Was the Lottery Rigged?

When this year's lottery results were announced, the first thing I wrote in my notes was "you wouldn't rig it that way."

Why? Because the NBA is a business, and if they were going to rig their league, you'd think they'd rig it in a way that would make them more money.

And keeping the best players from one of the world's most popular teams, the Boston Celtics, would be a bad move. Sending those players away from the populous, wealthy, and timezone-advantaged Eastern seaboard would make little sense, unless you were going to send them to a major center like Los Angeles.

But sending them to two of the NBA's most remote cities would be bizarre. Portland is one of the NBA's smaller cities - it doesn't even have a hotel big enough to be the headquarters of All-Star weekend. Seattle is not only not a hotbed of basketball, but it's a city whose populace threatens the NBA's very business model by rejecting public funding of stadiums.

Also, big lottery winners have been Cleveland, Milwaukee, San Antonio and the like. Surely New York, Los Angeles, and Chicago would be on that list if someone was pulling the strings, right?

(And, if the NBA was into rigging things, would ratings-killer San Antonio be the dominant team of the era, and the beneficiary of the most controversial suspensions in NBA history?)

As I have learned by checking my email, no matter what happens in the NBA, somebody thinks it's rigged. Who knows what the NBA has done to inspire such incredible distrust. (The way fouls were called for Dwyane Wade in last year's playoffs, I think, and the way Mark Cuban reacted, have a lot to do with it.)

The story of this year's conspiracy theorists is that the league may have wanted to punish teams that "tanked." Sports Illustrated's Ian Thomsen writes that among those hollering "conspiracy" after this latest lottery are some actual NBA team bigwigs on the league's competition committee, who met in Orlando recently.

There are suspicions among some league executives and coaches that Stern rigs the results of the lottery -- in this case to punish the three worst teams (Memphis, Boston and Milwaukee, who came out of the lottery Nos. 4, 5 and 6 in the draft) for contributing to the perception of late-season tanking. To deal with the conspiracy theories, the league spelled out during the committee meeting how the lottery machine works and how it would be practically impossible to fix the outcome. (I've been in the closed room during the lottery, and the NBA mechanism is a lot like the Powerball or other lottery machines that you see on television.)

A comment on Michael McCann's post on this topic on the Sports Law Blog points out a 1999 article about a 1980 Pennsylvania Lottery that was rigged. According to a 1999 Jason Togyer article on Tube City Online, you can manipulate certain balls to be too heavy to get picked up by the air-driven mechanism:

After experimenting, Bock found that a few grams of white latex paint, injected into the balls with a hypodermic needle, made them too heavy to be selected by the air-powered lottery machines.

Then --- using decals from a stationery store --- Bock made a duplicate set of lottery balls. Luman was asked to swap the phony ones for the real ones.

After several test runs, the conspirators weighted all of the balls except the numbers "4" and "6."

In another instance, a Pennsylvania lottery ball was found to have been cracked, which evidently would reduce that ball's chance of coming up a winner.

What can the NBA do to combat these kinds of stories every year? Ramp up the transparency. Two ideas:

  • Redesign the lottery so that the real drawing happens live on international TV. Seeing grim men in suits arrive in the TV studio with the envelopes all ordered by some secretive behind-the-scenes process does not help perceptions.

  • Right now, as I understand it, it's known in advance which number combinations on the lottery balls correspond to which team. So, in wild theory, someone might have had some time to play with those ping pong balls to make them say 5-9-14-13 -- a combination that meant Portland would win. How about this: the ping pong balls can be dumped into the machine and start whirring. Then the team officials, gathered to witness, can gather around a big ol' bucket of number combinations (branded onto slab of genuine NBA ball leather, or something). They can just grab away until they have the number of combinations their team is entitled to and waddle back to their seats. When the numbers are called, it'll be like bingo, with everyone searching through their numbers to see if they have the right one.

  • Those other lottery malfunctions noted were confirmed, in whole or in part, by watching videotape of the balls circulating in the lottery machine. The NBA should make that video of their machine available to the public online.