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Luck of draw went Spurs' way in '97 with Duncan

May 18, 1997. A date that will live in infamy?

Not if you're a San Antonio Spurs fan. On that day, the NBA lottery delivered Tim Duncan to the Alamo City although the Spurs had the third-worst record in the league and a 21.4 percent chance at the top pick. On that same day, the Celtics, who had the best odds for the overall pick (36 percent) as well as the league's second-worst record, ended up with the third and sixth picks.

Duncan has gone on to win three titles. He may well get another one this year and he came thisclose to getting a couple others. He will retire a Spur, leaving a legacy as arguably the greatest player in franchise history and one of the greatest power forwards of all time. Of the five players chosen after Duncan, two (Ron Mercer and Keith Van Horn) are out of the game while the other three have played for a total of 15 teams.

Yet on that Sunday afternoon 10 years ago, Duncan was pretty certain his NBA career would start in Boston. He may not have been a math major at Wake Forest, but he knew the odds.

"I was back in college and at a friend's house watching the lottery," Duncan recalled. "I was pretty sure I was coming to Boston. They had the two picks. Then the sixth pick went by and the third pick went by, both to Boston, and, all of a sudden, I kinda had a renewed interest in what was going on. Then Philly came up -- and then I knew I was going to San Antonio and that was a great feeling. I was looking forward just to be going to the NBA. I had waited four years. I didn't know what to expect. I just knew I was going to play."

We know how the rest of the story unfolded. Rick Pitino, a month into running the Celtics, tried to make a trade for the No. 1 pick after the results. No dice. He then twice passed on Tracy McGrady (the second-best player out of that draft, whom Pitino had recruited while still at Kentucky) for Chauncey Billups (whom he traded the following February) and Mercer (whom he traded two years later).

And now, 10 years later, the Celtics go into the lottery tomorrow with the league's second-worst record, but with only a 19.9 percent shot at the No. 1 pick, presumed to be Ohio State center Greg Oden. Ten years ago, there was not deemed to be a second guaranteed star in the draft (although McGrady turned out to be one) as there is this time in Kevin Durant. Back in 1997, Isiah Thomas ran the Toronto Raptors and ended up drafting McGrady. But on that spring day, Thomas said, "Tim Duncan is the only one in this draft with a chance to be a superstar. He has all the qualities you want in an individual you'll be giving big bucks to. There is nothing about him to make you nervous."

On May 18, 1997, the NBA lottery was not the biggest basketball story du jour. The Miami Heat and Knicks were playing Game 7 of the Eastern Conference semifinals -- and the major NBA story line was the mass suspensions handed out by commissioner David Stern in the wake of a brawl in Game 5 of that series. The Knicks, who had a 3-1 lead in the series before having several players suspended, ended up losing the series.

Before the lottery, which came at halftime of the Knicks-Heat game, Stern defended his decisions to suspend the Knicks players for leaving the bench. (It was eerie to hear him explain them. He just as easily could have been talking about the recent suspensions to the Suns' Amare Stoudemire and Boris Diaw.)

Then everything moved to Secaucus, N.J., where deputy commissioner Russ Granik presided over the lottery. Larry Bird was there, representing Indiana. He was about to begin his first season as coach of the Pacers. They ended up with the 12th pick and would select Austin Croshere. M.L. Carr, recently deposed as coach in Boston in favor of Pitino, represented the Celtics. Sixers president Pat Croce was there for Philadelphia, carrying with him Andrew Toney's sneaker laces from a decade earlier. ("The Boston Strangler, you know," Croce recalled. "I waved them at M.L.") Another on the podium: Ray Allen, representing the Bucks.

The Celtics' odds were inflated because they had their own first-round pick and that of the Mavericks, who had surrendered it the year before in a deal for Eric Montross. ("They said they needed a big man at the time of the deal," Carr recalled. "The next year, they still needed a big man.") Boston also benefited in that Vancouver and Toronto were ineligible for the No. 1 pick by virtue of their expansion agreements to enter the league. Toronto had actually "won" the 1996 lottery, but was bounced to second.

The San Antonio contingent that day consisted of coach Gregg Popovich, who was just completing a year in which he had fired Bob Hill after 18 games and taken over the head coaching reins, and Spurs owner Peter Holt, who occupied the San Antonio seat on the lottery set. Popovich watched the proceedings from a tent adjacent to the TV studio, munching down a sandwich and drinking what former Governor William Weld liked to call "an amber-colored liquid."

"As it dragged on and I didn't see our name, I stopped eating and drinking," Popovich recalled. "And when I found out we got the No. 1 pick, I dropped my sandwich and beer and said, 'Oh, my God.' And the rest is history."

It had come down to San Antonio and Philadelphia, although, back then, there was no television break before the top three teams were revealed. Larry Brown, who had just been hired by Croce to run the Sixers, was watching from the pro shop at the Bel Air Country Club in suburban Los Angeles.

"All these caddies and members and guys working in the pro shop were watching and cheering as the picks were made and our name was still out there," Brown said. "And when it came down to us and San Antonio, I thought to myself, this is a no-brainer. If we win, great. If San Antonio wins, it's great for Pop. The guy was the best man at my wedding. Then, right after it was announced, I thought to myself, 'I still love you, Pop, but man, what a letdown. There was such a drop-off after Duncan.' "

The Sixers chose the acknowledged No. 2 player in the draft, Van Horn, and promptly traded him (along with a couple of other bad contracts) to New Jersey for Tim Thomas and others. But even Brown can reminisce about what might have been. "Can you imagine," he said, "me walking out to my first day of practice as the head coach of the 76ers and seeing Allen Iverson and Tim Duncan out there?"

As for the Celtics, they had the most right to feel jilted. They had won 15 games the year before with Carr overseeing a rather transparent attempt to land Duncan. Carr's face dropped when the identity of the No. 3 pick was unveiled.

"After all the hits I'd taken the previous year, after all the junk that had gone on, after not getting any talent better than Nate Driggers, it was tough," he said. "I put my name and my reputation on the line for that pick.

"And then, as soon as [the lottery] was over, I get a call [from Pitino] telling me to ask Pop if he'll trade the No. 1 pick for the No. 3 and No. 6 pick," he continued. "Pop was very gracious. He said he thought he'd probably hold on to the pick. I said, 'Are you sure?' Can you imagine having to make that request? We'd have had to give them the right to all future picks and he still probably wouldn't have done it. But I was the company man to the end."

Pitino refused repeated attempts to obtain his comment for this story. His No. 1 assistant, Jim O'Brien, didn't recall the specifics of that day, but remembered, "It was pretty painful." Celtics assistant executive director of basketball operations Leo Papile was coaching his BABC club that afternoon and figured, "Well, we'll only play him [Duncan] a couple times a year. We still drafted a couple of good players and, let's not forget, a few years later we were in the conference finals, two wins away from the Finals against a team [the Lakers] that we had beaten on their own floor in the regular season."

But, as history has shown, the indisputable difference-maker in 1997 was Duncan. The Celtics had, by far, the best statistical odds to get him. They didn't come close.

Later that evening, Popovich and his wife, Erin, went to dinner at the River Cafe in New York and sat through the meal barely able to conceal their unbelievably good fortune.

"You get the urge to want to stand and tell everybody what happened," Popovich said in an interview with the Globe a few years after the lottery. "It was like we had this secret and no one else knew it. We wanted everyone to know how lucky we were.

"You look at each other and you shake your head and say, 'Why did we deserve this?' This means that for the rest of our lives, everything is going to go wrong. You don't deserve another good thing to happen in your life after this. So we were scared to death. For the first couple of days, it was like you didn't believe that it happened. Where do we start with this guy? My God, this is such a good player, we can't screw this up."

The three principals from that day who benefited the most are still in the same place: Holt, Popovich, and Duncan (who was a Spur as soon as the cards were turned). Popovich said in March that justice would be served if the Celtics won this time around.

Carr can't help but think what might have been had they won it a decade ago.

"We'd have put No. 17 up in the rafters and maybe even No. 18," he said. "We're due for a little luck this time around."

Peter May can be reached at P_May@globe.com.

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