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On This Date in Sports May 12, 1985: The Fixed Lottery

in collaboration with the Sportsecyclopedia.com

 The New York Knicks win the first NBA Draft Lottery, earning the right to select Georgetown center, Patrick Ewing. In 1984, the NBA used a coin toss to determine the first pick. With Ewing the most anticipated player to enter the NBA, commissioner David Stern devised the lottery giving all seven teams that missed the playoffs an equal shot. The drawing was shown live at halftime of the opener of the Eastern Conference Finals between the Philadelphia 76ers and Boston Celtics. 

Patrick Ewing may have been among the best players to ever to play in the NCAA, in his four years at Georgetown, the Hoyas appeared in the NCAA Championship Game three times, winning in 1984. Under old rules, the top pick would have been between the Indiana Pacers and Golden State Warriors who finished with the worst record in the 1984/85 seasons at 22-60. The Knicks had a disastrous season, posting a record of 24-58 as they lost Bernard King to a knee injury. 

That first draft lottery had the logos of the seven non-playoff teams placed in a giant bubble, with the commissioner pulling out the winning team. This has led to several conspiracy theories over the years, from a cold envelope to a bent corner. When the envelopes were loaded in the drum, one was placed on the side. At the time, the NBA was just starting its growth in popularity, as Michael Jordan had completed his rookie year. A year earlier, the NBA had paid the USA Network to televise the NBA Draft. The rumor was that sponsors wanted Patrick Ewing in New York and that Stern rigged the lottery for the Knicks to win. Adding to the conspiracy was Pat O’Brien’s comment, “Basketball is back in New York.”

Patrick Ewing would lead a basketball renaissance in New York, as he became one of the best players ever to wear a Knicks uniform, becoming the franchise’s all-time leading scorer. However, the Knicks would never reach the promised land, as they made two NBA Final appearances, but never won the NBA Championship in Ewing’s 16 seasons with the Knicks. Despite the fact he never won an NBA Championship, Ewing did help boost the game in New York, which is all the league could have wished for. 

In subsequent years, the NBA has been changed to ping pong balls, with the actual drawing never shown on television, just the results with a representative from each team on hand in the back and on the stage, which had led to several criticisms. Since 1990, the NBA Draft Lottery has been weighted with the teams with the worst record having a better chance to win. Over the years, the odds have been shifted, adding increased weight to the weaker teams, especially after the 1992 Draft Lottery was won by the Orlando Magic, who had the longest odds to win. The Knicks have not won another lottery since, even in 2019, when they had the worst record in the NBA.