Shortly after 2 p.m. today, Commissioner David Stern will begin the National Basketball Association's lottery, the one-in-seven chance for one of this season's nonplayoff teams to select Patrick Ewing, Georgetown's three-time all-America center.
Less than five minutes after Stern plucks out the envelopes and opens them in reverse order, the professional team for which Ewing will play next fall will have been determined. So will the next six picks in the June 18 draft.
Basketball fans are waiting to see if Ewing will end up with the New York Knicks, Atlanta Hawks, Indiana Pacers, Los Angeles Clippers, Sacramento Kings, Golden State Warriors or Seattle SuperSonics. Ewing and his coach, John Thompson, have been unavailable for comment all week.
The lottery will be televised nationally by CBS (WDVM-TV-9) during halftime of the Eastern Conference finals game between Philadelphia and Boston, and it is expected to draw more media to the Waldorf-Astoria in New York than the game itself.
Ten television crews and more than 100 reporters will be in New York, even though Ewing is expected to be elsewhere. In Seattle, the SuperSonics are holding their own lottery contest. Should someone correctly pick the order of the lottery, he or she will win an expenses-paid trip for two to the NBA draft in New York. There are 5,040 possible combinations. The Sonics also are hosting a Sir Patrick Ewing Day Brunch.
Fortune tellers, psychics and card readers have made various predictions. In Indianapolis, a local television station gave team president Bob Salyers a lucky sweater. Evidently, station management didn't realize lucky sweaters as worn by St. John's Coach Lou Carnesecca had a bad record against Ewing last season. Clippers General Manager Carl Scheer is carrying around a "lucky three of diamonds." The New York Knicks got a horseshoe from the driver of harness racing star On the Road Again.
The publicity surrounding The Lottery -- now a bona fide media event -- has exceeded all expectations, according to Stern and other league officials.
"It was done for sound business reasons and not to be a major media event," Stern said, who then paraphrased William Shakespeare by adding, "The game's the thing, wherein we'll catch the attention of the nation."
Stern said the NBA owners had two major reasons for implementing the lottery as a replacement for the old two-team coin flip, in which the team with the worst record in each conference vied for the No. 1 pick. "It was generating too much adverse publicity," Stern said. "It was better to spread it to include seven teams. It also eliminated any question of negotiating with undergraduates."
Eleven underclassmen have opted for the draft, and the late entry of Creighton center Benoit Benjamin and Oklahoma forward Wayman Tisdale makes the list below the 22-year-old Ewing formidable. NBA sources also say those two juniors, plus St. John's Chris Mullin, Washington's Detlef Schrempf, Wichita State's Xavier McDaniel and either Louisiana Tech's Karl Malone, Arkansas' Joe Kleine or SMU's Jon Koncak, will be the next six players chosen.
Nor is it lost on the NBA that the lottery is one of the few recent big stories in professional sports that is not a negative one.
"I knew it would be interesting and fun for people not in the playoffs," Stan Kasten, Atlanta's general manager, said. "But I didn't know it would reach these proportions . . . They've done a great job of making this a media event. I've been happy being able to spend all week talking about the lottery while all my friends in baseball have talked about is drug-testing."
It also will be profitable, for both Ewing and whichever team is the lucky one today. Houston center Akeem Olajuwon received a six-year contract worth slightly more than $7 million when he signed after being the top pick in last year's draft. Officials at ProServ, which will represent Ewing, have declined to discuss what he is worth, and so have the general managers who must negotiate with Ewing's representatives.
Bob Woolf, the Boston sports attorney who represents a number of athletes, says Ewing will be a million-dollar rookie, and others say it is not inconceivable that Ewing could receive $8 million-$10 million for five years. Among the seven teams hoping to acquire Ewing are two that represent the country's top media markets, New York and Los Angeles.
"To us in L.A., he's instant credibility in an area that has become very sophisticated about its sports in a market that historically has supported only winning sports franchises," said Scheer. "In dollars and cents, he's one of the few impact players who will sell tickets and generate (other) revenue before he blocks a shot or gets a rebound."
Scheer said the Clippers, who had a season-ticket base of 6,000 last year, would expect Ewing's presence to account for an additional 3,000 tickets. With one of the highest ticket scales in the league, the Clippers could take in about $2 million in additional gate receipts. In addition, the Clippers likely would be able to generate an additional $500,000 to $750,000 in local radio-television revenues, according to Scheer.
Some teams may have problems with the league's salary cap. The Clippers, for one, are at the cap, but Scheer says that because he has only a one in seven chance of getting Ewing, he hasn't talked with his staff about the moves the Clippers would make to get him.
"He's a player who will make you competitive for the next 15 years if he stays healthy," Scheer said. "People will have to find a way to pay him. You would find a creative way to meet the marketplace for Ewing. Whatever you have to do, you'd do it . . . You look at it as a means that you can financially make it. You consider him your only major asset, and you do whatever is necessary to keep that asset. I don't believe in breaking up a team, but this is a player you'd do it for. Within reason, he's going to earn most of the money you pay him early on."