For consensus No. 1 picks like Zion Williamson, the NBA draft lottery is the true day they find out where they will play at the next level, not the actual draft night. So barring something stunning happening, the former Duke star will know his future team by the end of Tuesday night’s lottery in Chicago.
There’s understandably a lot of buzz heading into the lottery to see which team secures the No. 1 pick and the right to choose Williamson, who is the most heralded draft prospect in years. But nothing compares to the drama of the 2003 lottery, when LeBron James was the ultimate prize and the Cleveland Cavaliers were one of the teams in the mix for the Akron, Ohio, native.
“It’s not even close, even with social media today,” James’ former agent Aaron Goodwin told The Undefeated. “I can only imagine what it would have been like for James with social media because he was a game-changer.
“Zion is an incredible talent, but he is going to have to define what he is going to be in the NBA. Whereas LeBron, they knew he was going to be a point forward who could pass like Magic [Johnson], run the floor and, with his athleticism, do what he wanted to do.”
James was a sure thing — and, don’t forget, he was coming out of high school, unlike Williamson. The hype, along with his talent, was unlike anything the basketball world had ever seen.
With all eyes now on Williamson, The Undefeated looks back at the most dramatic lottery in NBA history, which featured an infamous trade and, of course, the coming of the Chosen One.
‘i saw a transcendent player’
LeBron James was a national phenomenon. He sold out high school gyms. He graced the cover of Sports Illustrated as a senior. His games were even televised on ESPN.
People within the NBA, especially those running lottery-bound teams, were paying close attention.
Stu Jackson, who was NBA executive vice president of basketball operations at the time, remembers watching James during his senior year.
“I said to myself that I have never seen anything like that from a player that young to be that dominant both physically and skillwise at that age,” Jackson said. “That is no reflection on my evaluation skills, because the great ones are easy to pick out. But this was a different level.”
Joe Dumars, who was the president of the Detroit Pistons and had a particular interest in the lottery (more on that later), marveled at James’ maturity, body and athleticism. Simply put, “I saw a transcendent player,” Dumars said.
At 17, James already had the build of an NBA veteran. Goodwin, his agent, likened his build to that of Hall of Famer Mitch Richmond, who used to give Michael Jordan fits with his physicality.
Of course it wasn’t only NBA teams that were interested in James; he had captivated the entire sports world.
When Stephen Curry was a freshman in high school, he also attended one of James’ games.
“I knew the hype around him and how talented he was,” Curry said. “You walk in the gym and didn’t have to know anything about him and know that he was the best player on the floor. Athletic. He had swag about him the way he carried himself. I never seen anything like that before.”
James was a two-time Gatorade National Player of the Year. He led St. Vincent-St. Mary High School to three state titles. And as a senior, he averaged 31.6 points, 9.6 rebounds, 4.6 assists and 3.4 steals per game.
After his senior season in 2003, at a time when high school players were allowed to jump straight to the NBA, James declared for the draft.
The only team James worked out for was the Cavaliers, who were tied with the Denver Nuggets for the best odds to land the No. 1 pick.
Chris Dennis, the former editor of James’ website, believed James was open to being away from home for the first time in his life, like kids “when they are going to college,” but Goodwin said James wanted to stay home.
“He wanted to go to Cleveland,” Goodwin said. “I wanted him to go to Cleveland. The story of him being at home with the ability to help his community and home state was an incredible story. He wasn’t nervous. He was never nervous about anything like that. His thing was he was going to play basketball and change the game if he was on Mars. His mom was also one of the best mothers I ever dealt with, because she said, ‘It’s in God’s hands, and my baby is going to do whatever he does wherever he is.’ ”
Goodwin told James and his mother, Gloria, that he was confident the young superstar would be staying home with the Cavaliers.
“There was never a doubt in my mind that Cleveland was getting the No. 1 pick,” he said. “I’m just being honest. I could only base it on feeling.”
The Cavaliers and the Nuggets both had a 22.5% chance to land the top pick. The Toronto Raptors had the third-best odds at 15.7%, followed by the Miami Heat (12%), Los Angeles Clippers (8.9%) and Memphis Grizzlies (6.4%).
Meanwhile, it behooved the Pistons for the Grizzlies to not land the top pick.
On Aug. 7, 1997, the Pistons traded former All-Star Otis Thorpe to the Grizzlies for a 2003 conditional first-round pick that was No. 1-protected. Rick Sund, who was the general manager of the Pistons at the time of the trade, projected that the Grizzlies’ pick would be good because the expansion franchise was expected to be bad for a while.
“At that time, we really were a fledgling expansion franchise,” said Stu Jackson, who was the Grizzlies’ general manager at the time of the trade. “We were a young team in desperate need of veteran talent and leadership. And the opportunity was there for us to trade for a guy that all of our research and betting told us that Otis Thorpe would be good for our basketball team both on and off the court.”
Thorpe played in only 47 games for Vancouver, averaging 11.2 points and 7.9 rebounds before being dealt to the Sacramento Kings on Feb. 18, 1998. Jackson said Thorpe told him he was “unhappy” in Vancouver.
Dumars, who became the president of the Pistons in 2000, closely followed the Grizzlies during the 2002-03 season with the Thorpe trade in the back of his mind. (Sund had moved on to become the general manager of the Seattle SuperSonics in 2001.)
“I knew immediately when I got the job that it was a chip that we could possibly get,” Dumars said. “I knew it was protected for [No.] 1, so we couldn’t get 1. It was interesting that they finished with the sixth-worst record, so we’re basically getting a top-10 pick here.”
This twist added to an already tense room in Secaucus, New Jersey, on May 22, 2003. The NBA draft lottery aired live on ESPN before Game 3 of the Nets-Pistons playoff series. James watched at a private party for family, friends, high school teammates and select media at a hotel suite in Akron.
Caron Butler, who was representing the Heat at the lottery, understood the significance of the moment.
“The only reason I went was because I knew I’d be watching history,” he said.
Before the live television event, there was a practice run of the lottery in which the Nuggets landed the No. 1 pick. Nuggets owner Stan Kroenke’s expression turned to despair, as he believed winning in the practice run was a bad omen. Nuggets general manager Kiki VanDeWeghe was also present and felt the same way.
“I remember winning the practice run and I thought it was the kiss of death because there was no way you’re going to win it twice in a row,” VanDeWeghe said. “But as long as we were in the top three, I felt good about it.”
After the practice run, it was on to the show. NBA deputy commissioner Russ Granik revealed the official draft picks with large cards in big envelopes. The draft went in order until the sixth pick, which landed with the Clippers, meaning the Grizzlies had moved into the top three. (Again, Memphis could keep the pick only if it were No. 1.)
Butler, a small forward like James, was relieved when he learned that the Heat stayed in the expected fifth spot. “I was like, ‘Good. I’m not getting traded.’ That’s the absolute truth.”
The Raptors stayed at fourth, as expected.
That left the Cavs, Nuggets and Grizzlies.
“I kept telling LeBron and Gloria [James] he was going to Cleveland,” said Goodwin, who was with James in Akron.
Sund, who was representing the Sonics at the lottery, also had a stake in the outcome even though his team ended up with the 14th pick.
“I did have a little interest because Detroit had the No. 2 pick,” Sund said. “I was rooting for [the Pistons].”
Dumars and then-Pistons coach Rick Carlisle, meanwhile, were in a control room in Continental Airlines Arena watching the draft lottery before their big playoff game.
“They go to a commercial break, and those three teams had to be sweating worrying about getting the first pick,” Dumars said. “We were sweating about being second or third. I just didn’t want to be first. That was the one time I didn’t want to be first, because I didn’t want to lose it. I’m standing there not wanting to be the No. 1 pick. Crazy, right?”
Granik announced that the Nuggets landed the third pick, causing Kroenke to smirk and leaving the No. 1 pick in the hands of either Memphis or Cleveland.
When Granik announced that the second pick was going to the Grizzlies, Memphis president Jerry West appeared to be seething.
“Philosophically, it was the right move at the time,” said Jackson, who was responsible for the trade of the pick. “But it didn’t work out. Sometimes those things happen.”
It worked out for Detroit.
“I said, ‘Oh, my God, I got the No. 2 pick,’ ” Dumars said of the Pistons’ good fortune.
But no one was happier than the Cavaliers, who won the No. 1 pick. After the announcement, then-Cavaliers owner Gordon Gund said with a smile, “We don’t know who we are going to pick yet.”
Back in Akron, James was overcome by emotion with the outcome.
“After they called out the Cavs, he was laying against the wall,” Dennis said. “All his friends kind of rushed him. It was relief. That was like draft day for him because he knew where he was going to go then. I remember him saying he was going to light the city of Cleveland up.”
Said Goodwin: “The room just erupted because they knew he was staying home. It was beautiful.”
THE legacy of the lebron lotto
The No. 1 pick of the 2003 NBA draft, James has certainly lived up to his billing and exceeded expectations. The 16-year veteran is a 15-time All-Star, four-time MVP, three-time champion and one of the greatest players of all time.
“Obviously, [James] has turned out to be everything people thought and maybe more,” Dumars said.
As for the No. 2 pick, it didn’t quite pan out for the Pistons. Dumars told The Undefeated he made a mistake in selecting Darko Milicic, the 7-foot center out of Serbia.
“It was a pick that didn’t work out for me,” Dumars said. “I raise my hand and say, ‘When you make the pick and it doesn’t work out, you have to own it just like you own all the successes.’ It’s as simple as that.”
Although Kroenke was disappointed about not landing James in Denver, he drafted Carmelo Anthony, who is the third-leading scorer in franchise history and led the Nuggets to eight playoff appearances. VanDeWeghe maintains the Nuggets would have selected Anthony even if they had landed the No. 2 pick.
“There was no chance we took Darko,” he said. “We would’ve taken Carmelo. … We had two bigs [Nikoloz Tskitishvili and Nene] we were very happy with.”
The top prizes in this year’s draft lottery are Williamson, Murray State guard Ja Morant and Duke guard R.J. Barrett. After that, scouts told The Undefeated, the talent drops considerably.
Time will tell how the 2019 draft class turns out. But for the 2003 class, it became bigger than the LeBron Lottery.
“Everyone thought this was a three-person draft. It turned out to be way more than that,” said VanDeWeghe.
The 2003 draft class is arguably the greatest in league history. It included James, Anthony, Chris Bosh (the fourth pick), Dwyane Wade (fifth), Chris Kaman (sixth), Kirk Hinrich (seventh), Mickael Pietrus (11th), Nick Collison (12th), Luke Ridnour (14th), David West (18th), Sasha Pavlovic (19th), Dahntay Jones (20th), Boris Diaw (21st), Travis Outlaw (23rd), Kendrick Perkins (27th), Leandro Barbosa (28th), Josh Howard (29th), Luke Walton (32nd), Steve Blake (38th), Willie Green (41st), Zaza Pachulia (42nd), Keith Bogans (43rd), Matt Bonner (45th), Mo Williams (47th), James Jones (49th) and Kyle Korver (51st).
James, Anthony, Wade, Bosh, Kaman, West, Howard, Williams and Korver all played in at least one All-Star Game.
“What a great draft class,” said Sund, “led by arguably the greatest draft pick of all time.”