 pick. "Which means ... " Granik started. Few heard him finish.
"We had changed the colors back to the original concept of wine and gold," said Gund. "No one saw the new uniforms until that night. I held that jersey and kept thinking what a great night it was for all the people in Northeast Ohio. This franchise finally got some luck. That was the first thing going through my mind."
At the Radisson, James had positioned himself in the corner of the room, sort of away from everyone. When all learned he was staying home, the room shifted their eyes to him and there was a brief moment of silence. Then James smiled as his friends piled on top of him, bringing him down to the plush carpet.
In Cleveland, Paxson embraced his wife as his son rejoiced. His cell phone started ringing instantly, which he grabbed as he got in the car and headed down to the arena. At a bar in the Valley View area south of downtown that served as the official spot for the Cavs lottery party, celebrations kicked off. As cameras rolled, fans poured out emotion by bouncing, screaming and flashing homemade signs.
A few moments later, James appeared in a conference room at the Radisson in downtown Akron. He was surrounded by his high school teammates. He wore a white Nike headband with the Nike Swoosh logo. He had on a Nike black and silver sweat suit, glittering studs in each ear, and he was grinning from diamond to diamond.
"I hope I can put a lot of smiles back on the faces of the people of Cleveland," he said. "I'm not going to guarantee a championship. But we will get better every day, we will be a better team than we were last year."
"Hopefully, the Cavs will pick me," he joked.
No doubt about that.
Adapted from the book "The Franchise: LeBron James and the Remaking of the Cleveland Cavaliers" © 2007 by Terry Pluto and Brian Windhorst. All rights reserved. This text may not be reproduced in any form or manner without written permission of Gray & Company, Publishers.