It started with a green band and ends in a hail of purple, as the NBA held its draft lottery in Chicago for the first time and selected media members were able to witness the actual drawing.
Phones were confiscated and the new-world technology that often captures us all was put on hold as eight media members, several league personnel and team representatives for the lottery teams were sequestered in the Monroe Room on the sixth floor of the Palmer House Hilton.
Anything digital? iPhones and iWatches were placed in a manila envelope by Maureen Coyle, NBA Vice President of Basketball Communications. Coyle and NBA Vice President of Communications Tim Frank are never ones for regular pleasantries in their interactions with media, so when the order to fall in line came to depart the media room for the Monroe Room, it was meant with the usual snark today’s media often displays on social platforms.
Green wristbands for the special few, like VIP at the NBA's nightclub--or so-called conspiracy hall, if you believe the lottery truthers.
“Notebooks are good,” Coyle barked. “Everything else…”
No contact with the outside world, except for interaction with each other in a room that would soon go quiet. Making note of every person wearing a shade of purple was Sacramento Kings assistant general manager Ken Catanella, looking for every bit of luck and advantage he could find.
“Nice purple,” he said to this reporter who wore a lavender shirt under his suit. The Kings and Bulls had exact number of possible combinations and 5.3 percent chance of winning the first pick, but due to a coin flip won by the Bulls the day after the season concluded, the Kings’ combination of lottery numbers differed ever-so-slightly from the Bulls’ potential four-digit combinations.
Sitting feet away from Catanella on a dais was Joey Reinsdorf, son of Bulls COO Michael Reinsdorf and grandson of Bulls chairman Jerry Reinsdorf.
Clearly the youngest person in the room, he took in the environment as a posterboard of each team’s lottery combinations was posted on the side of the room, feet away from the lottery machine that would randomly start the process of changing the fortunes of every franchise hoping to be anywhere but this particular room a year from now.
Reinsdorf pulled his father’s 1996-97 Bulls championship ring from his jacket pocket as his lucky charm, saying Michael was holding onto the Bulls’ 1995-96 championship ring, hoping for a similar result.
Media members going through digital withdrawals began counting the instances where they reached in their pockets for their phones—believing something had to be vibrating at a moment’s notice.
The count started at 5:56 Central Time and rose to at least 15 instances over the next hour—it was insanity in the purest sense.
Soon after, Coyle turns to the media and explains that the door was about to be permanently closed for the next 90 minutes, so bathroom breaks would be accompanied by a member of the league—or other less-than-flattering alternatives—Reinsdorf turned to Catanella.
“If we don’t get lucky, I hope it’s you,” Reinsdorf said.
NBA Executive Vice President of Basketball Operations Kiki VanDeWeghe walked by the assorted media sitting on the side of the wall, introducing himself before heading to the podium to explain the process.
No, not that Process.
“Best of luck to all you,” he said, explaining the often mundane rules of the lottery—with one quirk in case of an emergency in the event the lottery machine malfunctions or “we lose power” according to Lou DiSabatino, Vice-President of Event Operations.
An official NBA basketball was next to the machine, cut open from the top near the logo with enough space for each of the 14 lottery balls that would then be shaken up for 20 seconds before dipping his hand to blindly select a number.
If there ever was a time for some Chicago chicanery, someone should’ve cut the power from the Hilton—or handed a frozen envelope to VanDeWeghe.
Wait, that happened already, didn’t it?
VanDeWeghe motioned to Micah Day, a man who stood in the back of the room with his back to everyone, would count to 20 before raising his right hand to signal time for the lottery ball to come from the machine—similar to a tennis official on the sideline.
DiSabatino then opened a James Bond-like black briefcase, containing the certified and allegedly equally-weighed lottery balls. The whole process reminds one of Carl Reiner and Andy Garcia in “Oceans Eleven”—where Garcia’s character was a casino owner who got fooled by George Clooney and his band of bandits.
The process begins with 14 balls in the lottery machine, with the combination 9-12-6-1 coming up cleanly, meaning the Phoenix Suns, the team with the league’s worst record and best odds, were awarded the first pick.
Then it got freaky—or fun—or wild, depending on how one observes these matters.
Then VanDeWeghe began the process again.
Wait, those are the Bulls combinations….
Joey Reinsdorf couldn’t keep up with the initial numbers, but a glimmer of hope came across his face until the final two—another winning selection for the Suns.
But teams can’t win twice and given the Suns had the most possible combinations, it was likely they would win it again.
It occurred a third time, to chuckles in the room. Probably since the Suns could have the top three picks in the draft and no one would be sure they’d be playing past Tax Day in 2019.
The next time finally revealed a different outcome, with the combination 14-7-6-8. As hard as it was for the media to match the numbers, the league personnel marked the Sacramento Kings had the lucky combination for the second pick.
The Athletic’s Darnell Mayberry whispered to this writer and the Sacramento Bee’s Kings reporter Jason Jones in the immediate aftermath: “Wait, they had the tiebreaker with the Bulls.”
But no one could be sure how that affected the lottery combinations, if at all—and Reinsdorf himself wasn’t sure if the April coin flip had any affect on the results.
The smiling Catanella knew, though.
Feet away on the same row, Celtics assistant general manager Michael Zarren smirked.
Zarren is a proponent of total lottery reform, suggesting the league have a wheel that guarantees each franchise have a top five pick every five years to disincentivise tanking.
But that would take away from the league’s Made-for-TV experience, manufactured drama but real consequences—evidenced on Joey Reinsdorf’s face later.
Now, finally, the last chance for the teams hoping on a prayer—some begging privately a few months of tanking would bear fruit, was upon all.
Vandeweghe announced the Atlanta Hawks had been awarded the third pick. Michelle Leftwich, the Hawks’ Vice-President of Salary Cap administration, started grinning ear to ear, almost in disbelief.
Leftwich stood out—as the only female representative in the room, and one of two blacks representing teams in the process with Detroit Pistons Director of Public Relations Cletus Lewis Jr. sitting rows behind.
Leftwich also wore a red outfit with gold buttons, on the suggestion of her son.
“I didn’t even think about being the only woman in the room,” the former NBA executive said. “I’m really happy.”
The lottery was over but there was still a mystery to be solved for the Bulls. The media was still sequestered with no technology for almost another hour, with no means to verify information about the lottery combinations.
NBA senior manager of basketball operations Joanna Shapiro wasn’t sure, and tried to track down lawyers who could explain the process.
“Good question, I’m really not sure. I think it happened a few years ago. Same thing,” she said, pointing to the Cleveland Cavaliers’ representative Brock Aller.
“It happened to us,” he said, explaining in 2012 the Cavaliers and New Orleans Pelicans had the same record, with the Cavaliers winning the coin flip to give them their set of lottery combinations.
Anthony Davis was the prize and the Cavaliers were still reeling from LeBron James’ initial departure.
“We won the coin flip and lost the player,” Aller said.
The Pelicans’ combination came up, they drafted Davis and the Cavaliers were left with more chances at the lottery system before James returned.
Reinsdorf sat at his spot on the table for awhile, knowing his father would soon learn the fate of the Bulls in agonizing fashion some time later before undergoing an agonizing revelation of his own.
As he was sitting next to Catanella, this reporter remarked the discovered truth—winning the coin flip cost the Bulls five slots in a draft that could deliver a franchise changer.
Almost stone-faced, he allowed a weary smile of sorts before a few words came out.
“Awesome. Good to know,” he said.
Turning to Catanella, Reinsdorf said, “I did say if not us, I’m glad it was you.”
Catanella smiled before talking about some of the events Sacramento and their franchise had to endure—events with real-world consequences when an unarmed young man was gunned down by police, resulting in citizens soon shutting down Golden 1 Center days later in protest—as only a smattering of fans made it in to watch the Kings in late March.
The pick was no solace to the situation. But Catanella made note of how the franchise stood with the people and its owner, Vivek Ranadive, made it known he understood the angst, fear and anger of their fan base.
Now, their fan base had something to rejoice about—at least the possibility of it.
It harkened Rosie Perez’ quote in “White Men Can’t Jump”: “Sometimes when you win, you really lose. And sometimes when you lose, you really win.”
Losing the coin flip, winning the combinations.
Minutes later everyone reconvened as NBA deputy commissioner Mark Tatum was handed the envelopes and the suspense inside the main ballroom was building.
The teams rattled off in order until Tatum said, “The seventh pick…goes to the Chicago Bulls.”
The camera panned to Michael Reinsdorf, who tried to keep it together but emitted the same smirk as his son. Joey knew the feeling, sitting easily in the same spot he’d been in for the last hour or so.
The results ran its course and finally the media was released with Coyle allowing the eight members their devices—or vices, one could say.
The ballroom filled with media and NBA personnel moments later. Coyle, who grew hilariously annoyed on All-Star Weekend in Toronto during Kobe Bryant’s last All-Star appearance in 2016 when assorted media kept asking “where’s Kobe?” that she probably wakes up in her sleep bellowing “He’s in the mixed zone!”, chuckled as she escorted the seven members back to civilization.
The eighth member was lost—or disappeared for a few minutes as Chicago Tribune newcomer Malika Andrews finally found her way to the zoo downstairs.
“I’ve never lost a person before,” Coyle joked.
Tim Frank soon verified the tweet that stated the Bulls would’ve had the Kings’ combinations had they lost the coin flip—with word soon traveling to Bulls Executive Vice-President John Paxson and Michael Reinsdorf.
Paxson, always one to keep his cool publicly, didn’t lament the Bulls’ position, stating they found Lauri Markkanen with the seventh pick this time last year and a good player would be on the board this time around.
But the second pick could’ve given them a transcendent one.
Catanella soon strolled out of the Hilton and into a truck, where the scouting would soon begin but beginning a process that carries the possibility of something more than just an ordinary lottery pick.
He smiled as he saw this reporter walk out alongside him, the two familiar from Catanella’s days as an executive with the Detroit Pistons.
“Hey, nice purple.”
Sometimes when you win, you really lose.