The 1985 NBA Draft Conspiracy

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Also known as the Frozen Envelope Conspiracy, this fabled scandal is, in the eyes of many people, the greatest scandal in American sport history. People who believe in the conspiracy claim that NBA Commissioner David Stern rigged the 1985 NBA draft lottery enabling the New York Knicks to get first pick and select star rookie Patrick Ewing.

How did the Scandal Unfold?

Coming into the 1985 draft, Patrick Ewing was the undoubted cream of the rookie pool. He had had a stellar college career at Georgetown University, leading the Hoyas to three NCAA finals, one of which they won. He was considered one of the most complete players in the game, with strong numbers in all areas of his game from defense to attack. This was the first draft of lottery era, with Stern who had been appointed in 1984 making its institution one of his very first moves.

Seven large envelopes containing team logos were placed inside a drum and the NBA commissioner would pick one drum at random meaning that each team had a 14.3% chance of getting the first pick. The Knicks meanwhile had had the worst season in 20 years and were in serious need of a good center, with Bernard King and Bill Cartwright plagued with perennial injuries. The league was hemorrhaging money with many teams struggling financially and the opinion was rife that it was in the best interest of the league that Ewing ended up at the Knicks.

Going into the draft there was heavy speculation from many quarters that the draft would be rigged in favor of the Knicks. On the day of the draft, Jack Wagner, an accountant at Ernst and Whinney was charged with tossing the seven envelopes into the drum in the full glare of the media. When he got to the fourth envelope, he visibly banged it against the wall of the drum, creating a creased corner after which he spun the drum five times to mix the envelopes.

Now, Stern headed over to the drum and unlocked it in order to pick an envelope. After fumbling with three envelopes for a moment, he lifted out the lucky one, which happened to be the one with the creased corner. It so happened that the envelope contained the Knicks’ logo, thereby giving them the right to sign Ewing. The Aftermath of the LotteryIt did not take long for conspiracy theories about the possibility of the Knicks’ first draft pick being a setup to start flying. The next day a New York tabloid revealed that Ernst and Whinney was the auditing firm of Gulf & Western which owned the Knicks.

Videos of the draft event were scrutinized repeatedly with freeze frames clearly showing the bent corner of the envelope that Stern had picked. Other theories claimed that the envelope had been put in a freezer to make it harder and colder to the touch so that Stern could pick it out more easily. Then Atlanta Hawks GM Stan Kasten claimed that during a college tournament held in Hawaii a few months before the draft, he had heard a high ranking NBA executive claiming that it had all been arranged so that Ewing would go to the Knicks.

At the time, Kasten thought nothing of it but couldn’t ignore it after the draft lottery. Refutations of the scandal were of course not helped by the strange fact that Knicks GM Dave DeBusschere had a Knicks number 33 jersey with Ewing’s name on it on a live broadcast immediately after the draft lottery. The Knicks took a number of years to finally reap the rewards of having Ewing on their roster.

Meanwhile the Golden State Warriors who under the old rules would have had a 50-50 chance of landing Ewing got the seventh pick, and drafted Chris Mullin who would go on to make a stellar career and Hall of Fame status. More than thirty years after the fact, the myth continues to grow, fanned even further by social media and the internet.

Many people remain convinced that Stern, a New York Knicks fan and described by those who worked under him as overly ambitious, would do anything to keep the league alive. The possibility of a rigged draft is therefore not that far-fetched but of course only Stern and a few people in the inner circle will ever know the truth.