NEW YORK — The ping-pong balls started dancing at 7:17 p.m. Tuesday.
With the flip of a switch, air filled a clear plastic container the size of an office water cooler, bouncing the 14 white spheres around like popcorn in a microwave in the white-walled narrow room on the second floor of Times Square Studios.
Twenty seconds later, Kyle Yelencsics, an associate coordinator with the NBA, clicked a stopwatch in his right hand and raised his left arm.
Then, Lou DiSabatino, the NBA’s vice president of events and attractions, pulled a small lever, causing one of the balls to be sucked up through a vertical tube to an opening at the top. Kiki Vandeweghe, the NBA’s senior vice president of basketball operations, plucked the small white sphere.
“Thirteen,” he announced to the 14 representatives of non-playoff teams sitting before him, all hoping that the balls would bounce their way, perhaps leading to a top pick.
On their left, eight large white boards rested against the wall, listing 1,001 possible four-ball combinations. The worse a team was, the more combinations it had been assigned. If their combination came up first, then they’d win the lottery and the coveted top pick.
After 10-second intervals, three more numbered balls were drawn: 7, 9, 14.
A few gasps rang out in the space typically reserved as a green room for Good Morning America.
The first overall pick in the 2014 NBA draft, held June 26, fell to the Cleveland Cavaliers, even though they had just a 1.7 percent chance at landing that pick.
Jeff Cohen, the Cavaliers’ vice-chairman and minority owner, shook his head in disbelief. He had come to represent the Cavaliers in this room for the last four years, and in three of them, including last year, they landed the top overall pick.
“You’ve just got to visualize it,” Cohen said. “You really do.”
Celtics president Rich Gotham remained calm.
Wearing a dark blue suit, with a dark blue tie speckled with green shamrocks, he sat in the second of four rows of three, with a representative from the Los Angeles Lakers on his left, and a representative from the Utah Jazz on his right.
Gotham wore his ring from the Celtics 2008 championship on his right hand, and he scribbled down numbers with a black pen on a white legal pad as the balls were drawn.
The next two combinations went, in order, to Milwaukee and then to Philadelphia.
And then, after a total of 12 balls were drawn, the process was over. It lasted about 5 minutes. After the first three picks were decided, the remaining order was decided by the inverse order of a team’s record.
The Celtics, who entered the night with a 10.3 percent chance at the top pick and a 33.4 percent chance at a top-three pick, ended up with the No. 6 pick.
“Our most likely outcome was six,” Gotham said a few minutes later. “The good news is, it’s a quality draft.”
He had hoped for better, especially after the Celtics had been burned in their last two lottery appearances, costing them a chance to draft Kevin Durant in 2007 and Tim Duncan a decade earlier.
But the last time the Celtics were a lottery team, in 2007, they made offseason moves to acquire Ray Allen and Kevin Garnett. The next year, they won it all.
“Hopefully it will happen again,” Gotham said.
He added, “With a top-six pick, you can still get a very good player.”
Cohen stood nearby, still in shock that the Cavaliers had won again.
“You’ve got the best job security in the NBA,” Gotham told him, jokingly.
“If only I got paid,” Cohen joked back.
And then Cohen pointed to Gotham’s championship ring.
“That’s what it’s all about,” Cohen said.
Even though the process was finished, the room remained on lockdown.
Phones and all other electronic equipment had been gathered from everyone and sealed in manila envelopes just before the door was shut at 7:09 p.m.
Outside contact was impossible, and no one was allowed to leave until after the lottery order was announced on national live television, starting at 8 p.m. in the nearby studio.
Blocking the door was Clifford Cooper, a private consultant working security for the NBA. He had guarded the exit to the lottery drawing room for nearly a decade, and no one had ever tried to leave early, not that they could get past him anyway.
Cooper worked in law enforcement in New York City for nearly four decades, retiring as Detective First Grade, and he once put the handcuffs on notorious gangster John Gotti during an arrest. “I’ve seen some bad guys,” Cooper said.
Finally, the lottery show came on two flat-screen televisions, and those in the room watched NBA deputy commissioner Mark Tatum announce to the world what they already knew.
Celtics co-owner Steve Pagliuca, representing the team on stage in the studio, forced a smile when it was announced that his team had landed the sixth overall pick.
“It’s a bit of relief,” Pagliuca said later, “and as you know there’s definitely six really good players in the draft, so we’re fortunate to be in that sixth spot — we’re not seventh or eighth.”
On stage, Cavaliers general manger David Griffin pumped his fists and clapped when the final envelope was opened. Inside the room, Cohen clapped too.
“Yeah, Griff!” Cohen said.
At 8:25, when the lottery show had concluded, Cohen was the first person out of the door. “Which way is the elevator?” he asked a nearby security guard.
Then he bounded down the hallway, a smile on the face, while most of the other team representatives departed disappointed.
NBA draft lottery results
|9||Charlotte (via Detroit)||8th|
|10||Philadelphia (via New Orleans)||10th|
|12||Orlando (via New York)||12th|
Cream of the NBA Draft crop
Some of the top players (listed alphabetically) in the NBA Draft, which is June 26:
|Gary Harris||19||Sophomore||6-4||205||G||Michigan State|
|Marcus Smart||20||Sophomore||6-3||227||G||Oklahoma State|
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