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The draft is bad television we’ve all secretly agreed to enjoy as theater, camp, and a collection of possibly iconic moments that never really get too big or too small. That’s why it’s so hard to turn up an image, or clip, that we haven’t seen a thousand times before—no matter how insignificant or boring it may be. Even the Hawks’ 1987 pick of Dallas Comegys is part of the canon, whether or not you could have told me anything about it off the top of your head. It’s not just that, quite wisely, NBA-TV plays past drafts on loop in the week leading up to this year’s edition. This thing was meme before meme degenerated into what it means today. This state of hyper-familiarity is only heightened by the informal, even mysterious, state of the draft before broadcast tore into it. It used to be a buffet, hunches, and eight million rounds. Actually, there were still lots and lots of extra rounds as late as 1988. What grail is holier, the future Hall of Famers selected casually, sloppily, with an indelicacy that would make your fantasy league blanche? Or those later picks made in the rubble of the telecast? The former need no gleam. They are lean and inevitable in way that even 1984 can’t match. In our minds, the later rounds of the eighties catch the reflection of spectacle, but deformed and forgotten, probably have suits and reaction shots that are the NBA equivalent of outsider art.
This draft is bad. This much has been decided, and it’s wearing us all down inside. Drawing this conclusion before any prospect has suited up in the NBA is hopelessly premature; then again, low-expectation drafts rarely turn out to be golden—at least not by the ad hoc standards we use when terming drafts “good” or “bad”. The judgment is simple, even crude. Franchise players are, let’s say, worth 4 points. Perennial All-Stars, 3 points. Occasional or rightful All-Stars, 2 points; starters, 1 point. There’s some added value tacked on for role and rotation players of note. But these are individual measures. Conventional wisdom holds that a good draft is one that spits out talent, and yet in a lot of ways, this could not be more backward.
The question is whether this really measures how “good” a draft has been. Franchise players change the landscape of the league. The important thing there, though, is that it’s their impact that matters, not their sheer ability. Go a rung down, and you can start rattling off very good players who simply didn’t take teams anywhere, or were never in the right situation. Any team would want them, sure, but that doesn’t mean their presence makes for a “good” draft. I think this has something to do with Spinoza, maybe? An objectively stacked draft ignores both the subjective considerations of each team, and the conditions that each player finds his way to. In the end, these are what determine how much impact a player will have on the league.
Historically useful players, not the number of minor or even medium stars, should be the measure of a “good” draft. The categories don’t have to be mutually exclusive, but superstars are a need, not a luxury. We should look at ends (outcomes), not means (talent level), when trying to determine which draft classes were boons and which disasters.
It’s the 25th anniversary of Len Bias’s death, meaning I might as well get some words out on a topic I’ve been weighing for some time. Or in other words, competitiveness and timing can be important motivating factors.
I dimly remember watching Bias on television in ACC games. I was 8 years old when he OD’ed, hours after being drafted by a Celtics team so badly in need of a Next Jordan, two years into Jordan’s career. He was stupefyingly long, graceful, and controlled despite a surplus of what we would now call “fast-twitch muscle”. I knew what drugs were, sort of, and that cocaine was one of them. They were bad and dangerous, and the Bias tragedy proved it.
I didn’t have a “say it ain’t so” moment, and it neither changed the way I saw the world around me, nor altered my perception of athletes. I was largely unaware of the ways in which his death tainted casual coke use. Cocaine was an abstraction to me; it didn’t, in any form, affect my community as far as I could tell. I was a few years away from discovering hip-hop and learning about exotic places where crack razed communities. Athletes were rational animals first, repositories for sentiment, second. Call bullshit if you want; I was just that kind of distanced child.
It took about 7 or 8 years for me to realized what Bias had meant to me. The first time I saw cocaine, in high school, I was terrified. I was myself beginning to exhibit all sorts of self-destructive tendencies, but this was that line I couldn’t cross. Cocaine was the devil and it could stop your heart cold if it so desired, no matter how healthy or unspoiled you were; that’s what Len Bias taught me. I know I’m not the only person who was scarred in this way by Len Bias. Discursively, that was kind of the point. Crack’s doomsday had replaced cocaine glitz, and if powder was still favored in the courts, eighties babies were still supposed to associate death and destitution with the drug in all its forms.
But by the time I graduated from college, cocaine was back in full force, to the point where it practically defined a particular slice of New York, and the Bias morality play seemed more and more improbable, if not totally irrelevant. Cocaine was almost mundane; even crack just seemed like a scuzzy cousin. Heroin was far scarier, as well it should have been. New facts about Bias emerged: It turned out that Bias wasn’t flirting or experimenting, but doing it up, like anyone eighties athlete might have done after making the NBA. What’s more, generalized coke death took a backseat to the select few who fell victim to it. There was no celebrity plague, especially not compared to the ravages of heroin chic. Other than Blind Melon lead singer Shannon Hoon, no one was dying from yay and yay alone. If previously, even Len Bias was the warning, just like Shannon Hoon was grimly laughable.
Here’s when Len Bias—and I say this out of honesty, not to upset anyone whose relationship with Bias’s death differs from mine—began to look very different to me. I had seen lots and lots of people do lots and lots of cocaine and survive. It was like the eighties all over again, I think, except for a lingering understanding that there was something seedy about it all. Cocaine lost its innocence but came back stronger than ever. Bias, too, went from an angel destroyed too soon by the temptations of Satan, to a profligate bundle of talent who lived (albeit maybe too soon) like a star, and met with some incredibly bad luck because of it. There’s a difference between “died in a car accident” and “died in a car accident while driving drunk and reckless”. Bias is the latter, which makes him both less singular and less generic.
To call Bias heroic now involved a certain leap of faith, and one that might get you shouted at. He’s a tragic hero, the darkest, most conflicted kind of Romanticism. Live fast, die young, and never give an inch, even if the consequences could throw the entire nation into disarray. Sometimes, phenomenal people do things that are probably bad ideas. Sometimes, we have to acknowledge that this dynamic is very much a part of sports.
In the eighties, Bias served as a wake-up call—”hey, this stuff can be bad”. Over time, and with new information available, he’s turned from an absolute with no face of his own, to a ridiculously good basketball player who also happened to be an ass-out hedonist. So many of the assumptions that initially gave his story such weight were bound up in not only misconceptions about drugs, but about athletes—especially the false veneer of “amateurism” that served to give Bias his innocence in the media. It sucks what happened, but Len Bias seems more relevant to the current coke revival than the one he abruptly ended 25 years ago.
(My wife just got back from a garage sale and handed me a photo of Sam Cooke on the night he was shot.)
(Not long before I left Philly, I was at a party where someone’s heart gave out from over-indulgence. Everyone stood around confused; a friend of mine knew to keep him from having a seizure. Finally, the host called 911. The paramedics sauntered in, and one, a younger black dude said “Looks like we’ve got us a Len Bias here.” It was equal parts gallows humor, nostalgia, and miscast irony, and no one there was particularly offended.)
Once upon a time, ESPN mag asked me to debunk the rigged 1985 lottery myth. Here’s what I gave them; it didn’t make the cut, but maybe because I got it right … and the exercise was never supposed to succeed in the first place?
Heading into the 1985-86 season, the NBA instituted a very primitive form of draft lottery. Patrick Ewing went to the Knicks, the league’s biggest market and hometown of Commissioner David Stern. You may also be familar with a conspiracy theory arguing that Stern to fixed the results. It’s based on a Zapruder-esque close reading of that night’s lottery, which took place in plain sight, on live television. The crucial steps:
1. One Jack Wagner, a phantom who cannot be officially linked to the firm of Ernst and Whitney, dropped the envelopes into a clear plastic drum.
2. One envelope bounces off the side as it is dropped in, which would have dented the corner.
3. Stern reaches in, fumbles around with the pile, and then draws out one from the middle—which must be the Knicks envelope, identified by its dented corner.
It’s pretty heady stuff, and will keep you up for hours, giggling maniacally over a grainy YouTube video that should be most notable for the wide ties and huge-shouldered suits on display. But what if you go further, breaking through paranoia and the thrill of discovery and reaching … true enlightenment.
1. Corporations shred records all the time. Maybe Ernset and Whitney is covering up something that really matters, like proof of the cocaine they bought for a company party.
2. The “dented” envelope in fact slide smoothly down on its bottom edge, before flopping down lightly on top of the pile. The three before it are actually tossed in, roughly, and end up with their corners absorbing the impact (since it’s a spherical surface on the bottom). If anything, the “dented” envelope might be the only one without some superficial damage.
3. Ever cut cards? The instinctive first move is to go to the middle of the deck, since that presumably does the most to randomize the order. It is the great unknown. Stern’s not cutting cards, but this process is new to everyone. He’s figuring out as he goes along. And part of that is—clumsily, reflexively—treating the envelopes like he’s in the middle of a poker game.
It not be as juicy as a rigged lottery. But at the end of the day, would you rather believe that the first lottery was an excuse to make the league even more unfair? And, incidentally, have you taken a look at other outcomes from the envelope days? Something tells me Stern would rather the Clippers not get Danny Manning and Danny Ferry.