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Sunday, May 19
Updated: Sunday, May 19, 7:20 PM ET
Lottery no longer so mysterious
By By Darren Rovell

SECAUCUS, N.J. -- The secret chamber where the real NBA lottery takes place -- conference room 3A on the third floor of the NBA Entertainment building in Secaucus, N.J. -- is nothing more than, well, a conference room. And the machine used to determine the first three picks in the NBA draft doesn't look all that different from those seen nightly in state lottery drawings.

We now know this -- after 17 such drawings -- because the NBA invited four news organizations, including ESPN.com, to watch sport's most important ping-pong balls dance around the machine in room 3A for the first time. Why the open invitation? In part, to help debunk the suggestion that the NBA rigs such things. And if things weren't on the level this year, the league officials inside the room belong in the Magic Hall of Fame.

Jerry Krause
What happened in room 3A a couple hours earlier didn't sit well with Jerry Krause.

Let's start at the beginning. Upon entering the room, league general counsel member Jamin Dershowitz describes all the lottery's rules -- including the disaster plan. Yes, the NBA has a backup plan if the machine were to break. Not to worry, however, as 26-year-old shop foreman Wayne Ryba, who makes the machines for Smartplay International, is in the room for his fifth straight NBA lottery. But if Ryba can't fix things, Plan B calls for drawing numbers out of a lopped off plastic basketball.

As for the legitimacy of the lottery, Dershowitz announces the presence of Mark Manoff of Ernst & Young, who is auditing his 10th NBA draft. Dershowitz reminds everyone that the ping-pong balls have been certified, weighed and sized. He then heads to the eight laminated poster boards with all 1,000 four-digit combinations and the teams assigned to each combination.

Everyone is then reminded that the teams with the worst records, the Golden State Warriors and the Chicago Bulls, have the most four-digit combinations (225) and a 22.5-percent chance of getting the overall No. 1 pick. The Bucks, meanwhile, have the worst chance of the 13 lottery teams, with only five combinations and a 0.5-percent chance of getting No. 1.

Up next is Kenny Payne, the league's vice president of events and attractions, who opens a small black suitcase -- complete with balls numbered 1 through 14 -- and announces each number as he places it into the plexiglass hopper.

Then, at 5:02 p.m. ET, the switch is flipped. The balls start swirling, and about 15 feet from the hopper, on the other side of the room, Paul Lambert stands with a stopwatch in hand and his back turned to the machine.

"I want it to be fair," Lambert will say after the event. "I don't want to see the balls mixing in any possible way."

Lambert is the NBA's director of events and attractions. But on Sunday, he is the official timekeeper of the lottery (yes, there is an official timekeeper). He has been so for the past eight years.

After 15 seconds of required mixing, Lambert raises his hand. He re-raises his hand every five seconds for the next 20 seconds to yield the four-digit combination that corresponds to the team that receives rights to the overall No. 1 pick in next month's draft.

Joel Litvin, the league's executive vice president for legal and business affairs, calls out the numbers on each ball.

13 ... 8 ... 11 ... 4.

There is silence.

"Houston," Dershowitz says, staring at the board and combination No. 767.

The Houston Rockets, with an 8.9 percent chance of getting the first pick, have beaten the odds.

Nelson Luis, the Rockets' first-year media relations director, pumps his fist in the air.

"I didn't know what the appropriate response was, but I've learned from not cheering in the press box," Luis says after all 13 picks are determined.

"I've never won anything, not even a school raffle," continues Luis. "I went to the gift shop at the hotel and I wanted to see if they had a rabbit's foot or something, but they didn't. So I had to do it on my own."

With the Rockets owners of the first pick, it's now easier to doubt a Yao Ming conspiracy. But, had the last number been a 6 instead of a 4, well, then we might have had some controversy. And there would have been a lot more explaining to do. The New York Knicks, a team in the league's largest market and one of two teams to give Ming a private workout, had only a 4.4 percent chance of getting the first pick. But, get this, the Knicks had combination No. 907 -- 13, 8, 11, 6.

And even Michael Jordan's Wizards, with only a 0.7 percent chance of landing the first pick for the second straight year, saw their odds soar when the No. 1 pick's first three numbers also matched two of their combinations. But alas, the Rockets hit the jackpot.

Time for pick No. 2's combination: The balls mix for another 15 seconds. Lambert raises his hand. Another five seconds. First ball pops up. It's an 8. Then comes 6 ... 5 ... 9. It's Houston again. Luis laughs.

Balls mix. Lambert times the intervals.

Litvin calls 3-12-2-13.

"Chicago," Dershowitz says.

Tim Hallam, the Bulls' media relations director, who is in the room for the fourth straight year and the only team representative without a jacket, leans back in his chair -- clearly more relaxed. Andy Taub, the league's director of salary cap administration, writes Chicago under Houston in black marker on an easel next to the machine.

Balls mix ... Lambert times ... Litvin calls: 6-13-10-1

"Golden State," Dershowitz says.

Warriors COO Robert Rowell is clearly upset with the day's results as his team has gone from a co-favorite to win the lottery to a third-place finish. The Warriors, after all, couldn't have done any worse than No. 4 based on their 2001-02 record.

And there you have it. In less than 3½ minutes, the 2002 NBA draft lottery is complete. Taub fills in the rest of the top 13 in order of worst to best records and the team executives mill about the conference room. Knicks assistant general manager Jeff Nix can't wait for Taub to finish. He quickly scribbles down the order to find his Knicks will be picking seventh.

For the next 90 minutes, everyone is required to stay in the room until the picks are formally announced on NBC at halftime of Game 1 of the Eastern Conference finals. As everyone watches the first half of the Nets-Celtics game, no one is allowed to communicate with anyone from the outside world. Although phones and pagers had not been confiscated at the doors, the orders are clear: They must remain turned off. Bathroom trips are noted by NBA security guard Mike Caruso.

Halftime finally arrives and the show begins outside conference room 3A. NBA deputy commissioner Russ Granik welcomes the nation to the unveiling of another NBA draft lottery. The first clue something hasn't gone according to plan is when the fifth pick goes to the Nuggets. It's now clear to the world Houston has cracked the top three.

Granik then opens the third pick's envelope to show the Warriors' logo, and when No. 2 goes to Chicago, the secret is out: The Rockets have beaten the odds.

And, as for how it all went down? Well, it's no longer so mysterious.

Darren Rovell, who covers sports business for ESPN.com, can be reached at Darren.Rovell@espn.com.

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