Category Archives: nba draft lottery

Knicks fans: There is basketball civilization beyond these shores

It could be that Knicks fans, having memories so long they are out of date, were thinking of Frenchman Frederic Weis when they roundly booed team president Phil Jackson’s use of a first-round draft pick on a tall lad from Europe. Weis, of course, was the 7-foot-2 Frenchman chosen No. 1 by the team in 1999 who never played a minute in the NBA and is mostly remembered as the victim of one spectacular Vince Coleman dunk—literally flying over the seemingly helpless Weis—in the 2000 Olympics.


Just as likely, though, the negative fan reaction to picking 19-year-old Latvian Kristaps Porzingis was a form of the unattractive xenophobia that characterizes American basketball provincialism almost 30 years past its shelf life.

Somebody needs to remind those folks—as well as Carmelo Anthony, whose egocentric playing style tends to dismiss the comparative competence of even American-raised teammates—that the NBA is crawling with talented fellows from across the pond.

And it would help that they had a little history lesson.

As far back as 1988, the Americans couldn’t get past the USSR in the Olympic hoops semifinals. That game did not resemble the controversial 1972 Olympic final, when the Soviets needed a pair of controversial do-overs to score the winning basket and end the Americans’ international dominance—a 62-game Olympic winning streak.

By ’88, the rest of the world clearly was catching up. And, while U.S. partisans regularly aired the excuse of not having NBA players eligible for international competition, it was, in fact, officials in the U.S. federation who were blocking the pros’ participation. (Those federation pooh-bahs figured our collegiate guys were plenty good enough to win all the time and, furthermore, understood that the entrance of NBA talent also would bring NBA officials to take their jobs.)

Anyway, before Magic, Michael, Bird and their NBA pals came to the Yanks’ rescue in the Barcelona Olympics, there were revealing developments at the 1990 Goodwill Games, a Ted Turner event staged that summer in Seattle.

There, the Americans soundly were beaten by a Soviet team missing fourth-fifths of its 1988 gold medal starting lineup—all Lithuanian citizens whose nation had just split from Moscow. (Among the missing from the Soviet side was Sarunas Marciulionis, the shooting guard who had just signed with the Golden State Warriors and would make over 50 percent of his field goals in a seven-year NBA career.)

In their Goodwill Games match, the Soviets left the Americans dizzy with their teamwork, by weaving passes at the top of the circle and kicking the ball outside to wide-open sharpshooters. An American spectator, at one point, called out contemptuously after a successful fast-break Soviet layup, “Look at that; they can’t even dunk.”

Just as scornful of the Soviets’ style, as if it were not only un-American but unfair, was the Goodwills’ celebrated U.S. coach, one Mike Krzyzewski. “Their penetration and pitching back out is a little unusual for American basketball,” Krzyzewski said.

Days later, in the tournament final, Yugoslavia dumped the Yanks, again mystifying the American players who, Krzyzewski admitted, “do seem, sometimes, to be puzzled by what’s going on out there.”

What was going on was that the Americans were laboring under the assumption that a slam-dunk-and-residual-hang-time-on-the-rim somehow counted for extra points, and were apparently convinced that their fussed over, televised collegiate careers—with the NBA always in the future—automatically made them a higher form of basketball life.

They gave no indication of a belief that the rest of the world could compete with them. “Our shots just weren’t falling,” was Syracuse University star Derrick Coleman’s excuse in the wake of the Yugoslavs’ clinical fast breaks, give-and-go moves, three-point accuracy, back-door cuts and relentless defense.

The Yanks were One-Pass Wonders on offense, mostly devoid of teamwork, with individual shaking-and-baking and ill-advised shot attempts, followed by standing around while the Yugoslavs threw touchdown passes for easy layups.

That U.S. collection of Big Name college all-stars was exposed as basketball neophytes. And any protestations that they had to make do without our nation’s best—Magic Johnson, Michael Jordan, Larry Bird, etc.—didn’t stand up so well to the reality that Yugoslavia also was without its prominent NBA heroes—Vlade Divac and Drazen Petrovic.

Since then it has been demonstrated, over and over, that a player need not be U.S. born-and-raised to excel at James Naismith’s sport—invented in Springfield, Mass., yes, but by a non-American. (Naismith was Canadian.) Fran Fraschilla, who made his name as a top U.S. collegiate coach, recently told the New York Times that the Europeans “took our game, which we imported, and made it more interesting. I fell in love with the way they played the game.”

A man who has been paying attention.

None of this is to say that top Knicks’ pick Porzingis, who is a spindly 7-foot-3, is guaranteed to be an NBA headliner. Or that he even will make the team. But that will have nothing to do with Frederic Weis’ failure to make it in New York 15 years ago or his martyr’s role in Carter’s “Le dunk de la mort”—“the dunk of death.”

Really, Knick fans ought to be a little embarrassed at disparaging young Porzingis before he has a chance to prove himself, merely because his is an unfamiliar name from across the pond. That ESPN didn’t broadcast the coming of Germany’s Dirk Nowitzki; Spain’s Gasol brothers, Pau and Mark; Poland’s Marcin Gortat; Montenegro’s Nikola Mirotic and Nikola Vucevic; Slovenia’s Goran Dragic; France’s Tony Parker and Rudy Gobert; and Greece’s Giannis Antetokounmpo—among many, many others—hardly demonstrates that those fellows don’t belong, prominently, in the NBA.

In 1967, Pete Axthelm’s book, “The City Game,” was based on a claim of New York basketball sophistication, of a “city that knows and loves [basketball] best….the most active, dedicated basketball city of all.”

That was a long time ago. And wouldn’t such a reputation indicate a worldliness that can acknowledge the 101 non-Americans on NBA rosters at the start of last season, 54 of them from Europe? Here’s a Phil Jackson quote that applies to those quick-to-judge Knicks fans: “Always keep an open mind and a compassionate heart.”

Hold the boos for now, at least.


The NBA’s dopey, mystical first draft lottery

To accurately portray the first-ever NBA draft lottery 30 years ago, when the New York Knicks hit the Patrick Ewing jackpot and the rest of the league was tempted to cry, “Fix!”, it is necessary to recall one of Johnny Carson’s dopey Tonight Show skits of that era.


In the recurring routine, Carson would wear a goofy feathered turban and cape, introduced by sidekick Ed McMahon as “the great seer, soothsayer and sage, Carnac the Magnificent.” McMahon would hand Carnac an envelope, “hermetically sealed, kept in a No. 2 mayonnaise jar on Funk and Wagnalls back porch since noon today” so that “no one,” McMahon emphasized, could possibly know the questions contained in the envelopes.

Carnac, in his “divine and borderline mystical way,” would then hold a sealed envelope to his head, intuit an answer, dramatically open the envelope, extract its contents and reveal the question. Always a groan-inducing play on words.

So, here we were in the beautiful Starlight Room of the world-famous Waldorf-Astoria Hotel on Mother’s Day, 1985, not entirely sure if anything about the NBA production should be taken seriously. There were Wells Fargo guards at the door. There were representatives of the NBA’s seven worse teams—those that had failed to make that year’s playoffs—seated as a panel behind a podium, like wax figures seeming to melt under TV klieg lights. (The event was being staged during halftime of a nationally televised CBS playoff game.)

NBA commissioner David Stern was functioning as a sort of game-show host, assuring that the seven one-foot-square envelopes—each containing the logo of one of the eligible teams—had been loaded and sealed a half-hour earlier by a man from the international accounting firm Ernst & Whinney. Privately. In a back room. And were not out of his possession since.

The place was packed with cameras, reporters and members of the Knicks organization. Everyone knew that Ewing, the seven-foot all-American from Georgetown University, was the top prize, and that the team that drew the No. 1 pick would draft him without hesitation, thereby becoming an instant playoff contender.

(Sports Illustrated)

(Sports Illustrated)

A Knicks publicity man, Carl Martin, was walking around holding lucky horseshoes said to be from the feet of a pacing champion named On the Road Again. And Stern began to pull envelopes, one at a time, from a large clear tumbler, determining the draft order in reverse, from seventh to first.

The first drawn was Golden State, for the No. 7 pick. That team’s general manager, Al Attles, shook his head sadly as Atlanta GM Stan Kasten, seated next to him, patted Attles’ arm in sympathy. Then Sacramento, No. 6. Atlanta, No. 5. Seattle, No. 4….

Whistling and clapping began to intensify in the room. Los Angeles Clippers, No. 3…

The sense was that Stern, any minute, would don a turban and cape, press one of the envelopes to his head and give some variation of a Carnac gag: “The answer is, ‘A palm reader, a psychic and Patrick Ewing.’”

Then Stern surely would rip open the envelope, blow noisily into the thing, fish out the answer and broadcast, “Name two mediums and an extra-large.”

Which, in a way, is what happened. It was like a parody. A lampoon.

When Stern opened the next-to-last envelope and announced that the No. 2 draft choice went to Indiana, and that left No. 1—and Ewing—for the Knicks, the room immediately was up for grabs. Martin, the Knicks P.R. fellow, was waving the horseshoes and shouting, “It worked! It worked!” Knicks general manager Dave DeBusschere, after clenching his fists, hammering the table and leaping up, began taking deep breaths.

Any second, it looked as if DeBusschere would weep tears of joy, like some Miss America winner, while somebody put a crown on his head and a bouquet of flowers in his hands.

Then, in what appeared a divine and borderline mystical way, DeBusschere whipped out a white Knicks jersey with the number “33” on the back, below the name “Ewing.” He had had the shirt made earlier in the week but “kept it really quiet,” he said. “I figured, ‘What’s it going to cost, even if we do have to throw it away?”

(Getty Images)

(Getty Images)

In the chaos, I was compelled to ask Herb Simon, who co-owned the runner-up Indiana Pacers with his brother Mel, what he thought about the process.

“I told Mel, ‘Keep an eye on the drum to make sure it’s on the up-and-up,’” Simon said, then called over the Mel, a few feet away, “Mel, was it on the up-and-up?”

Mel Simon called back, “I think Stern had a magnet on his ring.”

It was all about the punch line that day. Not that everyone laughed.