NBA Draft Lottery: An inside look at Alvin Gentry's priceless reaction to Pelicans landing No. 1 pick, likely Zion Williamson
Although confident his Pelicans would get the No. 1 pick, Gentry couldn't contain his joy after it actually happened
CHICAGO -- When Alvin Gentry, the 64-year-old head coach of the New Orleans Pelicans, walked into the sequestered conference room at the elegant Hilton just a couple blocks from Lake Michigan, he strode to his seat on a riser and pulled the cap off a pen.
"THIS IS OUR MOMENT," Gentry scrawled at the top of a piece of paper with the NBA logo.
He was confident that the Pelicans were going to get the No. 1 pick and the rights to draft the generational talent that is Zion Williamson, despite only a six percent chance of the ping pong balls going their way. And why wouldn't he be confident? Right after David Griffin's introductory press conference as the Pelicans' new team president last month, Griffin turned to Gentry: "You know we are winning this damn lottery." Pelicans employees brought lucky totems to Tuesday night's draft lottery. One brought a 57-year-old wooden angel. Another brought his grandmother's class ring.
But the most important sign that this would be the Pelicans' moment hung around Gentry's neck. He was wearing a navy blue Italian silk tie by Ermenegildo Zegna. It was the same tie that Cleveland Cavaliers' minority owner Jeff Cohen wore to the lottery room in 2013 and 2014. Both years, in the presence of that magical tie, the Cavaliers won the No. 1 overall pick, selecting Anthony Bennett and then Andrew Wiggins. Obviously, the prize here in Zion has the potential to be much, much bigger. Griffin somehow procured the lucky tie and brought it with him from Cleveland to New Orleans. He gave it to Gentry to wear to the room where the lottery happened in the hope that one of the 60 numerical combinations that belonged to the Pelicans -- out of a potential 1,001 numerical combinations total -- would come up spades for the Pelicans.
Gentry sat down. The room was dead silent. All phones and electronic devices had been left outside the room with security and placed in sealed envelopes. The lottery machine sat in the front of the room. It looked like a large water cooler. An NBA representative opened a sealed plastic container with 14 ping pong balls. The balls were numbered one through 14. A representative from a manufacturer of lottery machines, Smartplay, had already weighed, measured and certified the ping pong balls. The balls were loaded into the lottery machine. The machine was turned on. For 20 seconds, it whirred like a popcorn popper. They would pull four balls in order. The first ball was vacuumed into the hole: 7. Ten seconds later, the next ball: 4. Then 12. Finally, 13.
It was one of the 60 numerical combinations held by Gentry's Pelicans.
"[EXPLETIVE] YEAH!" Gentry shouted. It was the most exuberant reaction anyone had ever had in this lottery room, according to NBA people who've been to plenty of these. He stood up, arms wide. The rest of the room stirred but was still pretty quiet. Gentry strode down the riser, slapping high fives with representatives from other teams along the way. Then Gentry realized he'd said a swear word; his sister wouldn't appreciate that. "Sorry," he said. "Don't quote that." He laughed. He smacked the table in joy. He took a big swig of water.
"It's the tie, man," he said. "This is the third lottery this tie has won."
He was asked about Zion Williamson. Gentry played coy: "Well, we're not sure what we're doing right now. We're going to go back and talk about it. He's definitely in play." Then Gentry giggled. Yeah, Zion was a lot more than just in play for the Pelicans. Zion might as well start shopping for a mansion in the Garden District.
I asked Gentry if he believed in karma -- if all the bad stuff that the Pelicans went through this season, from the injuries to the drama of the Anthony Davis trade request, meant that the basketball gods were on their side. If their months of suffering (during which, it should be noted, they never truly tanked) were a paid penance that got them Zion.
"It's 100 percent luck," Gentry laughed. "We can make a good story out of it if you want. But it's going to be something that really helps. All that stuff about being a small markets -- I look around and see Milwaukee, I see Portland. Griff says being a small market, we can't use that as a crutch. We are going to build a team."
"Griff's the luckiest man in the NBA," Gentry continued. "That's worth the hire right there."
Gentry had heard of Zion since he was a high school star. After all, Gentry grew up in Shelby, N.C., 38 miles from where Zion grew up in Spartanburg, S.C. What he loved about him wasn't his massive vertical or his monstrous frame but that he's a great young man, somebody who is all about the team. In an increasingly positionless NBA -- the NBA of LeBron James, of Kevin Durant, of Giannis Antetokounmpo and, yes, of the Pelicans' own Anthony Davis -- Gentry couldn't wait to see what Zion would become. He couldn't believe his and his franchise's good fortune.
So he was planning to take the tie and frame it. He wanted to see if he could get those four ping pong balls and put them in a frame, too. Gentry was planning to play those numbers -- 7, 4, 12, 13 -- a whole bunch this summer in Las Vegas when he's there for NBA Summer League. It was one of the biggest moments Gentry had experienced in his 31 years in the NBA. He didn't know what sort of celebratory drink he would have later that night, but he knew it would be expensive. A bottle of Cristal, perhaps?
One thing, though, he was certain of. Because a team with Zion Williamson ought not be a team in the lottery. And so: "This tie will never see this room again!"
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