|Monday, April 22
Updated: May 2, 5:17 PM ET
Free Yao Ming! ... but not to be a Grizzly
By Ray Ratto
Special to ESPN.com
The Shanghai Sharks finally have decided to free Yao Ming for the upcoming NBA draft, and with remarkably few preconditions.
But there was one codicil from Sharks general manager Li Yaomin that may throw the draft into a complete and utter tizzy.
"We want him to go a team that has a chance to play in the playoffs in the NBA in two or three seasons," Li said in an interview with "anybody but Peter Vecsey." This essentially eliminates the teams most likely to pick high in the lottery -- the Chicago Bulls, Cleveland Cavaliers, Denver Nuggets, Golden State Warriors, Los Angeles Clippers, Memphis Grizzlies and Washington Jordans.
Ahh, but that may be the NBA's master plan. The people who invented the draft lottery and then perfected it also routinely have been suspected of rigging it when the needs serve them. The story of the frozen Patrick Ewing envelope has made the rounds almost from the day he was drafted 17 years ago, and while no proof has ever been found, the story persists, and now with the Knicks face down in a puddle again, the story actually has been reinflated.
Of course, this presumes that the Yao-meister really is as good as advertised. Ewing was the absolute no-brainer of the '85 draft, and second place was no place at all. You could tell that when Al Attles, then the general manager of the Golden State Warriors, as now the team with the worst record, didn't get the first pick and was caught on television looking like he'd been force-fed the contents of a litter box.
But let's play along anyway. The draft, after all, is meant to be a shell game for us anyway. As we have just relearned from the novocaine drip that was the NFL draft, the allocation of athletic futures is a testimonial to our pathological need to be gulled by people who think they can anticipate events before they happen.
After all, how many championships did the Knicks win with Ewing?
Anyway, Yao is to be drafted, if previous suggestions about big markets and large Chinese populations are to be honored, by teams in Los Angeles, San Francisco/Oakland, Seattle, Chicago or New York. On the other hand, the possibility of near-term playoff appearances seem to eliminate the Bulls, Clippers or Warriors.
That leaves -- and don't you just love this? -- the Knicks, Lakers and SuperSonics. Ain't the lotto grand?
Of course, we wouldn't be bent over in spasms of laughter if the NBA did its lottery business in public. You know, where you see the balls being pulled out of the gigantic drum, while some big-haired former news anchor announces the results and a properly pneumatic young woman in an evening gown stands around shifting her weight from one foot to the other.
But we don't get to see the results. They are presented to us much as many Third World presidential elections, with a "trust us" and a wink.
Of course, this could put Yao Ming in Cleveland, Memphis or Golden State. This wouldn't exactly spike the television ratings that drive David Stern's profile as the world's leading sports brainiac.
It would, on the other hand, freshen his rep as a honest broker whose interests involve the health of the entire league and not just the teams whose games he can limo to. Fortunately for all involved, openness isn't a consideration.
Tough call, that, especially now that there's an exciting new bureaucracy involved. It can be reasonably assumed that the Shanghai Sharks didn't go to all this trouble to watch their guy end up with the Atlanta Hawks. In fairness, Jason Williams' parents don't want to see their son end up with the Atlanta Hawks, either, but they don't carry the same throw-weight as the Chinese sports establishment.
See how seductive this draft thing can be? See how it doesn't work if you get to see all the bells and whistles and envelope-stuffing in the back room? After all, you know what they say about eating sausages after you've seen them made.
So Yao Ming probably ends up with a team that isn't exactly long-suffering, or in dire need. Unless, of course, Yao Ming isn't Patrick Ewing, in which case it won't matter anyway. The possibilities are endless.
And on the flip side, the truth is a whole different deal entirely.
Ray Ratto of the San Francisco Chronicle is a regular contributor to ESPN.com.