The Washington Wizards know the double-edged sword that the element of luck can be in the NBA. In a way, their franchise history can't be written without mention of it.
They have been healthy at the right time, like with their lone NBA championship in 1978. They have also had injuries at the worst times - ones that have altered promising seasons and careers. And they have had both good and bad fortune in the draft lottery.
Monumental Sports and Entertainment chairman Ted Leonsis put it best.
"I've always marveled at the industry that we participate in and how random sometimes the success is," Leonsis told NBC Sports Washington. "What I mean by that is these are multi-billion dollar enterprises with incredibly high profile in your industry, and we rely on ping-pong balls in secret to drive a lot of the success of your enterprise."
Added Leonsis: "The process itself I have to laugh at, that a media executive would ask you what lucky charms that you had with you to sway the ping-pong balls to go your way. There's no other industry like that."
On May 18, 2010 - 10 years ago today - the Wizards had one of their luckiest moments when they won the NBA draft lottery, securing the No. 1 overall pick and the opportunity to draft John Wall out of the University of Kentucky.
Wall has since made five All-Star teams, All-NBA, All-Defense and led the Wizards to four playoff appearances, including the second round three times. And it all began with a little bit of luck.
Here is the story of that night and of Wall becoming a Wizard told through the eyes of those who lived it...
MAY 18, 2010: THE DRAFT LOTTERY
John Wall: I think ESPN had set it up at my agent's house - rest in peace to Dan Fegan - at the time in L.A. They had a newscast outside. I remember I had a black button-up on. I think it was an Armani Exchange shirt, or whatever. It was me, my best friend Ty [Williams], my co-agent at the time and my agent - Dwon Clifton and Dan Fegan - and my manager, Brian Clifton. [We were] all at his house and we're just sitting there, relaxing and getting ready to watch the lottery to see who will get the No. 1 pick.
Tommy Sheppard (former assistant GM, current GM of Wizards): I lived out in the sticks back then. I was driving home and I saw our church. I said I'm just gonna pull over here. And I sat there the whole time...There was nobody in there, just me. This was after hours...I went to my local church (St. Mary's), lit candles and sat there and waited until after. I said I'll know however my messages come up on my phone. So, I was in church praying...It was one of the few times where I just said I cannot watch this.
Ted Leonsis (Chairman of MSE, which owns the Wizards): I was in New York. If you remember, Mrs. [Irene] Pollin [represented us]. I actually have the dress that she wore. We're trying to figure out what to do with the dress. We were very fortunate to have, under sad circumstances, this transition when [former owner Abe] Pollin passed. Mrs. Pollin helped me and she was wearing this yellow dress and had Mr. Pollin's ring that she was wearing and brought us all good luck. The way it's structured is the participants like [former team president] Ernie Grunfeld at the time was in a room far away where they are actually doing the lottery. We were in the studio, if you will, awaiting who would get the first pick.
Chris Miller (NBC Sports Washington Wizards reporter): I was in Secaucus, N.J. I was actually in the studio where they held the NBA lottery. I literally sat a couple feet away from Ted Leonsis. Obviously, Irene Pollin was on the podium.
Leonsis: We had just concluded the acquisition of the remainder of the Wizards. We owned 44 percent and then Mr. Pollin passed and it was almost a year interim period before we got to that point. I just thought it was the right gesture, the right thing to do to bring Mrs. Pollin in and she did bring us really good luck.
Sheppard: I didn't get any texts for the longest time. You know in your head how the lottery goes on TV. Everybody was going to watch it together at work and it just did not feel like that was the right mojo for me. Man, we were all superstitious. [Former head coach] Flip [Saunders] was one of the most superstitious people you will ever meet.
Leonsis: I'm not really that superstitious. I had had luck and experience previously with Alex Ovechkin. I think we finished with the third-worst record and we jumped over a few teams and won, so I knew it was possible. But Ernie on the draft lottery site was loading up on lots of things, as was Mrs. Pollin. So, I was more in the supporting and planning and what would we do should we get it.
Brett Greenberg (former basketball operations assistant, current assistant GM): It was certainly one of the most memorable days I've had in almost 11 years now [in the NBA]... We had the fifth-best odds to get the No. 1 pick and, if you remember, the last day of the regular season, we won. We played a home game and we won in the last [minute], Cedric Jackson hit a shot for us. I remember we were kind of like "Oh, our odds got a little lower with that." It's funny, I've learned how the basketball gods tend to do it right. We were still playing hard.
Miller: There was really no debate [that year]. Evan Turner was the player of the year, but clearly John Wall was the presumptive number one pick.
Wall: Everybody kept saying "You're going to New Jersey, you're going to New Jersey" because they had the worst record at the time. I'm like "OK, New Jersey is cool, I'm fine with that."
Miller: I didn't think that they would win it. As the events unfold during the lottery, they take commercial breaks a couple of times and when it got to the final three, I was just like "Whoa, the Wizards moved up." It crossed my mind that there is no way the Wizards are going to win the lottery.
Sheppard: It was funny because I could tell by my phone not going off at all that we were still in it. I just turned my phone over so I wouldn't look at it.
Wall: They showed one team got a pick and that meant Washington had jumped into the top three. I was like "Oh man, this is where my dad was from so it might be interesting here." I feel like when a team jumps up like that they are already going to get the No. 1 pick. So, in my mind, I'm like Washington is where I'm about to be.
Leonsis: Ernie knew the results long ahead of when we did, but they're not allowed to [say]. I learned about it when everybody else learned about it. It was just me and Mrs. Pollin.
Greenberg: Ernie was in the back and they said we came up first and we came up second. Like, they did it again for the No. 2 pick and it was also us. Then, I think Philly came up next and we came up again. We came up three times during the drawing. So, normally they draw and then if they draw the same team they do another team. But imagine those odds. I remember we calculated the odds and the chance of that happening was extremely low. So, really, the magic of Mrs. Pollin that night was clearly there.
Miller: Then they had New Jersey at three and Philly at two, and I just remember looking around the room. I was like "Oh wow, the Wizards just got John Wall." The Wizards just got the face of the franchise.
Wall: I'm like "Alright, I'm going to D.C." Nation's capital, what more could I ask for?
Sheppard: I remember Mrs. Pollin's face, that was pretty hilarious. I think all of us, it was such a sigh of relief. What a great day it was for the Wizards.
Leonsis: That was classic.
Wall: I was just in shock because I'm like what do I do now? I don't know what to do, I don't know what facial expression to do [on TV]. It's like you're supposed to be the No. 1 guy, you're going to be the No. 1 guy, but this happens. It was shocking to me...I was like, "Damn, I thought I was going to New Jersey" because that's what everybody kept saying. "Worst team, worst team gets the No. 1 pick, worst team gets the No. 1 pick."
Brian Clifton (Wall's former manager and AAU coach): John was pretty stoic through the process...I think [he] was secretly more excited than he let on, though.
Sashia Jones (former director of community relations, current VP of player engagement): We had an event at the arena. It was over the moon, it was exciting, it was like a change is coming. There was hope in the building and in the air.
Clifton: It felt like the right fit...He was definitely excited to be so close to home which would allow him to drop in on his family and friends in [North Carolina] at will but also be close enough for them to get to him.
(Former Wizards head coach Flip Saunders reacts to the Wizards winning the 2010 draft lottery with his son, Ryan, and other members of the coaching staff and front office including Brett Greenberg, Tim Connelly, Pat Connelly, Randy Wittman and Mike Wells.)
Greenberg: It was incredible. Rewatching [the reaction video] now a decade later, I think the thing that stands out most is just the essence of Flip. You see how excited he was. That's just who he was. He was such a fun person to be around. That video does a really good job of kind of showing just the essence of who he was, how fun he was. It makes me miss him all over again. He really did a lot for me and was such a good person.
Sheppard: I got [the video] that night. We probably replayed that 10,000 times. Flip looked like Johnny Bench. He went down into his catcher stance. Everybody was just jumping around, it was awesome. I don't regret doing what I did, but that video was really fun. Sometimes I wish I would have been there for that. Trust me, I was celebrating on my own. That was awesome. Flip, those guys are good people. Ryan Saunders was in that. Pat Connelly, Tim Connelly, Brett Greenberg. They were all just absolutely like it was a walk-off home run and you won the World Series kind of atmosphere. Those guys were going crazy.
Leonsis: It was a very tough time because there was the whole Gilbert Arenas matter that they were dealing with. Mr. Pollin had passed. It was wow, we get the first pick in the draft to start to rebuild. We were able to bring John in. We still had Gilbert Arenas and early on it was, while Gil was very nice to John Wall, he had been through a lot in his career.
Sheppard: It was a great memory. That was an emotional year. Mr. Pollin had just passed and Ted was there with Mrs. Pollin. It was one of those years where we went through a lot with the Arenas stuff happening. The basketball gods delivered. That was pretty awesome.
Miller: It was just a sign of the organization moving in a positive direction. The city and the organization needed a jolt of good energy.
Greenberg: I had written out the cards, the order of the cards from 14 to one, in terms of how the order was supposed to go. We all signed it after and, even though it's kind of ripped and torn, I still keep it on hand in my wallet.
Sheppard: You just felt that John was going to represent a whole different time for the Wizards moving forward. There was no question in our minds that he was going to be special. For us it was real simple. He was the No. 1 pick from the moment we won the lottery. From the moment we won, that's who it was going to be. We still worked out people and went through the process, but he had all the makings to be every bit as special as he was.
Leonsis: Our coach at the time, Flip Saunders, was probably the happiest of everyone because he really believed in, I think his comment was, "Point guards are gifts from heaven"...Flip was always very complimentary about how teachable John was and how his Xs and Os knowledge was superior.
Miller: The first time I met him was a few days after [the lottery]. We went to Chicago for the pre-draft combine and workout...[Wall] was watching the other guys who were going through the drills and playing. I walked up to him and [introduced myself]...I was like "Listen man, I'd love to go down to Raleigh and do a story with your mom." He was like "You do?" I just remember how he looked at me, like "You want to interview me?"...He was just kind of in awe of us wanting to do a story.
Wall: To be honest with you, I wanted to be involved in [the NBA scouting combine]. But just talking to my agent and talking to everybody saying you would be the No. 1 pick and you don't need to do any of this...I was like "I don't give a damn, I want to play basketball. I'm not backing down from nobody." That's how my mindset was when I'm watching these guys competing and doing this. I probably had two interviews with Philly and Washington and I was just there to do my testing and then I left. It was like, man, these guys is bumping. I can't be in the gym watching guys bumping if I don't get the opportunity to play.
Sheppard: There was no doubt. His workout was very solid and his work ethic was exemplary...We brought him in, went to dinner. The first time through, he did very well. He had great manners. He has a fantastic personality. But he was a kid. I've known 10 years in the NBA and I've watched him grow up...John was 19 and it's just kind of crazy how time flies.
Leonsis: What impressed me most [meeting Wall for the first time] and still impresses me is that when I was trying to make small talk with John and talk about the eras of the NBA that I was familiar with, growing up with my dad who was a fan, and talking about the 76ers and the Knicks and the Celtics and the Lakers and Oscar Robertson and Kareem [Abdul-Jabbar] going to Milwaukee. He was fluent in those players. He was like old school. If you talk to him about Larry Siegfried and John Havlicek, he knew who those players were.
JUNE 25, 2010: WALL ARRIVES IN D.C. THE DAY AFTER THE DRAFT
Jones: We planned this warm welcoming, this over-the-top welcoming for John, the No. 1 draft pick. I just remember all the planning that went into it and all the folks bringing their ideas for how to welcome not just your No. 1 draft pick, but he was a phenom at Kentucky. You want to make sure whatever you do, you do it on a level that there's a wow factor for him and the city. I just remember it being a really long day, it started very early in the morning, and the constant communication with the folks who were on our team with him in New York. It was from the time he got selected to the time he got on the plane to the time he arrived.
Sheppard: They wanted to make a statement with the whole Wizards family there to welcome him. It kind of told the NBA that after that whole year previously it was time for everybody to take a deep breath and say after having some tough times it represented maybe there was a shift and good times were ahead. That's exactly what happened.
Jones: In the midst of that, I was able to meet his sister, Tanya, his mom, Ms. Frances, and [his sister] Cierra. About this time, it was "Hey, he's hungry." And then I learned of all his idiosyncrasies, how he is so particular about his hamburger from McDonald's. I was like "OK." They couldn't have made it any more plain. Just bring the burger and the bun. That's it, nothing else. It was literally the burger and the bun. Nothing else.
Wall: I haven't had a hamburger in like five years. But I do eat turkey burgers and they do be plain with no condiments...I can't do it. I tried. When I was young, I used to do it when I got to like 10 or 11, I tried it and it was just my taste buds had changed. I remember Shawn Marion right before they won the championship said "I'll bet you 25 you won't eat sushi." I was like "We can bet." I still don't eat sushi. He said I would with 25, I said I won't. I'm just a really picky eater.
Sheppard: John absolutely delivered. If the injuries weren't there, I think people are looking at a seven or eight-time All-Star. He's a five-time All-Star and All-NBA.
Leonsis: John was the birth of our ownership era and of our strategy of building around young players.
Sheppard: He's been fantastic from winning the Community Assist award from the NBA to investing his time in the community. He's been vocal with subjects in social justice and with all the things he does for the youth and single mothers; I think he's been a pillar in the community for the Wizards. He's always looking for ways to do more. Those backpack giveaways that he does, those are life-changing events.
Jones: [The thought was] like "Alright, we're going to be good." It wasn't just about on the court. I'm talking about what we do off the court. I thought that he's going to have an automatic connection. Our fans in the community, the folks that we talk to and we engage with are going to enjoy him. I think he's going to enjoy our community. We're bigger than the city of Raleigh, but we have so many similar things in terms of how he grew up and the neighborhood he grew up in and what he saw. You look back 10 years later and look at what he's done.
Sheppard: He had a fantastic mother and now I think her legacy is going to live on through him. (Editor's note: Wall's mom passed away late last year. You can read more about her here.)
Jones: He feels like it's what I'm supposed to do, not what I'm obligated to do. It's what I'm supposed to do. It's what Ms. Frances taught him and he's extending it.
Miller: I root for the guy. I know in our business we're supposed to just report what we see, but for him it's just so much more than that. Now he's a dad, his mom passed and I went to the funeral. It's just turned out to be more than just me documenting every basket or every turnover or every win and loss, every surgery. It's more than that.
Wall: I don't believe it's been 10 years, but when I think about it and I look back at it, like, yes it has been 10 years. When I really look at it and I watch highlights, it's, like, man, I really look totally different than I looked in my first four or five years.
Chris Miller contributed to this report
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