Taking a train over the river to beautiful downtown Newark, NJ, TheGreatMambino, at the behest of Silver Screen & Roll, took a seat live at the 2012 NBA Draft. Here are some of his draft night thoughts and observations.
With his usual, trademark half-cocked smile, Commissioner David Stern saunters to the podium for his 29th NBA Draft. The Commish steps to the microphone to the roar of the crowd. He no doubt speaks words about the excitement of the first-year player selection process and how tonight would be a night that these young men had been dreaming about their entire lives. He no doubt vets that June 28th, 2012 is the first step in the journey of many to NBA stardom and that we here in the National Basketball Association are so very happy to be at this beautiful arena tonight. He no doubt thanks the boisterous New York crowd that had so bravely made the inconvenient trek all the way out to Newark, while the usual home of the Draft - Madison Square Garden - undergoes year two of their three-year offseason renovation plan. He finally and crisply, no doubt proclaims that the 2012 NBA Draft is underway, and that indeed, the New Orleans Hornets are on the clock.
I wouldn't know. The moment the Commissioner stepped to the mic, he was showered with a chorus of boos from the audience in a reception that was more befitting WWE Chairman and on-screen villain Vincent K. McMahon. Stern spoke, and kept on speaking, but barely a word crept through the wave of disdain thrown at him by the crowd. However, unlike Golden State owner Joe Lacob who shrank from the boos of the Oakland crowd on Chris Mullin Night a few months ago, or Clippers owner Donald Sterling who regularly ignores the hate at Staples Center, the Commissioner revels in the surrounding din of this Newark crowd. He hears it and welcomes it. He loves it.
Because he knows it means he won.
The worst possible thing that could have happened for the NBA last night would have been a dead silence. After a prolonged lockout last winter that almost led to the wipeout of the 2011-2012 season, and the ensuing infamous Veto (you may have heard of it? You know, the Goran Dragic trade), the fanbase could have rejected the product at hand. In a 66-game season where the quality of basketball was often below par, NBA fans everywhere could (rightfully) have turned away from the game. Here we are, six months later. When was the last time you talked about the lockout? When was the last time anyone mentioned "66-game season"? When was the last time we cursed David Stern's name during a rant that didn't include the words "fixed", "Chris Paul" or "Jim Rome"?
As Bill Simmons noted earlier today in his draft diary, the Commissioner is presiding over a league with the most marketable professional sports stars in America - maybe even the world. The NBA Finals just scored fantastic ratings. LeBron James has finally set course towards being not just one of the greats of his generation, but one of the greatest professional athletes of all-time (admit it to yourself - it's okay). Aside from Michael Jordan at his apex, or the decade of duels between Magic and Bird, this is one of the truly great eras for the NBA.
The Commissioner knows this. And he knows that despite the hurricane of jeering that at times landed on him uglier than a Joakim Noah jumper, David Stern smiled, because that reaction can only be fueled by passion. Much like pro wrestling, the worst thing that can possibly happen to a performer is a dead crowd. Silence means apathy, and apathy means that no one is spending money. However, a powerful reaction, no matter how hateful or loving, is the best possible outcome. Last night's draft was the exclamation point on yet another successful season under Stern's watch. Months ago, many critics wrote about how Stern had lost control of the league, as the times had seemingly passed him by. However, I couldn't disagree more with that sentiment after sitting there in the Prudential Center last night, with a crowd more electric than any Nets game I've ever attended. As I noted, the Commissioner is overseeing a tremendous era in league history, with an incredibly deep talent pool, the game growing internationally, great, real-life storylines and a new wave of superstars emerging right before his eyes. Regardless of how you might feel about him after the Veto, the NBA is as healthy as it's ever been. Here are some other random observations I had during the night:
- *Anthony Davis was selected first to the surprise of no one, but elicited a response as if Darius Johnson-Odom had been chosen instead.
- *I saw a contingent of Celtics fans descend on the Prudential Center wearing face paint and green wigs like it was Game 7. In a scene that brought a smile to my face, the arena roundly rejected the villains in Green who were cheering for two fantastic picks at 22 and 23 (PF Jared Sullinger and C Fab Melo).
- *Stern slowly walking to the podium as the Miami Heat logo blared in devilish red colors behind him. The Commissioner's walk to front of the stage seemed longer than the 26 picks before it, and the hateful jeering from the crowd in response to the victors from South Beach grew louder and louder. Stern baited everyone, pausing for an eternity of seconds before announcing that "with the 27th selection in the 2012 NBA draft, the NBA Champion Miami Heat select...". You'd be hard-pressed to find another draft where the 27th pick that was met with so much...enthusiasm. One of the best moments of the night.
- *The passion for the league doesn't even stop at it's players, front office or even draft prospects. During every commercial break, I was treated to "JVG" chants, as an appreciative Jeff Van Gundy nodded to the crowd. After the lottery, JVG looked like an impatient kid who couldn't fathom why his ESPN parents were making him sit through the rest of this draft featuring college players he undeniably had zero working knowledge of. College basketball analyst Jay Bilas received sizeable cheers every time he used the word "wingspan". ESPN writer Chris Broussard received a "Roll That Slice!" chant as he downed his third piece of pizza. When fans are chanting at a basketball writer about the manner in which to eat his food, I think "passion" might be an understatement.
- *Deputy Commissioner Adam Silver did his annual duties and announced the second round of picks. The future Commish-in-training was met with surprising applause for all 30 selections, though most of that could have just been a sarcastic dig at David Stern, who had been booed during every first round selection. After visit to the podium, Silver turned to a squad of fans positioned to his right in the grandstand, giving a thumbs up or thumbs down motion. The "Disciples of Adam" would then wave their approval or disdain for his just completed announcement. Hilarious. Even Adam Silver has a cheering section at the NBA Draft.
- *With the 33rd pick, the Cleveland Cavaliers picked Florida State PF Bernard James, who after six years and three tours of duty in Iraq, Qatar and Afghanistan, came back to FSU to help the Seminoles to their first-ever ACC title. He received one of the biggest ovations of the night, and of course, the required accompanying "U-S-A, U-S-A!" chants.
- *Craig Sager briefly walked by after concluding his backstage work for NBATV, wearing a bright pink jacket he may or may not have borrowed from one of Tyler Zeller's little sisters. What's scariest about Craig is that I don't think I've ever seen the same outfit twice.
- *Despite not having a pick until the 48th selection, the arena was filled with Knicks fans who patiently waited for Stern's robot butler and Deputy Commissioner Adam Silver to announce that New York was on the clock. The "Let's Go Knicks" chants had begun in earnest, but the ensuing response was everything I could have hoped for. The remaining Knickerbocker fans vocally displayed their dismay first as Silver proclaimed that they had drafted Greek overseas player Kostas Papanikolaou, and then second, and even more painfully as ESPN analyst Fran Fraschilla said on the PA that he wouldn't be ready for a couple of years. Magnificent.
- *Tornike Shengelia, a big man from the country of Georgia, was selected with the 54th pick. Fellow countryman and the greatest player in Georgian history Zaza Pachulia happily hugged him in the grandstands, where the 7-footers sat cramped for over four hours. From twenty feet away, Pachulia's head looked even larger than I ever thought possible.
Attending a NBA Draft is a must for any hoophead die-hard. I got a pulse on the league that sometimes gets lost in the quagmire of cynical blog posts and Stern-bashing. In a statement that I'm sure is rarely spoken in basketball terms, the festive crowd made it a great night at the Prudential Center.
Follow this author @TheGreatMambino