By Michael Lee
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, May 19, 2010; D01
SECAUCUS, N.J. -- For so long a franchise well acquainted with misery, the Washington Wizards finally made a date on Tuesday with good fortune.
The organization that is undergoing a transfer of ownership this summer received hope for a better future when the Wizards defied long odds in the NBA draft lottery to claim the No. 1 overall pick.
In one of her final acts as majority owner of the Wizards, Irene Pollin arrived in Secaucus, paid homage to late husband Abe, and left behind some luck for the franchise they owned for more than 45 years. Before heading to a room at NBA Entertainment studios to represent the organization at the draft lottery, Pollin lifted her right hand to reveal the Washington Bullets' 1978 championship ring that Abe Pollin wore on his right hand every day until he died last November.
"I didn't think of it as a lucky charm," Irene Pollin said. "I just know that he never took this off. I figured, I wanted a part of him here today."
That was more than enough, as the Wizards earned the right to draft either Kentucky freshman point guard John Wall or Ohio State junior forward Evan Turner, the national college player of the year. It is the second time that the Wizards have won the draft lottery; they selected Kwame Brown first in 2001. The franchise also selected Walt Bellamy with the top choice in 1961, when the team was known as the Chicago Packers.
The lottery represented a new era for the Wizards, with the Pollin family recently selling a 56 percent share of the franchise to Washington Capitals owner Ted Leonsis, who also was in attendance. Leonsis met with the NBA Board of Governors and Commissioner David Stern earlier on Tuesday and is expected to take over in the next few weeks.
"I'm thrilled for the franchise, but I'm not that shocked. I just feel lucky," said Leonsis, who was also lucky in 2004, when the Capitals earned the No. 1 choice, which they used to select Alex Ovechkin. "I just felt with all of the stuff that happened around the franchise last year, if ever there was a team that deserved a stroke of good fortune, it was the Wizards."
The Wizards had a 10.3 percent chance of winning the top choice and their luck on Tuesday goes against their past history at the lottery. They were making their 14th trip to the lottery since it became the method to determine the top choice in 1985. It was only the second time the franchise has moved up in the draft order. As a sign of the Wizards' luck, their number combination also came up for the third and fourth picks.
"I wanted three and four [as well], but they wouldn't give them to us," Wizards President Ernie Grunfeld joked afterward. "All the things that we went through this season and us electing to make changes with the trades and to rebuild, there's no better way to rebuild than to get the first pick."
The day worked out well for Grunfeld in a number of ways, as Leonsis said earlier that he plans on retaining him and Coach Flip Saunders, granting them the opportunity to rework the franchise going forward. "I, right now, would say that they're my guys," said Leonsis, who kept George McPhee as general manager when he took over the Capitals in 1999. "I've looked at what their collective records have been in the league and it's a strong record of success. I've spent some time with them now over the last two weeks and they are very, very bright and good people."
Grunfeld sat in the back room to watch the Ping-Pong balls bounce in favor of a franchise that finished 26-56 last season, enduring a trying campaign. Abe Pollin died of a rare brain disease in November; star point guard Gilbert Arenas was suspended for the final 50 games and received a felony gun conviction after bringing guns to the locker room in a dispute with teammate Javaris Crittenton; and Grunfeld detonated the roster with a flurry of trades at the deadline that shipped out former all-stars Antawn Jamison and Caron Butler, as well as Brendan Haywood and DeShawn Stevenson.
Irene Pollin was stunned when NBA deputy commissioner Adam Silver pulled the placard to show that the Philadelphia 76ers had claimed the second pick, meaning that the Wizards had hit the lottery after one of the most tumultuous seasons in franchise history. Her mouth was agape until the final card showing the Wizards logo was revealed. She continued to be in awe afterward and credited her late husband.
"I do feel somehow, he helped us out," Pollin said. "This has just been a wonderful, wonderful feeling. We've had a rough couple of years and I just feel wonderful to have this happen. I'm glad I'm here to be a part of it and see this happen."
Philadelphia will pick second in the June 24 draft and the New Jersey Nets, who finished with the league's worst record and had the best odds to win, will pick third. The Wizards will also have the 30th overall selection and will now choose 35th in the second round, with the Golden State Warriors getting the higher choice after winning a tiebreaker, but finishing with a lower slot in the lottery.
Leonsis hinted that the team would possibly look to acquire more draft picks. "I wouldn't be surprised if you see us figure out a way to collect more, because I do think we are in a rebuilding mode," he said.
When asked about which player he would choose No. 1 overall: Grunfeld said, "The great thing is that we have choices. They are both very, very good choices. You have so many more options when you have the number one pick and you can pick from anybody you want. You have somebody who is going to be with you for 8, 10, 12 years and be one of the centerpieces of your team."
Said Leonsis: "You get what you deserve. And we deserve the first pick. We got Ovechkin and we were able to build around him. The lesson is, one player can really, really help. But you still have work to do. This is a quick sugar high to get the first pick and hopefully we'll pick and develop and get a great player. It's going to be a long hard road. This makes it a couple of steps easier to get a franchise player with the first pick of the draft."