EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. — The Pistons players were out on the court, pulling off their sweats, staring at their present. At the same time, inside a dark video room in the back of the Continental Airlines Arena, Joe Dumars and a handful of Pistons staff members were huddled quietly around a TV set, staring at their future.
“Come on, come on,” one of them mumbled.
The man on the screen opened a large envelope. “The seventh pick,” he said,
“goes to . . .”
The room froze.
“. . . Chicago.”
The room exhaled.
This is how franchises are built. In back rooms of arenas, where executives watch envelopes after Ping-Pong balls determined their content. In the midst of all these childish things — Ping-Pong balls, colorful placards — grown men’s fortunes are made.
“When was the last time you gambled anywhere?” I asked Dumars, as he rubbed his hands together nervously.
“On vacation, in San Juan, a few years ago,” he said. “I tried roulette. I’m not much of a gambler.”
He was now, whether he wanted to be or not. The biggest opportunity of his front office tenure hung on a game of chance: the NBA lottery, in which the worst teams get next year’s draft order determined. The Pistons, deep into the playoffs, are not one of the worst teams. But the Memphis Grizzlies are. And the Pistons, through an old trade, had the Grizzlies’ pick, as long as it wasn’t No. 1.
Now, with the Pistons staff breathing hard and tapping feet and biting lips, something big was about to happen. If the Memphis card didn’t come out of the next envelope, the Pistons — through machinations too complicated to go into here — would jump into the top three.
“If this isn’t Memphis,” Dumars whispered, “we could be in the money . . .”
The room went silent. The envelope was opened.
“The sixth pick goes to . . .”
“. . . the L.A. Clippers.”
“YES!” “Yes!” “All right.”
Dumars rubbed his temples, even as he smiled.
“Oh . . . my . . . god,” he mumbled.
The prize draft pick
Earlier in the day, the Pistons had worked out a young man named Darko Milicic. From Serbia. He is not yet 18. He is 7-feet. He was so impressive during the workout that several Pistons players, having finished their shoot-around, hung out and peeked as he went through his drills. What did they think? Put it this way. They didn’t believe he was 17. More like 25.
You ask Dumars about Darko — as he refers to him — and you see his eyes light up. He talks about a big man who is still growing, who has all the fundamentals, who can post up, who can shoot, who is mature beyond his years, and who already has played several seasons of professional ball in Europe, which means, as Dumars says, “he’s done road trips, he’s been to other countries, he doesn’t have to learn all that.”
Although LeBron James, the high school phenom, will be the No. 1 pick — heck, he’d just signed a $90-million endorsement deal — there are some who believe that Darko, with his height, could be every bit as much a franchise cornerstone.
Dumars wouldn’t come out and say it publicly, but he’d grab this kid in a heartbeat. Heck, if he had the No. 1 pick, it might be a toss-up between James and Darko.
Now, on the television, the program went to a commercial. The room tittered with the nervous energy of a waiting room in a maternity ward. It was this simple: If Memphis came up No. 3, the Pistons would have that pick. If Memphis came up No. 2, they’d have that pick.
And if Memphis came up No. 1, they’d have nothing.
In other words, it was feast or famine. All or nothing. A jackpot or a wooden nickel.
“The other teams have better odds,” someone said.
“Yeah . . . that’s right . . . yes,” others quickly agreed.
Everyone was doing math. Everyone was figuring numbers. Everyone’s heart was approaching his throat. A staff member said, “Hey, Joe, if you could have No. 3 right now, would you take it?”
“Right now?” Dumars said, slapping his thighs. “Oh, yeah. Oh, yeah.”
Back from commercial. The man came to the platform. The small dark room went breathless.
“The No. 3 pick goes to . . .”
“. . . Denver.”
The room yelped.
“Oh . . . my . . . god . . . oh . . . my . . . god . . .” Dumars said.
The luck of a champion
Earlier in the day, Dumars was walking back to his hotel. He had found a penny. He picked it up and noticed the year: 1989. The Pistons’ first championship. He put it in his pocket.
Now he sat, in a room full of video equipment, with that penny in his pocket, and he lowered his shoulders as if preparing to make a tackle — or take one. Building a franchise is equal parts knowledge, chemistry, payroll — and luck. The last was the only one that Dumars, a hard worker all his life, couldn’t accomplish with hard work. Luck either kissed you or it didn’t. The next envelope would determine whether a franchise player would join this already good Detroit team — something that almost never happens — or if it wouldn’t.
“The No. 2 pick goes to . . .”
Someone whispered, “Please . . .”
Someone whispered “Come on . . .”
“The Memphis Grizz–“
“YES! YES! WHOOO! WHOO! YES! OH MY GOD!”
The longest of shots had just come through. A pick with a seven percent chance. The men hugged. They slapped hands. They yelped boyish words like
“Knew it!” and “Did it!” and “YES!” and “Bam!”
And then they broke out of the door and into the hallway, like the march of the astronauts in the movie “The Right Stuff.” Their arms were around each other. Their smiles were as wide as a bayou. Dumars had a penny in his pocket and an ace up his sleeve. One game was about to begin. One had just ended. The present had met the future, and for one strange moment, there was nothing as sweet as being No. 2.
Contact MITCH ALBOM at 313-223-4581 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Catch “The Mitch Albom Show” 3-6 p.m. weekdays on WJR-AM (760). Also catch “Monday Sports Albom” 7-8 p.m. Mondays on WJR.