Monday, June 26, 2006

And With The #1 Pick....

Basketball is unlike any other team sport. And so is how it is replenished every summer, vis a vis the entry draft.

In what other sport can you change 20% of your starting lineup, with one reading of a name into the commissioner's microphone?

The NFL Draft is the mother of all drafts. Well, it's a mother, anyway. Fans circle the draft's date one year hence, and make arrangements to fly to New York City, or crowd themselves into a team-sanctioned circus tent near their town. They wear jerseys and paint their faces and issue a verdict within three seconds of Paul Tagliabue's announcement of their team's choice. The draft is dissected more than a biology lab frog. Pasty-looking experts on ESPN tell us all we need to know, so much so that you wonder why they bother having the actual draft at all? Then you see who actually picks who, and you remember why the pasty experts call them "mock drafts."

But for all that grandeur, pro football is 22 starters -- offense and defense. And don't forget the special teamers. Yes, there are impact players, but their impact can sometimes only be so much, if the buffoons around them are constantly engaged in tomfoolery.

The NBA has no such quagmire. Five starters. Maybe eight contributing players per team -- the ones who play when the score isn't a 20-point gap with two minutes to play.

With such a limited roster, one great choice can indeed affect a team's makeup dramatically.

Or not.

In the early 70's, the Portland Trailblazers selected, #1 off the board, a tall beanpole named LaRue Martin. He was heralded as a "can't miss" kid -- those ancient words. His impact is still being waited to be felt. Although he did have some impact; Martin's bust greased the skids for a certain Portland coach to be fired, because he didn't have the good fortune of coaching the teams's next #1 pick, Bill Walton. That coach's name was Jack McCloskey.

In 1984, the Trailblazers struck again. Michael Jordan was a jewel, staring brightly at them following a couple of glorious years at the University of North Carolina. He was another can't-miss kid. Maybe the Portland people told themselves they weren't going to fall for that label again. They selected Sam Bowie, a rickety center from the University of Kentucky.


The Pistons had themselves a cache of first round picks in the 1978 and '79 drafts. They were stockpiled -- gathered for long, hard winters by management. The team would only need to use them with some degree of competence, and a competitive team would be theirs.

Only one problem: Dickie Vitale.

Vitale gathered the curious under his draft circus tent and proceeded to select the following players in those two years: John Long (U-D); Terry Tyler (U-D); Phil Hubbard (U-M); Greg Kelser (MSU); Roy Hamilton (UCLA). The territorial draft had been killed off by the NBA in the mid-1960's. Yet Vitale, with his one good eye, couldn't see past his own state's borders, apparently.


This Wednesday, the bright TV lights will burn and camera flashes will pop and the former players-turned ESPN announcers will tell us all about it before it happens, as usual. More can't-miss kids will be selected. Some will definitely miss, however. So we will be lied to -- imagine that.

Mock drafts, indeed.

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