- Brian Windhorst, ESPN.com
- 0 Shares
There aren't many things in professional sports that live up to the hype. The 2003 NBA draft was one of them.
Excitement was building for over a year -- first among league executives and then among fans -- about the new blood on its way. And boy, did the league need it.
The NBA was in a recession. With Michael Jordan retired, for good this time, and a scarcity of marketable young stars, fan interest had waned. Outside of the Los Angeles Lakers and their stars, Kobe Bryant and Shaquille O'Neal, the league didn't have many national draws.
The 2003 NBA Finals between the San Antonio Spurs and New Jersey Nets were the lowest rated in history, losing more than 50 percent of the audience from just five years earlier when Jordan won his last title with the Bulls.
There was a belief, or at least a hope, that a new generation of stars could turn things around, and the 2003 class had several promising candidates.
LeBron James was the first high school basketball player whose stardom had already reached to national level thanks to several magazine covers and games broadcast on ESPN before he'd even turned 18 years old. Carmelo Anthony catapulted into the spotlight by leading Syracuse to the national title as just a freshman. A tough Chicago kid named Dwyane Wade also made a name for himself in the same NCAA tournament, leading Marquette to an improbable Final Four run and completing one of the greatest performances in tournament history with a triple-double against Kentucky.
It wasn't just domestic players, either. With Dirk Nowitzki becoming a superstar and Yao Ming a superstar in the making, teams began jetting off across the world to try to find the next international star, and a 17-year-old with bleach-blond hair named Darko Milicic became an obsession for many who did.
"When you've been around long enough you get to where you know it when you see a potential franchise player," Miami Heat president Pat Riley said. "We all knew there were several special players in that draft. You could feel it. And we all wanted them."
With so much talent to be had, draft positioning became a major storyline of the 2002-03 regular season, with fans and media alike keeping a close eye on the bottom of the league standings. With so much interest, the usually mundane draft lottery -- in which the league reveals the order of the teams with the first 13 picks -- became a major TV event. And on the night of the draft itself, several teams made decisions that charted a course for the league over the next decade.
It's now been 10 years since those events, and the people involved all have stories to tell. Some of the memories are fond. Some are disastrous.
May 22, 2003, the day of the draft lottery, was a pivotal one in NBA history, but the action began the night before.
Just after midnight on that Thursday morning, James arrived at a hotel in downtown Akron, Ohio, to sign paperwork that instantly made him one of the richest basketball players in history. He was 18 years old and two weeks shy of graduating high school.
After a months-long recruitment, private jets picking him up after school, parties and visits to corporate headquarters, James had decided on a shoe company. Officials from Reebok were in the hotel and expected to make a deal with the young star. But even though Reebok offered more guaranteed money, James chose an offer from Nike at the last moment.
It was for seven years and would eventually earn him in excess of $100 million, but there was a $10 million bonus as soon as James signed the offer sheet in the wee hours that morning. The check arrived a few days later via FedEx.
All before James had played an NBA game, been drafted or even knew which team was going to win the right to take him with the No. 1 overall pick that night. Which was the point of doing it on lottery day.
LeBron James (forward, St. Vincent-St. Mary's, Ohio): I was able to go into the lottery with an open mind when I got the Nike deal done. It was something that took a while to come together but it was set up so it didn't matter where I played. That was important to me.
Aaron Goodwin (James' agent, 2003-05): The shoe companies were concerned about what market he was going to be in; they preferred to wait until after the lottery. I wanted it to be about him, he was in maximum position in a bidding war. We took out the "what-ifs." Getting that done was the culmination of an intense few days.
Maverick Carter (James' friend and business partner): That was a big event. Reebok was offering more money but LeBron picked Nike. We were so focused on the things we had to do, like his first commercial or what his first shoe would look like, than we were about the money.
Goodwin: A few days before that LeBron did a deal with Upper Deck and got a million-dollar check so he was already rolling in dough.
Carter: A hundred million is a lot of money but it wasn't like he could go into a room with it and swim in it like Scrooge McDuck. He just couldn't wait to do the work.
Goodwin: The suite I was in at the hotel had a large Jacuzzi and after all the paperwork was done I wanted to relax so I got in. I was so tired I fell asleep in the damn tub.
The lottery was also on the night of Game 3 of the Eastern Conference finals between the New Jersey Nets and the Detroit Pistons. The Pistons went to John Jay College in Manhattan, N.Y., a popular spot for visiting NBA teams, for their morning shootaround.
Marc Cornstein (Darko Milicic's agent): I remember it so well. It was the day of the lottery and we used the gym at John Jay as our draft training gym. The Pistons were there, too. It wasn't set up as a workout for the Pistons. It was a regular day where Darko was working out and our other guys who were in the draft were on the road so he was in the gym by himself. He was just out there with a trainer. It was the same time we did it every day. It had nothing to do with the Pistons. It was a pure coincidence.
Chad Ford (draft analyst, ESPN): Darko had just arrived in New York a few days before that. There's just a curtain that was separating the two gyms and I walked over to (Pistons president) Joe Dumars and asked if he knew who was working out next door and he said he didn't. I told him Darko was over there. He asked Cornstein if he could come over. It was an impromptu workout.
Chris McCosky (Pistons beat writer, Detroit News): I don't think it was a coincidence. I remember they were talking about it the day before.
Cornstein: A number of guys filtered over to the other gym. Every shot, every move, he just looked phenomenal. Everyone from the Pistons was there. Joe Dumars, [coach] Rick [Carlisle]. Top to bottom, they were all there.
Ford: Darko was just phenomenal. It couldn't have been more perfect in a certain way. At some point the coaches got involved and asked to see particular things. And Darko couldn't miss and was aggressive and rose to the moment with the players watching. I was sitting next to (Dumars). He's not expressive, he plays everything close to the vest. But Darko was just so impressive. It was literally the best workout I've ever seen. I've seen hundreds and it was the best. When you have a 7-1 kid, who is 17 years old, doing the things he was doing, it was a "wow" moment, especially for a team that needed a big man. There was just a buzz afterward.
Tony Ronzone (Pistons executive, 2001-10): Our guys were like, "Oh my God, look at this guy." One dribble from the foul line, dunk. Lefty hook. Quick feet. He had great lateral quickness for a big. He had spin moves. It was unbelievable. He was a freak athlete at 17. He runs like a deer. He jumps. You were saying "wow." You could check off everything on the list.
Jon Barry (Pistons guard, 2001-03): I remember Joe Dumars saying we're working him out. I think half a dozen of us went over to watch. Dumars, he was telling me this guy is going to be the deal. Said "he's better than Dirk. He's going to be an absolute stud." So I said, I'm going to go check him out.
Cornstein: The Pistons walked away impressed but depressed. They thought when everyone else eventually saw him there would be no way they'd be able to draft Darko.
For the first time, the lottery was broadcast in prime time and was a standalone half-hour show. ABC had just taken over the NBA rights from NBC, which had always shown the lottery during halftime of a weekend playoff game. With so much attention on this draft class, ABC extended the coverage and broadcast it from what was then the NBA Entertainment Studios in Secaucus, N.J., just a few miles away from the Meadowlands Arena, where Game 3 of the Eastern Conference finals would happen.
Mike Tirico (host of lottery show, ABC): This was a big deal draft because it was LeBron and Carmelo and America knew who these guys were. We were in prime time and it was our first year of the deal. All those trains were coming into the station at the same time. Management decided to make it a big event. Looking back, that was a great decision. One of the things I really remember was this reception before the show. It was filled with all anxious and uncomfortable people. It was a unique scene to be a part of. It was quite intimate. I remember thinking most people in there are going to walk out unhappy.
Chris Tomasson (Nuggets beat writer, Rocky Mountain News): (Cavaliers owner) Gordon Gund seemed a bit apprehensive. He ate dinner with some media members, which never happened in the five seasons I covered the Cavs at the Akron Beacon Journal. It was amazing he did it in that pivotal of a moment because he'd always kept his distance. I think he was looking for anyone he knew to ease the tension.
Warren Thaler (Cavaliers board of directors): We were in the hallway and it was time for me to go into the room where they were doing the lottery drawing. I was about to part ways with Gordon and I could just tell he was nervous. I wanted to try to relax him. So I said, "Gordon, you know, this isn't like finding a cure for blindness."1
Gund: I looked at Warren and told him, "It's pretty damn close."2
Tirico: The lottery is a hard show because it's specifically scripted and we get into all these explanations. It was so involved we had to have a full rehearsal in the studio. In the rehearsal I remember the Nuggets won the lottery. It was a unique time for us. We had live shots from the hotel where LeBron was in Akron, Carmelo was at his house in Baltimore and Darko was at his agent's house in New York.
James: There had been a lot of speculation that I was going to be the No. 1 pick so I knew whoever won the lottery, that's where I was going. So of course I was nervous. We had rented out this suite at the Radisson Hotel in downtown Akron and all my friends and family were there. I just remember sitting alone with everyone behind me. And with each pick I could hear this buzzing behind me.
Goodwin: LeBron and everyone were nervous. There were a lot of people there but you could tell they were enjoying it.
Carmelo Anthony (forward, Syracuse): I was just happy that I was going to be in the league. I was excited that this was just the next step. It was a good time.
Kiki Vandeweghe (Nuggets general manager, 2001-06): I remember thinking about loving both LeBron and Melo and I really thought Melo was going second at that point. So you're really hoping to get in those first two picks.
No team was in a more awkward position on lottery night than the Memphis Grizzlies. After going 28-54 in the 2002-03 season, Memphis had the sixth-best chance (6.4 percent) to get the top overall pick. But that's all the Grizzlies could hope for.
In 1997, then-Vancouver Grizzlies general manager Stu Jackson traded a future first-round pick to the Pistons for Otis Thorpe. The pick had various protections on it, but by 2003, the only way the Grizzlies would keep their pick was if it was No. 1 overall.
The Pistons made the move, at least in part, because Thorpe clashed with then-coach Doug Collins at the time. Thorpe, who was 35 at the time of the trade, played 47 mostly unhappy games with the Grizzlies before being traded to the Sacramento Kings for Bobby Hurley just before the trade deadline in 1998.
Memphis also owned the Houston Rockets' No. 13 pick from the 1999 Steve Francis trade. But that pick only had a 0.5 percent chance of moving up to No. 1. It did not. Memphis ended up taking Marcus Banks with that pick and trading him on draft night to Boston.
Jerry West (Memphis Grizzlies general manager, 2002-07): I hate the lottery; I think it's a terrible thing. And I say that knowing it has worked reasonably well. You have to rely on hope.
Ford: I'm surprised Jerry wanted to be there. I think Memphis had a 6 percent chance of getting the top pick; anything else and it would immediately lose the pick to Detroit. Any other result than getting No. 1 would've made it a disappointment. Maybe it would've been better if Stu Jackson (by then a vice president with the league office) had to be there. That trade was horrible.
Shane Battier (Grizzlies forward, 2001-06): We knew the whole year that we weren't going to get an impact player in the draft because of Otis Thorpe. It became a running joke. I don't think Stu Jackson could've come to a Grizzlies game that year because the fans of Memphis knew it, everybody knew it.
West: For a trade that, when you look back in history, was made for whatever reason, it was hard to imagine that a trade like that would've been made and not protect a team that hadn't proven its worth yet. I'm not going to bad mouth anybody but that was an ill-advised decision.
Tirico: The thing about the lottery is it is both tense and very boring. Teams with very little chance of moving up are called off. But things changed when (NBA Deputy Commissioner) Russ Granik opened the envelope for the sixth pick that was supposed to be the Grizzlies. It wasn't, it was the Clippers logo and we knew we'd just had something dramatic happen. The Grizzlies had moved up.
Riley: I wasn't even watching, I was sitting in my office with my eyes closed just listening to the TV and hoping to move up. We were supposed to be fourth. But then Memphis moved up past us. At that point, I was rooting for Jerry to get LeBron. That was all he had, everyone knew about that trade.
James: My mind was moving fast. I was thinking about a lot of different possibilities. I was thinking about Chicago winning it because I'd been a Bulls fan when I was younger. I knew New York was in there. Not everyone was rooting for Cleveland (40 miles from James' hometown), people had different picks. Some people wanted me to go to Miami for obvious reasons. I never thought once about Memphis.
When Granik finished opening the first 10 envelopes, only one team had moved up: the Grizzlies. They were in the top three along with the Nuggets and Cavs. The Toronto Raptors, who had a 15 percent chance of winning, were knocked to No. 4. ABC went to commercial as the studio and fans of all three teams tensed.
West: You're sitting there scared to death that we're not going to have our pick and you're begging, "Please let us have this pick." We all knew what was at stake for us. Then you see that you've moved up and your heart goes into your throat a little.
Gund: Jerry had always been lucky so I somehow felt good about our chance. I told him, "Here we go."
James: When it went to commercial and we knew the top three were Denver, Memphis and Cleveland, I just had a feeling that I'm going to stay home. I could hear the chatter starting in the room. They were getting excited.
Goodwin: By then we all wanted Cleveland, it was going to be a fairy tale.
Vandeweghe: I was nervous. I was telling myself, whatever happens now it's OK because we're going to get someone we really like. But you're always wanting that first pick.
Battier: I was like, holy s---, we might get this kid.
Granik opened the envelope for the third pick, revealing the Nuggets' logo. Then he cracked the one with a large No. 2 on it and pulled out the Grizzlies' logo. "That means ..." Granik said. Few involved even saw him pull the Cavaliers' logo from the envelope.
James: When the envelope opened and said (Memphis) I don't even remember them opening the one that said Cleveland. Everyone just started yelling and coming over to me and jumping on me. From then on that night it was a blur. I didn't even see them pull out the jersey with my name on it, I didn't see that until later.
West: It was devastating to the franchise to not have that pick. We were able to build a respectable team after that but just imagine having a player like Mr. James playing for your team. It was unbelievably disappointing. For some of us, we were filled with anger because we were thinking, "How could we not have this draft pick protected?" With all the good things that have been done in Memphis and where they are today, that franchise could've come so much farther. It hurts to think about. It was a sad day.
Battier: I still remember the look on Jerry's face.
Ford: It was cruel in a certain way to the Grizzlies. Jerry couldn't constrain his facial expression. It made for great TV but it was very rough on him.
The following season, West won Executive of the Year after the Grizzlies made the playoffs for the first time in franchise history.
Anthony: At that point I was pretty sure I was going to Detroit. I thought I was going to definitely be that No. 2 pick if Cleveland was taking Bron as it looked like.
Dumars: When they drew the Nuggets card at No. 3 my heart stopped for the 60 seconds it took Russ Granik to reveal who was No. 2. It didn't start until I heard Memphis' name at No. 2. 3
Cornstein: The stars had aligned. It was surreal. Eight hours earlier the Pistons were dreaming of getting Darko and then they had the No. 2 pick. By the end of the night I'd heard from the Pistons and were pretty sure they were going to take him with that pick.
Ronzone: We were like, "Can you believe this guy just fell into our lap?"
James: The only thing I really remember from after the lottery that night was seeing Austin Carr crying on television. That got to me; that got me excited.
Austin Carr (No. 1 overall pick in 1970, Cavs broadcaster): We held a lottery party at this restaurant and when that envelope opened and they pulled (Memphis) the place just exploded. I was overcome with emotion and I couldn't hold back. I had no idea the cameras were on me. I just knew he was a great player and would do great things and I wasn't wrong.
Goodwin: Within a half hour I heard from Jim Paxson that they'd be taking LeBron and they'd be in touch soon.
Jim Paxson (Cavs general manager, 1999-2005): Right after we won I got in the car and drove to a lottery party the team was having where Austin was crying in front of the cameras. Then my phone rang and it was from a 609 area code. That was (Gund's) area code and I thought he was calling me back because we'd only briefly talked. I answer and it's Wes Wesley. He basically said congratulations on winning the lottery and Larry Brown would really like to coach LeBron. We didn't have a coach at the time but weren't thinking at all about Larry; he was the coach of the 76ers, but I knew Wes was very close to him. We hung up but I never heard from Wes or Larry about it again.
Within 10 days, Brown had resigned as coach of the 76ers and was hired to replace Carlisle as coach of the Pistons. Brown led the Pistons to a title the next season.
Cornstein: After the lottery, we all went out to dinner at Mr. Chow's. And then Mariah Carey sat down at the next table. I mean, this day was surreal, you couldn't make this stuff up.
Ford: Darko had never had Chinese food before. He was upset because he wanted bread. They brought him out some Mu Shu pancakes. He was like, "What the heck is this?" That's when you realized how young he was and how new this all was to him. He was discombobulated. It was funny at the time but it was one of those little signs of how hard the transition was going to be for him.
Tirico: During halftime of the Nets-Pistons game we did a three-way interview with LeBron and Carmelo. What struck me then and even now was how composed LeBron was. I couldn't have done that when I was 18. He came right out of high school and was about to become a global mega star in his backyard.
Anthony: LeBron and I were talking during the lottery about what was going on. I kind of knew Cleveland was going to get the No. 1 pick. I think they rigged it. But no, I'm kidding, don't quote me on that. 4
1 - Gund, who has Retinitis Pigmentosa and went blind as a young man, has spent his life funding research for a cure.
2 - The interviews with Gund and Thaler took place in 2006.
3 - Dumars said this in an interview with ESPN.com on the day of the lottery.
4 - Anthony said this in a live interview on ABC the night of the lottery.
14hEthan Sherwood Strauss
13hArash Markazi and Ben Alamar
2dAlok Pattani, ESPN Stats & Information
2dDan Le Batard