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In the NBA Draft Lottery, Little Help for the League's Losers

Never mind competitive balance. The lottery keeps fans interested.
Cleveland Cavaliers owner Dan Gilbert and son Nick after winning the overall number one pick during the 2013 NBA Draft Lottery in New York, on May 21, 2013
Cleveland Cavaliers owner Dan Gilbert and son Nick after winning the overall number one pick during the 2013 NBA Draft Lottery in New York, on May 21, 2013Photograph by Jesse D. Garrabrant/NBAE via Getty Images

Nick Gilbert, the 16-year-old son of boisterous Cleveland Cavaliers owner Dan Gilbert, stole the show at last night’s NBA draft lottery in New York. Decked in red bow tie and thick-rimmed glasses, Nick sat at the podium as the official Cavs representative and delivered the highlight of the night when he calmly told the emcee, “Well, where I’m at now is the lottery.” To top it off, Cleveland pulled a mild upset to win the first pick of the 2013 draft, confirming Nick’s status as the franchise’s good luck charm. The event, televised in prime time on ESPN, is one of a kind in U.S. sport. The NHL introduced a trimmed down version of a lottery in 1995, but no other league has managed to turn a labor-rights procedure that does not actually involve any players into such successful show business.

Some NBA scholars trace the origins of the lottery to April 13, 1984, when, in the second-to-last game of the Houston Rockets season, a 38-year-old Elvin Hayes played all 53 minutes of an overtime loss to the San Antonio Spurs. “He looked like he needed an IV stuck in his arm out there,” Rockets beat reporter Fran Blinebury would later say. Houston had a lot riding on the game. They were in a close contest for the worst record in the Western Conference. The winner had a 50-50 chance, depending on a coin-flip, of landing Hakeem Olajuwon with the first pick of that summer’s draft. The Rockets needed to lose. So the 10,789 on hand at the Summit watched Hayes’s once mighty legs turn to mush.