SECAUCUS, N.J. -- For a team that hadn't much luck this past season, it wasn't surprising Washington Wizards general manager Ernie Grunfeld reflexively reacted in disbelief when his team won the NBA Draft Lottery on Tuesday.
"No!" Grunfeld blurted after Jamin Dershowitz, an attorney with the NBA, announced that the numbers 3-7-11-4 matched those held by the Wizards. Yes, Ernie. You and your Wizards will have the chance to make John Wall the No. 1 overall selection in the NBA Draft on June 24.
It was a bit of luck the Wizards -- who saw their longtime owner, Abe Pollin, pass away in November, their best player, Gilbert Arenas, arrested and convicted because he brought four firearms into the locker room in December and their two other stars, Antawn Jamison and Caron Butler, traded for pennies on the dollar in February -- almost didn't experience in person.
Irene Pollin, Abe's widow, was the only person the Wizards had on the NBA's 2010 NBA Draft Lottery participant list. Grunfeld was in the building, but no one expected him to come into the draw room. But he snuck into Conference Room 3A, just as they were making a last call for cell phones and other electronic devices. He was the 12th person in an 11-seat room. They offered him a squat, undersized chair at the back table, and wedged him next to Marc Eversley, assistant GM of player development for the Toronto Raptors.
But after the fourth number in the sequence of the first draw -- four -- was pulled from the lottery tumbler, Grunfeld's seat became one of the best in the NBA. From it, he has all kinds of options.
"We needed something like this," Grunfeld said. "We're obviously in the middle of rebuilding. We made a lot of trades in the middle of the season. We're getting younger and looking for core pieces to build with."
Grunfeld can draft Wall, a point guard out of Kentucky, to play alongside Arenas, who is more of a two-guard in a point guard's body. Or he can take calls, make calls, refuse calls. Grunfeld will be the most popular man in the NBA not named LeBron James.
As for big-name free agents such as Mister James, the Wizards do have cap room to go along with the No. 1 pick. Should the District be considered a premier destination for one of them?
"We'll see," Grunfeld demurred. "When you have the No 1 pick, it's a great start. We have some pieces in place and [we'll] see how free agency goes."
Of course, such a scenario had been mentioned for the New Jersey Nets, who had a 25 percent chance of landing the No. 1 pick after trudging their way to a 12-70 season. They have copious cap space. They have a new, billionaire owner, Mikhail Prokhorov, who radiates confidence.
Irina Pavlova, president of ONEXIM Sports and Entertainment, the holding company Prokhorov uses to run the Nets, was their draw room representative. The Stanford business school grad, who in the past has lived and worked in the United States, was not only at her first lottery, but seeing her first lottery. She didn't have a lucky charm with her. She didn't think Prokhorov had one either.
"I don't think he's the type," Pavlova said.
Prokhorov seems to be a guy whose fortune can purchase luck. Yet in a string of misfortune that underlined their season of futility, the Nets barely held on to the third pick. After the Wizards won Lady Luck's hand, the Philadelphia 76ers were next on her dance card with the numbers 13-8-5-7.
Now all that was left was the No. 3 pick. NBA president Joel Litvin then read the numbers as they came out of the tumbler: 12, 4, 9, 7.
"Washington," Dershowitz announced.
Grunfeld chuckled. He could. The other 11 reps shifted in their seats as the balls went back into the tumbler. They came back out: 7-12-6-5.
"Washington," Dershowitz said again.
A buzz was building. The Wizards, who hadn't had any luck during the season, seemingly had all the luck in the world. The Nets, whose number sequences all featured the No. 1, waited for fortune -- who frowned upon them all season -- to smile at them for a change. Hell, the Nets would take a passing glance. But more than anything, they'd take the ping pong ball with the one on it.
"One," Litvin called. "Nine. Eight. Seven."
"New Jersey," Dershowitz said.
And that was it. The fortunes of three NBA franchises had changed in a matter of moments and everyone in the room had 90 minutes to kill before the televised portion of the lottery completed.
Grunfeld showed reporters his lucky charm, a gold soccer ball on a gold chain given to him when he was six by his late father, Alex. He mentioned that his horoscope in the Washington Post also portended something good. And it did.
For Tuesday, May 18 -- This dutiful, responsible mood that has overtaken you has gone on for far too long, and you've decided that enough is finally enough. You're going to have some serious fun, and you're going to have it now! Whichever companion you invite along for the ride will be far beyond delighted. Feel free to say anything you might otherwise be hesitant about.Beyond delighted was right. In the TV studio during the media scrum, Ted Leonsis, who is in the process of completing the purchase of the Wizards from Pollin, had a huge smile on his face. Pollin, who was wearing her husband's 1978 NBA championship ring as a talisman, practically floated on air as she approached Grunfeld.
"Oh my God," Pollin said, echoing Grunfeld's disbelief from the draw room.
"You did it," Grunfeld told her. "The ring did it."
Or maybe, finally, it was just in the stars.