For Hawks, draft lottery drama started before the TV show

NBA executive Lou DiSabatino summoned one numbered pingpong ball from the lottery machine, then another and another. Another league executive, Kiki VanDeWeghe, pulled them out one by one and held them up for NBA team representatives and media to see: 9, 12, 6. 

At that moment, the Hawks had a chance to buck the odds and win the No. 1 pick in the draft. All they needed was for that machine to suck out the pingpong ball with the No. 3 on it—a one-in-11 shot. 

» More: Hawks likely to keep third slot

The lottery drawing is a sterile affair compared with the made-for-TV reveal of the picks that followed. But there is a real drama when team representatives learn if they win one of the top-three picks, especially during the 10 seconds between the drawing of the third and fourth balls. 

In those moments, the whirring of the lottery machine was about the only sound in the room at the Hilton Palmer House. Michelle Leftwich, Hawks’ vice president of salary-cap administration, tried to remain calm. 

“Take a deep breath, take a deep breath,” Leftwich told herself. 

Micah Day, the NBA’s director of event management, served as the official timekeeper. He counted off the 10 seconds while standing with his back to the drawing. Once Day gave the signal, DiSabatino prompted the machine to draw another ball and VanDeWeghe pulled it from the tube. 

The ball had a 1 on it. The Suns won the top pick, no surprise because they had the best odds of doing so. In fact, the Suns also won the next two drawings, requiring redraws for the No. 2 pick. On the third try, the Kings leapfrogged four other teams with better odds to win the No. 2 pick. 

That meant the Hawks could end up selecting as late as sixth. Instead, they got the combination of numbers they needed for the No. 3 pick: 5, 4, 6, 12. 

Leftwich nodded her head and smiled as VanDeWeghe held up the last pingpong ball and officials confirmed that the combination belonged to the Hawks. The Hawks didn’t get really lucky by winning the No. 1 pick - they had the fourth-best odds - but they were fortunate to move into the top three. 

“After Sacramento moved up, I thought, ‘I just don’t want to move down,’ ” Leftwich said. 

Leftwich has been in the lottery room before. She worked for the NBA for more than 20 years before joining the Hawks last fall, including 10 years as a vice president and assistant general counsel. 

But after witnessing emotional reactions from team representatives who learn their lottery fates, Leftwich was experiencing those feelings firsthand. The draft remains the best way for teams to acquire superstar players so those ping-pong balls carry a lot of weight. 

“Before I got here, I started to realize how important it is,” Leftwich said. “I knew it from working with the league but it was different being on this side of it.” 

After the lottery drawings, Leftwich was able to relax with her fellow team representatives, media members and NBA officials. Barred from communicating with the outside world until the picks were revealed publicly, there was nothing for those in the room to do but wait and then watch the show. 

The representative for one team who wasn’t as lucky as the Hawks tried to put a positive spin on his team’s bad fortune, though he seemed to be trying to convince himself more than anyone. Reporters accustomed to getting out information as soon as they learn it uneasily sat on the lottery news. 

About 45 minutes later, the ESPN lottery show started. The Hawks were represented on stage by actress Jami Gertz, wife of principal owner Tony Ressler. Her surprised reaction upon learning that the Hawks would get one of the top three picks got a laugh from those in the drawing room. 

Before the drawing, Gertz said she felt pressure as the public face for the Hawks’ fortunes in the draft. Afterward, she said she was happy with the No. 3 pick. 

“It was pretty cool,” she said. “But I wish I could pick the pingpong balls.” 

Gertz motioned at the group of top draft prospects at the event: “Look at these young men. We are going to be lucky.” 

It’s up to Hawks general manager Travis Schlenk to pick the right player. Among the Hawks contingent at the event, he seemed most stoic about the lottery drawing. Maybe that’s because Schlenk was experienced at it: the Warriors had three lottery picks during his time as a front-office executive in Golden State.

Schlenk said Ressler and others in his group were nervous during the reveal of picks. 

“I told them, ‘Listen, it’s out of our hands,’ ” Schlenk said. “It’s all been decided.” 

It happened in a nondescript room two floors below, where there was no live TV but still plenty of drama.

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