Why the 1985 NBA Draft Lottery was Rigged Essay Example

Why the 1985 NBA Draft Lottery was Rigged Essay Example
📌Category: Sports, Sports games
📌Words: 2070
📌Pages: 8
📌Published: 28 April 2021

The National Basketball Association is a sports league that has dominated the United States since 1946. The NBA, like all other things, has gone through many different eras, both good and bad. One of the biggest turning points of the league occurred during the late 1980’s. There are many different moments that can be accounted towards this shift, such as the new CBS TV deal, the new commissioner, David Stern, but most importantly, the introduction of new exciting players in large markets. In this case, such a player would be Patrick Ewing. He was one of the most recognizable collegiate athletes in sports history. He led Georgetown to the 1984 NCAA National Championship and three appearances in the Final Four.

When it was time for him to be drafted into the NBA, the league knew it was an opportunity to bring in an unprecedented level of excitement and money. So by the end of the draft, the New York Knicks, one the NBA’s largest markets, “coincidentally” received the first pick of the draft, Patrick Ewing. This resulted in the creation of a largely accepted conspiracy that the National Basketball Association rigged the infamous lottery to bring credibility and excitement to the league to cover up its horrific past. 

A horrific past is what pushed the league towards rigging the draft; this past being the loss of credibility and general lack of interest that the fans had due to said loss. The lack of credibility arose from a problem that many sports leagues have, drug-usage. In 1980, the Los Angeles Times reported that about 80% of players were using cocaine or other kinds of drugs. This report shook the league and led it into a regression that it had never seen before. Charles Grantham, the executive vice principal of the Players Association stated it:

‘gave the public the perception that the N.B.A. was too black, drug-crazed and its players overpaid...The image hurt. Game attendance dropped; television ratings and revenues fell. Things got so bad in the early 1980's that the championship playoffs were aired on tape delay, after the 11 o'clock news’ (Ballard and Cohen).

This was only the brunt of it, as the league continued to decline; teams like the Denver Nuggets and Indiana Pacers were struggling to support themselves. Even bigger market teams, like the New York Knicks, encountered issues with bringing in new fans due to the lack of big-name players and poor records; the previous year they had their seventh-worst record in team history at 24 wins and 58 losses. Shortly after the season, the aforementioned 1985 Draft arrived.

The same year, David Stern introduced a new lottery system where the seven worst teams in the league would all get an equal chance to get the first pick by each having a card with their logo put into a plastic ball and mixed; the order of the cards chosen would then become the order that the teams had in the draft. “Conveniently”, the New York Knicks, who had the aforementioned seventh-worst record, now had the chance to get Patrick Ewing. The Knicks were and still are one of the biggest markets in the NBA and the commissioner and his crew knew it. It was the best chance the Association had and they knew that if Patrick Ewing did not end up with the Knicks, the death of the NBA would be imminent. 

With the opportunity to bring Patrick Ewing to the Knicks, David Stern and the rest of his crew did what they could to make it guaranteed. The lottery was set to air during the halftime of a playoff game on June 18th of 1985; fans from all around the world tuned in to see who would get Ewing. Tension levels were tremendous, the host of the lottery, Pat O’Brien stated that he had “been in courtrooms and murder trials that weren’t [this] tense” (qtd. in Cohen and Ballard).  Many would say that this tension was high simply because there were many people watching the event; which established fear of doing something improperly in front of thousands. It is true that David Stern and his crew were fearful of making a mistake, however, making a mistake was much larger in their own context as if they messed up the draft, the league had a high probability to be left in an irreparable state.

Another key realization that people did not have at the time was who was putting in and mixing the lottery cards, Jack Wagner. Wagner was from an accounting firm of Ernst and Whitney, which was a company that was tied directly to the firm Gulf and Western. Though initial thoughts point towards this being disconnected from the general conspiracy; it turns out that Gulf and Western own the New York Knicks (Korzemba, 2017). In other words, the man that was supposed to place in the lottery cards and randomize them had direct ties to the team that the NBA secretly wanted to get the first pick. Before the mixing of the cards could begin, Jack Wagner had to drop the cards into the large plastic ball where they would be spun around. The first few cards went in without a hitch but the fourth card, which eventually turned out to be the Knicks, was “accidentally” hit against the middle bar in the ball. This resulted in the card having a bent corner. Despite this, it was still not enough evidence to reveal that it was the Knicks card as David Stern would have to know that the bent card had the Knicks logo on the inside; which would have to been told to him prior to the event.

As the lottery continued, the rest of the cards were put in with no “errors” and were soon randomized. While the cards were being mixed, Stern seemed to be very closely watching the cards spin; this could mean that he was either watching where the bent corner was, or he was just trying to distract himself from the large crowd of people that were watching the event. Though there is no solid proof of what his intent was, it can be heavily considered that watching he the bent corner. When it was time to pick the card which contained the elusive first pick, David Stern reached into the pile, flipped over all the cards, and picked the one with the bent corner. Within minutes, the Knicks had the first pick, Patrick Ewing’s famous number 33 ready on a jersey.

There are many other theories towards what happened that day to prove that the draft was rigged, whether such ideas be that Stern was a Knicks fan as a child; how the Knicks ended with the first pick in the first year in which the seventh-worst record could do so; or even how the Knicks general manager, David DeBusschere, had the aforementioned Ewing jersey ready to display (Cohen and Ballard). However, each of these claims and their respected evidence only adds onto to what stands. So by the end of the June 18th, 1985, the National Basketball Association successfully rigged the NBA Draft Lottery, brought Patrick Ewing, and a new wave of fans and money to New York. 

Many people believe that even though Patrick Ewing was successfully brought to the Knicks, it did not have a large effect on the league outside of the New York Knicks themselves. However, this is not true as the NBA developed a newfound financial stability and teams were being sold at prices that were never imaginable, even with the highest valued teams just a few years prior. According to Sam Goldaper in his article, “NBA; NBA Has Money to Burn in Lean Time”, the Portland Trail Blazers were sold for $70 million and the Denver Nuggets for $60 million; tremendous prices considering that these were teams that struggled to support themselves just a few years prior. In 1983, before the sudden rise in popularity, the Boston Celtics, one of the biggest franchises in NBA history, was sold for only 19 million and within three years of this deal, the owners of the Celtics were able to sell only 40 percent of the team for a total of 45 million.

To add onto the growing financial stability, CBS, a television broadcasting program, negotiated with the NBA and agreed on a new contract that totaled 173 million dollars over four years, which doubled the previous contract of four years for 88 million dollars (“New TV Pact for N.B.A,” 1985). Not only was the league happy with their progress, so were the fans. Attendance exponentially grew and by the 1989-1990 season, the average amount of attendees stood at about 15,690 per game (Goldaper). The value of NBA teams has only since risen, with teams now being worth billions. Even the worst players in today’s league are getting paid just as much as Patrick Ewing was getting paid when he was the highest paid player in the league, 3.75 million.

Though the result of the lottery cannot be directly accounted toward the exponential rise of financial gain that is described, it can be counted towards giving the spark that brought back fans; even the conspiracy itself brought them together as they scavenged for the truth. Despite the growing speculation against the league, David Stern did not care what people thought was the truth or not; as he stated in an interview with Sports Illustrated,  “If people want to say that [the lottery was fixed], fine,” he said, “As long as they spell our name right. That means they’re interested in us. That’s terrific”.

To this day, Stern has never admitted the truth, further encouraging people to find more clues on what happened, thus bringing more interest to the NBA. Which as just mentioned, was exactly what David Stern wanted. There has never been a true denial of what happened that day not just by Stern, but by any of the Association; leading to the interpretation that they are silently admitting their wrong-doing. Even though the idea of rigging a sports draft is something that is looked down on by many, this occurrence has never been looked down upon; fans today and throughout the world unite to discuss just this topic not out of hatred, but out of pure interest and imagination. In the end, the NBA prospered from their risky decision both financially and socially. 

In total, the National Basketball Association rigged the 1985 NBA Draft to save the league from its impending doom. Even though there are many different ways that the NBA could have approached the situations which surrounded their fan base that would not have resulted in such chaos, it was the only situation which could save the league in the fastest amount of time. Imagine if Ewing never went to the Knicks, what would have happened? What if he had ended up on a small-town team like the Pacers? Would CBS be running to give a contract double of what they had paid before despite all of the issues that the league had encountered in recent years? The answer to all is that things could have easily have ended up quite different, our generation might have been only reading about the NBA in the history books instead of enjoying it.

When followers speak of the infamous incident, there is a point that is constantly missed; this being the league was inches away from folding. One has to consider the “tight” situation that the Association was put into. Stern was practically required to compel Jack Wagner to bend the card, telling him which number card had the Knicks logo on it; if he did not, not only would he not have a job, but the fans would not have a basketball team to watch. Though conspiracy theories are not always the best thing for one person or a group of people, it is always good for one to take the dive into the unknown. There is always something new to be learned, new to be explored, and new to be understood. A valuable lesson is always hidden between the lines of a story and it is never bad to take the chance and dive in. So even if a conspiracy does not favor the path of one’s interests, there is nothing wrong by taking an endeavor to find a new understanding. 


Badenhausen, Kurt. "As Stern Says Goodbye, Knicks, Lakers Set Records As NBA's Most Valuable Teams." Forbes, 22 Jan. 2014, www.forbes.com/sites/kurtbadenhausen/2014/01/22/as-stern-says-goodbye-knicks-lakers-set-records-as-nbas-most-valuable-teams/#299a1f3e65b6. Accessed 21 Mar. 2019.

Cohen, Rich, and Chris Ballard. "1985: The Ewing Conspiracy." 1985: Best Year in Sports, 11 Dec. 1985, p. 6. Sports Illustrated, www.si.com/longform/2015/1985/ewing/index.html. Accessed 18 Mar. 2019.

Conception, Jason. "Rigging the NBA Draft." The Ringer, 17 May 2017, www.theringer.com/2017/5/17/16041680/conspiracy-corner-2017-nba-draft-rigged-los-angeles-lakers-2c18e7831379. Accessed 21 Mar. 2019.

"Did David Stern Fix the 1985 NBA Draft?" Youtube, 2 Mar. 2016, www.youtube.com/watch?v=wYb84lcDXyY. Accessed 19 Mar. 2019.

DuPree, David. "NBA Drug Use: High Risk Recreation." The Washington Post [Washington], 21 Mar. 1982. The Washington Post, www.washingtonpost.com/archive/sports/1982/03/21/nba-drug-use-high-risk-recreation/7aa6e121-1da4-4806-ba7c-5e3c47a2e7ea/?noredirect=on&utm_term=.ac80a9ab67e2. Accessed 19 Mar. 2019.

"The Fixed 1985 NBA Lottery." Youtube, 18 May 2010, www.youtube.com/watch?v=bX1kMlG8c7Y. Accessed 19 Mar. 2019.

Goldaper, Sam. "NBA; NBA Has Money to Burn in Lean Time." The New York Times [New York City], 28 Oct. 1990. The New York Times, www.nytimes.com/1990/10/28/sports/nba-nba-has-money-to-burn-in-lean-time.html. Accessed 21 Mar. 2019.

"New TV Pact for N.B.A." The New York Times [New York City], 21 Dec. 1985. The New York Times, www.nytimes.com/1985/12/21/sports/new-tv-pact-for-nba.html.

"New York Knicks Index." Sports Reference. Basketball Reference, www.basketball-reference.com/teams/NYK/. Accessed 20 Mar. 2019.

"Patrick Ewing Career Stats." NBA Encyclopedia - Playoff Edition, NBA.


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