The Frozen Envelope (Potentially) Strikes Again

Issue 13, Volume 109

By Krish Gupta 

It was the eve of the NBA draft of 1985. Commissioner David Stern plunged his hand into the plastic tub containing envelopes with the names of the teams vying for the first pick and Georgetown center Patrick Ewing. Fans everywhere held their breath. Then, Stern picked up an envelope with a notably creased edge and struggled to rip it open. He continued to try and fail to open the envelope that contained the news that would transform an NBA team for the next decade. He finally managed to pry it open and read the name of… the Indiana Pacers. Fans of the Knicks all over the world sighed as they realized that New York wouldn’t get the first pick. The hearts of Pacers fans skipped a beat; it was too good to be true. Their faces became masks of dismay when they realized that Stern said they had the second pick. In fact, an abnormal number of cases of fainting had been reported the day of the draft in Indiana. This meant that the only team left, the horrendous New York Knicks, would get the first pick and could sign the college phenomenon, Patrick Ewing. Ewing was destined to be a superstar and the difference-maker for any team that signed him after leading Georgetown to March Madness glory in 1984 and 1985. He captured the championship in 1984 and was runner-up in ‘85. 1984 was only the second time Georgetown even made the title game, highlighting Ewing’s tremendous impact. However, controversy quickly stirred up when a camera zoom-in revealed that the envelope Stern picked had a folded edge. This was thought to be an indicator for which envelope Stern should pick, and ever since then, the 1985 NBA draft has been one of the most heavily scrutinized drafts ever.

Another, albeit less likely, theory about the 1985 draft is that the NBA froze the envelope so Stern could easily discern it, giving the conspiracy its name. Additional evidence pointing to a fix is that the two people who sealed the envelopes for the lottery were at the time working for a firm, Gulf & Western, that just so happened to own the New York Knicks. Madison Square Garden’s president at the time was quoted saying that the draft was fixed and that he threatened to fire the two men who sealed the envelopes if the Knicks didn’t get Ewing. He later claimed to be kidding, but no matter how you take Madison Square Garden’s president’s “joke,” you have to get suspicious. The 1985 conspiracy is considered the NBA’s most credible ever, and one of sports’ largest as a whole—sorry, Steph Curry. In fact, if you type in “1985” onto the internet, Google’s fifth search suggestion is the year’s NBA draft. The jury’s still out on whether this conspiracy really happened, but several other suspicious drafts even more recently have fans wondering if the drafts are rigged. Think of the 2016 draft. It is largely speculated that Philadelphia was awarded the top spot for cutting ties with the notorious tanker Sam Hinkie. During Hinkie’s era, the 76ers earned their place as the epitome of tanking. The 2016 Sixers won a grand total of 10 games in the ‘82 NBA season. The Cavaliers won the lottery in 2011, possibly to prevent talk of tampering in the ashes of “The Decision” when LeBron moved to the Heat. Miami had just the eighth highest odds for the top pick, yet they won it. The motives are there, the rewards are there, but there is only circumstantial evidence.

Looking forward to June’s NBA draft, things seem eerily similar to 1985. The Knicks are once again in last place in the Eastern Conference, and another college superstar is on the line. This time, it’s Duke’s Zion Williamson.

In the case that the draft isn’t fixed, teams try to do their best to win the draft lottery by tanking. However, tanking for a high draft pick may not even be worth it. The bottom three teams in the NBA hold just a 14 percent chance each for the top pick, a change introduced by the NBA to reduce throwing games. This brings up the debate about whether the Knicks are tanking this season or if they are just really, really bad, but that could be a whole other article. Nowadays in the NBA, the playoffs are just getting boring, with the Warriors somehow improving their incredibly talented squad, year after year. What might be more intriguing this year is the race for Williamson.

In the rare case you haven’t heard of Duke’s freshman superstar Zion Williamson, you might be wondering what the big deal is. He will likely transform a mediocre (even atrocious) team into a contending squad within a few years. Consider Magic Johnson who turned the mediocre Lakers into a championship team. Or Elgin Baylor who made the horrendous Minneapolis Lakers world champions. I haven’t even mentioned Michael Jordan or LeBron James. Williamson has been hailed as the best college player, let alone the best freshman, in the game in over a decade, as suggested by several metrics of player efficiency. Player Efficiency Rating (PER) and Box Plus/Minus (BPM) are just two stats that list Williamson as the best in a decade. And he could likely be one of the best college basketball players of all time if those advanced stats had started being tracked earlier. Williamson’s highlight reel dunks have embarrassed even the best college talents, and several have gone viral. He drives at a player with such power he just clobbers them. Opposing players fear for their life, yet earn fame as they cower on Williamson’s dunk posters. Coaches such as Syracuse’s Jim Boeheim and Duke’s very own Coach K have been quoted calling him “a physical specimen,” “a freak athlete,” and “a darn good basketball player.”

So get ready for June 20, when Adam Silver will pick a ping pong ball (they stopped using envelopes in 1993 after the controversies) to choose the team with the first pick. The Knicks might be due for a star. The NBA would love to revive basketball for their most valuable team. One wonders if a ping pong ball can be frozen. Maybe a few extra balls for the Knicks can be thrown in. The NBA’s ratings would likely rocket if basketball were to return to its rightful home in the mecca of basketball: Madison Square Garden. The Knicks drafting Williamson might even attract Kevin Durant away from Golden State. It might just be time for KD to hop onto the Knicks’ bandwagon. Knicks fans have endured so much suffering that they deserve something more. The last time there was any excitement whatsoever in New York about basketball (besides Joe Harris winning the three-point contest) was way back in the time of Linsanity. And even then, New York crashed out of the playoffs in the first round. As the regular season winds down and some teams try to jump the last hurdle to the playoffs, others are continuing to ferociously lose in an attempt to bolster their franchise for the years to come. As the 2019 NBA draft nears, keep the 1985 draft in the back of your mind. Will the Frozen Envelope strike again?