The buzz is what you hear first as you walk in, that hum of excited voices rising and falling like smoke billowing above a fire you can't yet see.
Someone lets out a yell: KNIIIICKS!
You see Barkley straightening his tie for the tenth time in ten minutes. Now he looks like he's ready to go, so Sager's outlandish suit can't be far away. What is it this year, Craig, topaz?
Not bad. You're at the NBA draft.
No, it's not the neat package you see on TNT, that well-crafted mix of insight, interviews and footage the viewer at home sees. This is the real thing. Here, Ernie Johnson is just another guy. Here, it's a packed house of bellowing yahoos, fantasy sports nerds and obsessive NBA junkies; people you never think about while you're watching safely from home on some boring summer Wednesday night. These are the guys who know Nick Van Exel
's draft placement in 1994 (37th) and the correct way to pronounce that tall, lanky Polish dude's name; you know, the one with all the Z's? And judging by the number of women in the room, you might as well be among the graduating class at the Citadel.
But you're excited. You got in. Your buddies are with you.
You've already bet your friend ten bucks that the college player of the year won't get drafted in the top ten. You're pretty sure you'll win that bet, but you figure a few beers will absolve either of you of having to honor it anyway. In fact, any bets placed this evening (and there will be more, many more), are probably of the gentleman's variety only. Oh, and need it be said again that they sell beer at the draft?
The TNT show has started, but the first pick is still a ways away. A few guys have started chanting Nets SUCK! but it dies down when Barkley smiles and the Knick fans start some other, even less intelligible chant.
You have a program in your hand that someone handed you when you walked in. It details the last few drafts, both rounds for each. You're amazed at the sheer ineptitude of the NBA GMs. Did these guys ever even watch a college game? Chris Mihm
? Stiffsville. Tractor Traylor? How quickly we forget Oliver Miller
And how did someone actually think drafting Chris Porter
was a good idea, even with the last pick in the draft? A guy like that has got to have issues. If he ever actually wrote a paper at Auburn, you figure, it had to be about God or basketball. Or both.
Your buddy bets you again. This time, it's that some kid will be crying in the Green room before the night is over. You all share a hearty chuckle at Rashard Lewis
' outburst a few years ago. Pretty funny, right? Some kid's dreams squashed on national TV. Everyone's feeling bad for him. Then your friend turns to you and says, Didn't he just sign a new contract?
You all shut up about The Next Rashard Lewis
. After all, you paid to get in and The Next Rashard Lewis
is over behind the curtain sporting a brand new suit and a limo stocked with chilled Dom and a Playstation idling outside on 34th street.
The crowd roars. You look up and it's starting!
David Stern comes out to some unkind comments from the front row that you'd never hear on the TNT broadcast. Elven. All you can think of when you see him is elves.
He announces the first pick and a giant man comes out from behind a curtain to tower over the Elf. Another dream fulfilled. You wonder to yourself (no bets this time) whether you'll ever have such a moment of validation. You wonder whether you'll ever get to stand there while everyone acknowledges your hours of hard work. You wonder whether you've ever actually put in hours of hard work.
The first few picks make sense. A 7-foot-something guy. A guy from high school who looks like he could be Karl Malone
's son, only bigger and 19. The shifty point guard everyone calls a sleeper because no one ever saw him play at Nowhere State except pretty, Midwestern coeds and still hormonal freshmen boys named Zach.
You boo with all your might when any Dukie's name is called, as does the rest of the room. Or maybe they're saying, DUKE!
Another round of beers is purchased for the price of a nice dinner your girlfriend will never share with you.
Somehow you flake and don't catch two picks. A quick recap shows that you, in fact, did not flake and that no picks have actually happened. This time warp is known simply asDraft Amnesia. Without a ticker to tell you every minute detail of the draft's goings-on, you're lost. Your friends, of course, are no help. They're laughing at an inside joke about Stanley Roberts
The Knicks' turn to pick comes up and the crowd gets a little restless. Most of them studied all the draft lottery probables in the Daily News on the subway on the way over. It's pretty clear to you and your friends though that it's either the big Brazilian kid or the college player you've actually heard of. Funny to think that the home crowd advantage this time is a disaster. If you're the Knicks and you make the right pick, you take the big Brazilian. But you know the crowd is ready to erupt if you do, cascading the home team (hardly a lottery regular until recently) with boos and curses.
The Elf strides to the podium and adjusts the mic.
With the seventh pick
HAHAHA! The boos rain down like a March thunderstorm. Your friends head for the bathroom and you're left sitting alone amidst a strange amalgam of hoops fanatics and bored Wall Street traders from New Jersey with nothing else to spend money on.
And yet you're comfortable here. It feels like the inner machinations of the league, like you're the sound guy setting up the mics before the concert doors even open. Someday soon, half these kids will be plying their trade in front of millions on TNT, ESPN, ABC, newspaper reporters, magazine reporters, shoe company execs, and the Internet, acting like the big shots they suddenly, after years of play-acting, actually are. But tonight they're just kids living out a dream. And you get to share in that dream.
Then you curse your father for buying you books instead of a basketball when you were seven.
A trade is announced and a hush falls over the crowd for the first time. The Knicks trade the foreign kid for another team's injured players. Fans head for the exits now that the Knicks are effectively done for the season.
The rest of the first round is a series of increasingly difficult foreign names for Stern to pronounce. Some don't have vowels. Others have too many. You wonder where all the college players are, the ones you know the names and the hometowns of. You feel sort of bad for the kids who stuck around four years to get a degree, who listened to their coaches' cajoling and ignored the signs that they were being left behind for fresher meat.
Sure, they have a degree, or most of one, and the loyalty of a few thousand die-hard college fans. But wouldn't they have been better off coming out two years ago when their basketball warts were just lumps instead of festering sores?
As the second round approaches, the crowd thins considerably. TNT keeps it up, though. Barkley is having a blast. Stern hands off the ceremonial duties to Russ Granik, who also gets booed. The fans rib him mercilessly as he butchers even easy names. You and one of your friends (the other one's wife finally called him home) move up to the better seats.
Now it's starting to get fun.
Like the prospector sifts for gold, the room is only left a quarter full of those true connoisseurs of NBA marginality. You and your friend start launching names out at random, each more obscure than the next. Others chime in too.
Barkley actually laughs at this one.
And then, just like that, it's over. The electricity sapped, the last stragglers file out looking tired and a bit overwhelmed. After all, how many Nachbars and Dasaganas can one man take? But you're glad you went. You're glad you watched the kids come out from behind the curtain, grins wide, ridiculous suits tailored to fit oversized, skinny bodies that have no idea what's in store for them in three months. It's good to see the way the system works from the other side, the GM side, the owner side, the potential side.
Besides, what the hell else where you going to do on a hot, boring Wednesday in June, play basketball?