Commentary

The chosen ones: Part 2

An oral history of the legendary 2003 NBA Draft, one decade later

Originally Published: June 23, 2013
By Brian Windhorst | ESPN.com

LeBron James Jennifer Pottheiser/Getty ImagesDressed in white from the neck down, an 18-year-old LeBron James began his journey in the NBA.

DRAFT DAY

The 2003 NBA draft took place on June 26 at The Theater at Madison Square Garden in New York. Many who work in the league called it one of the deepest drafts in history. It has ended up producing nine All-Stars, a handful of franchise players and two Finals MVPs, and seven years later, it spawned the greatest free-agent class ever.

Paxson: I thought there was a chance a few teams would call us with great offers for the No. 1 pick. There was probably no way we'd have traded but I expected teams to try. I think I might've tried. But we never got one real call about it. We brought LeBron and his mother to a [WNBA Cleveland Rockers] game and had dinner with him for a face-to-face sit-down so everyone could get to know each other. We had a sham of a workout for him, but it was mainly for the media.

James: I knew I was staying home. It was a calm day for me until I had to go up and meet [NBA commissioner] David Stern. I had dreamed about that moment, walking across the stage and putting on the hat. So I got a little anxious when I got up there.

Goodwin: It was a special moment for LeBron and [his mother] Gloria. I really enjoyed their emotion even though they already knew he was getting picked. That's a once-in-a-lifetime moment there. The next year, when I represented Dwight Howard, I knew for a couple days the Orlando Magic were taking him No. 1, but I didn't tell him until right before the pick because I think that's such a wonderful moment.

James wore an all-white suit that immediately became one of the more memorable in draft fashion history. Later, a company put it on a bobblehead.

James: That was a disgusting suit. It was too big, and I looked like Casper the Friendly Ghost, all that white. I know it goes down as one of the memorable draft suits with Karl Malone and his tie and Jalen Rose and Samaki Walker with his hat. But I can't bear to look back at it.

There was no drama with the first pick, but the rest of the draft lacked such certainty.

Ford: About a week after that Darko workout in New York, the Pistons brought him to Detroit and he worked out again. It wasn't as good as the first one but he was impressive and they pretty much committed to him then. Will Robinson was this legendary scout for the Pistons. He had discovered Grant Hill, Joe Dumars and many, many others. Will compared him to a young Wilt Chamberlain. I wrote his quote but people always seem to attribute it to me.

Will Robinson (Pistons scout, 1976-2003): [Darko] is going to own the game. Own the game. We're going to have to build a new arena. The only thing that could destroy a kid like that is a woman. 5

Ford: Turns out Darko's two greatest moments were those workouts for Detroit. And I could never watch another workout again without a high degree of cynicism.

Cornstein: We canceled all other workouts. He was going to Detroit. It looked like a great situation on paper. There was a void there. It really made sense. At the time, we didn't think the Larry Brown hire would affect Darko at all. We were wrong.

[+] EnlargeDarko Milicic
Jesse D. Garrabrant/NBAE/Getty ImagesThe Pistons opted for Darko Milicic over Carmelo Anthony at No. 2.

Vandeweghe: [Cornstein] said Darko's not going to work out for us because he's going to be gone after the Detroit pick. I was surprised at that point. I was a little skeptical, let's put it that way. In that position, you have to be because everyone is trying to play games. I flew to New York so I could watch Darko work out. I'd seen him play in Europe. One game he didn't play at all, and another game he only played a few minutes. Hard to get a great idea.

Ronzone: Teams kept calling us about the No. 2 pick, offering us all kinds of packages. We had a couple of conversations about Carmelo. Chris Bosh had a great workout with us, and we really liked him. But we were focused on Darko.

McCosky: Right up to the draft, right up to the Pistons going on the clock, the Nuggets wanted to trade up to get the No. 2. Kiki might've wanted Darko. The Pistons just weren't that high on Carmelo. They had Tayshaun Prince and they needed a big guy. If they had traded back and Darko was gone, I think they would've taken Chris Bosh at No. 3 and not even Carmelo there.

Tomasson: Kiki never publicly gave us his personal order but several Nuggets front-office members I talked to before the lottery said they had Darko ranked ahead of Melo. They worked out some other guys but I think they were pretty locked in on Melo after the lottery. Lottery night it was reported the Pistons were probably going to take Darko No. 2.

Vandeweghe: I called about trading for the No. 2 pick; teams behind us called about trading for our pick. I wasn't really sure what Detroit was doing and wanted to investigate all options.

Anthony: I was flat-out told by somebody that I was going to be the No. 2 pick and go to Detroit. But something happened. To this day, I don't know what it was.

Ford: It was just a moment when the unknown had eclipsed the known. Many of the younger GMs had this international fever. There was a mania to find the next Dirk. There was a realization by these NBA guys that these Euro players could play. As scouts were bemoaning the state of basketball in the U.S. because of AAU, here are these Euros who were so skilled and had been drilled in all the arts. Scouts were flocking over to Europe. Jerry West was the one voice who was consistently calling me and asking me why Darko was rated so high. I thought he was being xenophobic. He was old school.

West: We did our research. There's no way we would've taken Darko at No. 2.

The Pistons, of course, took Milicic in what became one of the biggest mistakes in draft history. He played less than three seasons with the Pistons, averaging fewer than two points and two rebounds in 96 games. He went on to an unremarkable career with five other teams, never averaging more than seven points and six rebounds over the course of an entire season.

Dumars: Absolutely, it was a mistake. I could give a dissertation on [background research] now. After I drafted Darko, from that point on, the amount of background we do on every single player that you see us draft is ridiculous. We do as much or more background than any other team in the NBA because of that. The background on Darko was about 20 percent of what we do now. I look back on it now and realize you didn't know half of the stuff you needed to know. With Darko, we may have had two sources of information. That was it. We may have talked to a couple of guys over in Europe. That was it. 6

Darko Milicic (center, Hemofarm Vrsac, Serbia): They did waste a pick, you know. Why did they take me? Who knows if I really had a chance to play like these players that play like Dwyane Wade or Carmelo, those guys are incredible players. So for me, being a second pick, I don't get why they didn't play me at all. Why did they take me? You should take someone that they really think was going play right away because just taking someone to sit on the bench, you waste a pick and you waste the guy's time. So I just didn't get it. I guess they thought they were going be champions forever. I don't know. 7

Cornstein: We don't live in a vacuum. We know what has happened since. You have to remember, he was as impressive-looking physically and what he could do in a workout as anyone I've ever seen. I'm sure now if you asked everyone in the lottery that year, all 13 would tell you they'd have taken Melo second. Not only is that not true, more would've take Darko at No. 2 than not. I know that for a fact. He was 17, had an incredible body for his age. He was very mature for his age, which I know may sound odd now that you look back. Look, you can have lightning in a bottle.

Taking Anthony third seemed like a no-brainer, but the Nuggets had to think it through. Anthony was listed at 195 pounds on the official Syracuse roster. When he weighed in at pre-draft camp in May, he was 233 pounds. When he went to visit Denver, he didn't do a full workout and mostly just shot around. He was a little winded during the workout, which he attributed to the altitude.

Vandewedge: We talked about him keeping himself in the best shape. I had a conversation with him saying it was so much easier if you just keep yourself in playing shape instead of working into it during training camp. But we all liked Melo, we knew it was a franchise-caliber player. We had been rebuilding and targeting that pick for two years, and it really worked out for us.

Dwyane Wade (guard, Marquette): Denver called and brought me in for a workout. When I got there, I was like, "Why am I here?" I didn't think they were going to take me at No. 3. But they said they weren't sure who would be there at No. 3 and they were still making their decision. I'm not sure what that was about.

Anthony: That'd be even better, going to Detroit. That's a playoff team. When I first heard [I might go to the Nuggets], I was like, "I don't want to go to Denver." But then I sat down with my agent and he told me how much money [under the salary cap] they're going to have. They have a chance to be good. 8

The Nuggets signed Andre Miller and Earl Boykins that offseason using some of their cap space. They used the rest of it in 2004, when they signed Kenyon Martin. With the addition of Anthony, Denver went 43-39 in 2003-04, its first winning season since 1993-94, and made the playoffs for the first time since 1995.

Chris Bosh (forward/center, Georgia Tech): The first workout I had was right after the pre-draft camp in Chicago, we went right to the Bulls' facility and there was about seven of the top big guys in the draft there. I had the jitters. I was like, "Oh, no, I'm not ready for this." I did terribly and I wanted to go back to college after that."

Henry Thomas (agent for Bosh and Wade): I was very confident Chris would go high. His draft status was established very early on.

Ford: No one doubted Bosh would go in the top five. He had a terrific workout in Toronto and Detroit, and that cemented it.

Bosh: I don't remember doing that well in Toronto. I was going up against Nick Collison a few times, and sometimes I played better than him and sometimes he played better than me. But then I went to Miami, and they had the No. 5 pick. When it was over, they said, "We like you but we hear you're going to be gone by our pick." That was first time I realized I probably was going to go in the top four.

Thomas: I've known [then-Raptors general manager] Glen Grunwald for some time. He's from the Chicago area and I'm from Chicago, and in a prior life, we used to play against each other in the lawyers league. I knew they were going to take Chris.

Bosh: I couldn't breathe. I was sitting there with my family. My brother cracked a joke to get me to relax, and I was like, nothing is funny right now. I just started sweating. It was the longest three minutes of my life to that point. It was a crazy time.

The Raptors took Bosh with the fourth pick. He went on to have five All-Star appearances in seven years with the team and led the Raptors to their only division title in the 2006-07 season.

Carmelo Anthony, Dwyane Wade and Chris BoshM. David Leeds/Getty ImagesCarmelo Anthony (third), Dwyane Wade (fifth) and Chris Bosh (fourth) rounded out the top five.

Wade: I knew who the top four picks were going to be. I think most people did. Except for Chris; he never believed he was going until they took him. I always felt the draft would really start at No. 5. That's what I felt that night.

Ford: We had Wade ranked No. 13 coming out of the NCAA tournament, which is kind of embarrassing when you look back on it. Jerry West loved Dwyane Wade. West really thought he could get Wade with his 13th pick at one point. West had been talking him up. If Jerry loved Wade, then you have to give the guy a second look. The concern about Wade is that he was an undersized shooting guard who was trying to sell himself as a point guard.

Riley: I've always wanted to coach veterans. I've always preferred to coach 25- or 26-year-olds who had some experience. I also never believed that our team was ever going to be bad enough to think we'd get a high pick. But that year we ended up with No. 5, and I was looking at point guards and centers; that's what we needed. I had guys like Kirk Hinrich, T.J. Ford and Chris Kaman high on our list, and I was interested in them. Dwyane was on there, but at the start of the process, I wasn't sure.

Thomas: Even though he had a great year at Marquette, people had a lot of questions about Dwyane. He was a little undersized to be a shooting guard and didn't have a great shot. He wasn't a classic point guard. We ended up sending him to about 11 or 12 workouts with teams because he had to prove himself.

Tim Grover (NBA personal trainer): Henry Thomas called me and told me to get Dwyane ready for team workouts. When I saw him, I said, "Is this the same kid from the NCAA tournament?" I just didn't see it. I don't know if he was nervous or what it was in the drills. But when we started to compete, it was like a different person. He went on a tear. I was like, OK, I see what they're saying. He has a switch that very few people have.

Ford: When you saw his wingspan, athletic ability you were interested. Then there was word that he was killing everyone in the gym. He was outplaying NBA guys like Corey Maggette, Quentin Richardson and other younger NBA players. You saw it might work out for this guy.

Wade: I was a tweener but I was a playmaker. When I was in meetings and teams asked, I told them I could handle the ball and make plays. I told teams I was a basketball player.

Randy Pfund (Heat general manager, 1995-2008): We came to Chicago to work out Chris Kaman and we were standing around waiting for him to come out for the workout. And Dwyane was working out at the other end of the gym with Tim Grover. And Pat turned and said, "Who's that? Who's that kid down there?" I said, "That's Wade." And he said, "Whoa." Dwyane was impressive-looking, and that caught Pat's eye from a distance. And I think that was probably four or five days before we worked out Dwyane in Miami.

Riley: I was coaching a horrible team, and I was in Milwaukee and watching a game where Marquette was playing Kentucky [in March]. I was on the treadmill and it was raining and it was a bad night. I watched Dwyane put up 30 points. He was so unique, almost Jordan-like in the way he controlled the game and moved on the court. He was fearless. That night had a great impact on further researching him.

Wade: I went to Miami for a workout and I went to dinner. At the dinner, Pat said, "We think we know who we're going to take," and then he said he was flying to see someone else the next day. I didn't know if he was talking about me or what. I didn't have my best workout after that.

[+] EnlargeDwyane Wade
Jesse D. Garrabrant/NBAE/Getty ImageThe Heat surprised some by taking Dwayne Wade instead of big man Chris Kaman at No. 5 overall.

Riley: I'm not sure why I told him that but he had a horrible workout. He was very nervous. I remember shaking his hand and thought the only time I ever shook a hand of a rookie that came in that had more sweat on his palm was James Worthy. He couldn't make a shot. But that wasn't going to sway us.

Israel Gutierrez (Heat beat writer, Miami Herald): Riley was big on the bigs, and that was Kaman. He also really liked T.J. Ford. I know he was interested in Wade but it was known that his staff had to do some convincing to get him to decide on Wade.

Thomas: The Heat wanted a big man; we didn't think that was where Dwyane would end up.

Pfund: There were some strong opinions in the draft room that year, and they weren't all the same. I had seen some things in Dwyane's game and I felt he had a star quality. I felt we needed that.

Grover: I knew Dwyane's ceiling was the seventh pick and Chicago. I knew they were going to take him there. But the day of the draft, Pat Riley called me. He said, "All right, Tim. Wade or Kaman: Who would you take?" I had worked with both of them and I was honored he called me to ask my opinion. I was thinking about it, and the 1984 draft flashed in my mind when Portland took Sam Bowie ahead of Michael Jordan. I told them to take Dwyane.

Riley: It was never just my call even if I have that authority. That night it was a consensus. We discussed it. When it comes right down to it, I'm not going to be bull-headed. We made the decision a few hours before the draft that we were going to take Dwyane if he was on the board.

Wade: Miami wasn't in my head. It was Chicago, Chicago, Chicago. I grew up a Bulls fan. The media was pointing in that direction. My best workouts were in Chicago. I didn't even work out for the Clippers at No. 6 so I never thought about going there. I was headed to Chicago with the No. 7 pick.

Thomas: Randy Pfund called me and hollered into the phone, "We're taking Wade." I calmly hung up the phone.

Wade: [Thomas] came over and sat next to me. He whispered in my ear, "Don't change your expression but the Miami Heat are going to pick you at 5." It happened in a flash.

Riley: I thought we're going to make him a point guard and we're going to have the most athletic and most gifted point guard in the league. I remember watching film and saw sometimes when he dropped to make a drive and would turn the corner, sometimes his shoulders were lower than his knees, he could find areas on the court and get to the rim better than any other player I'd ever seen. Dwyane just turned out to be the player of all players for us.

Wade did play point guard for the Heat that season, and they surprisingly reached the second round of the playoffs under first-year coach Stan Van Gundy. Since, Wade has won three titles with the Heat and was instrumental in recruiting two men he sat alongside that night at the draft, James and Bosh, to sign in Miami before the 2010-11 season.


THE REST OF THE DRAFT

With the No. 6 pick, the Los Angeles Clippers took Kaman, who later became their franchise center and an All-Star. The Bulls, disappointed they missed out on Wade, took Hinrich with the No. 7 pick.

The No. 8 pick belonged to the Milwaukee Bucks, and at the time, Bucks owner Sen. Herb Kohl was in deep talks to sell the team to the recently retired Michael Jordan. Bucks general manager Ernie Grunfeld was four days from leaving to become the GM in Washington, and coach George Karl left before the start of the next season. The Jordan purchase fell apart just after the draft but there was always a question as to who was controlling that pick.

Grunfeld: We were going young. We'd traded Glenn Robinson to Atlanta for that draft pick and we were about to trade Sam Cassell to Minnesota. We needed a point guard and wanted either Hinrich or Ford. We liked them both, and when Hinrich went to Chicago, we took T.J. The rumors of the sale were there, of course, but that did not affect who we drafted.

Larry Harris (Bucks executive, 1990-2008): We heard after it was all done that it really did come down to the wire, he almost sold the team. Jordan was never part of our decision; that pick was 100 percent for Herb. There's no gray area there. It was Senator Kohl's team, and we drafted for him. There was never any three-way message or anything. We were never drafting for anyone else.

The 2003 draft produced numerous American-born stars, but it didn't really turn into the international revolution some in the league expected. Including Milicic, eight international players were drafted in the first round and 20 were taken overall, both of which were records.

However, none of them became stars. The most successful were Boris Diaw, Carlos Delfino, Leandro Barbosa and Zaza Pachulia.

That international interest from league executives pushed down some players who might have gone higher, including future All-Stars David West, Josh Howard and Mo Williams.

David West (forward, Xavier; No. 18 pick to New Orleans): Everyone knew those stars at the top but I always felt like I was the best of the rest. Obviously my opinion doesn't mean much, it was up to the GMs and I didn't get invited to the draft so I was at home in North Carolina. I guess I hoped it would just work out. There were a lot of other guys who went in front of me who aren't in the league.


AFTER THE DRAFT

The next day, James flew back to Cleveland on a commercial flight and was a guest of the Cleveland Indians that night. He took batting practice and threw out the first pitch, a photo op that later became a baseball card. But it was not a memorable scene. If there was one thing worse than James' attempts to make contact, it was his woeful attempt at a first pitch.

James: It was terrible. You haven't seen me throw out another first pitch since then. And you never will.

Bosh apparently meant it when he said he didn't expect to get drafted by Toronto. He left his passport at home in Dallas and was not immediately admitted to Canada when he flew there for his news conference the next day.

Bosh: We had to tell them the story before they let me in. Then my bags got lost. I had another suit in there for the press conference. I only had two suits, one for the draft and one for the press conference. So they gave me a polo and I wore sweats. I was like, "Sorry I couldn't dress up."

Wade was still stunned he was headed to Miami.

Wade: I was numb. They sent a private plane; I had never been on a private plane before. I came right to the arena. Pat Riley met me in the family room and he brought me a big playbook and the first thing he said was "learn this." After, they put me up at a nice suite at the Mandarin Hotel. I walked out onto the balcony and looked at the city and looked out over the water. I thought that this was where I'm at now. I didn't grow up like that. I couldn't believe I was there. My family was emotional.

This was my new life.


THE AFTERMATH

Since the 2003 draft, the NBA has gained tremendous traction and created millions of new fans with the help of the players who arrived in 2003. Television ratings have recovered, the prominent faces of the '03 class are known around the world and most of them are still in their primes, promising to give even more.

Cornstein: It was an amazing time for basketball. It led to the a resurgence of the NBA. The league was a downswing at the time. That lottery and draft helped turn the things. You can get jaded at times. The draft is a new beginning. It's hope. That's hokey but it is true.

Riley: We made the right choice but also sometimes you get lucky. That year, 2003, is when this franchise changed and for the last 10 years this franchise has been on the right track.

David West: It's worked out for us in the long run. I think all of us who were taken in '03 have a certain pride about being a part of that class up until this day. There was a point where there was almost a starter on every team from that class. I think it should go down as one of the best ever.

James: I think it's pretty obvious, the draft had a pretty big impact on my life.

Click here for Part 1 »

5 - Robinson said this to ESPN.com in May 2003. He died in 2008.
6 - Dumars said this in a news conference following the 2012 draft.
7 - Milicic said this in a 2010 interview with Slam Magazine.
8 - Anthony said this in a May 2003 interview with the Rocky Mountain News.