Love it or hate it, tanking has been a strategy employed by the NBA for decades. Prior to the first NBA Draft Lottery in 1985, the tanking problem was even worse. The NBA Draft order used to be determined by records. The first two picks in the draft were determined by the flip of a coin, the winner getting the first selection and the loser getting the second. Some teams would constantly tank and win the coin flip, like when the Houston Rockets picked Ralph Sampson and won the lottery again to nab Akeem Olajuwon.
“We’ve got to bite the bullet, we can win by losing,” Donald Sterling said about his upcoming 31-51 San Diego Clippers.
Owners who weren’t benefiting from the coin flip strategy were beside themselves, and the NBA held a board meeting in June of 1985. In one of his first seasons as NBA commissioner, David Stern and the NBA put the lottery system in place, that is still used to this day. In 1985, the choice for the number one overall pick was a no-brainer.
Coming out of Georgetown, Patrick Ewing was the best big man prospect since Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. NBA owners salivated at the thought of the ticket sales, merchandise, playoff revenue, and marketability. If there was a perfect place for Ewing to land
But if there were one place he should have ended up, it was on the team that drafted him. The Knicks had just suffered a 24-58 season and needed a transcendent big man to being a new era of New York basketball. When they won the first draft lottery, it was no secret that their prize would be Ewing.
However, there are many rumblings of the 1985 Draft Lottery being rigged. Fans use the theory that Commissioner David Stern grew up as a fan of the Knicks and made sure they had won to secure Ewing. Popular conspiracy theory states that Stern and the boys may have used a frozen envelope or a bent corner of an envelope to indicate which envelope belonged to the Knicks so that he could ensure that they would receive the first pick.
Let’s be honest… we are never going to know for sure whether or not the draft lottery was rigged but if you want to break out the magnifying glass or whatever detective tools you see fit, be my guest and we’ll go down the rabbit hole together.
Here is a video of that fateful night. Watch for one of the envelopes to be banged against the round contraption on the way in. Some say that was in order to bend a corner to distinguish the envelope.