When my friends and columnists extraordinaire – Newsday’s Barbara Barker and Harvey Araton of the New York Times – emailed the other day with the reminder that the unforgettable “Ewing Lottery” was 30 years ago, I said: “No way!” Yes way! (airbrush the photos, please)
Time tends to fly when you’re having fun, and one of the most fun days, actually it was exhilarating, of my 30-year professional sports ride was on May 12, 1985, the afternoon of the first and best NBA Draft Lottery.
Yes, for those who have asked and wondered, the Knicks Ewing jersey unveiled by GM Dave DeBusschere when New York was declared the winner, was my suggestion. But it was by no means an extraordinary thought. My best recollection is that the other six teams participating in the lottery also had Ewing jerseys in their colors at the ready, and those may be stored in some former NBA executives’ closets or drawers.
Now, as for that ‘lucky horse shoe,’ that was a ‘stroke of genius,’ at least so I was told by the then-Garden chairman Sonny Werblin when the idea was presented to him. As a young sports executive, I was ebullient when an icon like the great Mr. Werblin gave the compliment. He was a thoroughbred owner and impresario (the Garden also owned Roosevelt Raceway). The late, great DeBusschere, I believe, was also a racing fan (I had remembered him making the trophy presentation to one of Woody Stevens’ Belmont Stakes champions a few years prior), so it didn’t take much convincing.
I had come to the Knicks only a year before from Yonkers Raceway, so when word began to swirl that teams would be bringing good luck charms to the lottery, I knew that the Knicks charm had to be a horse shoe – much better than a rabbit’s foot or four-leaf clover. In the weeks leading up to the lottery, I called one of Yonkers leading harness drivers – Buddy Gilmour – to put in the request for a horse shoe worn by the champion pacer On The Road Again. The horse’s name was apropos, since I hoped to be ‘on the road again’ with Patrick if the Knicks won the lottery.
Fast forward to the morning of the Lottery. It was Mother’s Day, a beautiful, sunlit, cloudless day in New York City. It would turn into one of the most beautiful days in Knicks history hours later. It would be breathtaking.
The horseshoe was in my jacket pocket as I got off the Metro North train, and made my way to the Waldorf Astoria. I made a stop at – of course, St. Patrick’s Cathedral – to say a prayer. Most would say that there were more important things to pray for, but not today. We wanted the Garden to become Patrick’s Cathedral, and it would!
I called mom in Brooklyn (still going strong 30 years later!) to wish her a Happy Mother’s Day, and that I would miss seeing her. But that there was business to tend to that day, and to watch the lottery on CBS. Maybe she’d get a special Mother’s Day present, Patrick Ewing gift-wrapped.
With the Ewing jersey, folded nicely and tucked into in my briefcase, I arrived at the Waldorf, and privately transferred the horseshoe to Mr. DeBusschere’s pocket to make sure its power was on full throttle.
Following those few suspenseful minutes which seemed like an eternity, Commissioner Stern arrived at the dramatic moment and said, “the second pick in the 1985 NBA Draft goes to the Indiana Pacers.” There was pandemonium in the Big Apple! Pat O’Brien, the hosted the Lottery on CBS, declared: ‘the horseshoe worked, basketball is back in New York my friends!’” It did, and it was.
Patrick Ewing would carry the Knicks on his broad shoulders for many exhilarating times. Though a nose short of a title (note the horse racing reference), Patrick’s work ethic, perspiration and determination would transform the franchise en route to a Hall of Fame career.
As for the conspiracy theorists, frozen envelopes and creased corners, that’s utter nonsense. One of the teams, after all, had to get lucky: for the Knicks it was a storybook beginning.
Thirty years later, the horseshoe remains a prized possession, and Patrick a prized friend.
John Cirillo was the Knicks director of communications and later Vice President of Public Relations, and now heads Cirillo World public relations and event management, founded in 1997.