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Combination punch lands and owner feels the sting

SECAUCUS, N.J. -- Celtics owner Wyc Grousbeck did not flip through the lists of combinations when the first set of four Ping-Pong balls was announced last night. Unlike other team representatives sequestered in conference room 3A at the NBA Entertainment Studios -- where the actual draft lottery drawing took place -- Grousbeck knew almost immediately that Boston would not receive the No. 1 pick. It went to the Portland Trail Blazers.

As the second set of Ping-Pong balls was plucked from the tumbler, Grousbeck, in a green-and-white pinstriped suit, rocked ever so slightly in his chair, slowly realizing that the Celtics would not land the No. 2 pick, either, as numbers 14, 4, 11, and 10 were pulled. The second choice went to the Seattle SuperSonics. Although Grousbeck didn't say anything, it was easy to read his mind -- and those of everyone else not affiliated with Portland or Seattle.

Goodbye, Greg Oden and Kevin Durant.

Moments later, when the Atlanta Hawks took the third pick, Grousbeck forced a smile, disappointed that the Celtics will pick fifth June 28. Then he turned to congratulate the three men sitting behind him: Portland general manager Kevin Pritchard, Seattle assistant GM Rich Cho, and Atlanta owner Ed Peskowitz.

"I knew the numbers," said Grousbeck. "I had a general idea a 1 or 2 had to show up or we weren't getting a pick, and they didn't show up.

"The first thing I thought of is that Danny [Ainge] has been hammering into me that there's five or six guys he likes. I was probably looking for something to cheer me up, but that's what we've been talking about for a month and we're going to go with that plan.

"It would have been fun. It was like the feeling of watching a Paul Pierce last-second 3-pointer go toward the net, except it took a month and a half to not fall instead of a second and a half.

"In five or six years, it will probably be seen as a draft that is probably pretty deep, but right now all the flow is with 1 and 2. You can't fight that, but we will make pick No. 5 work."

For the first and what he promised would be the last time, Grousbeck watches the lottery proceedings from behind locked doors. Representatives from 12 of the 14 lottery teams (the Bulls and Clippers do not show) enter room 3A shortly after 7 p.m. Once NBA chief operating officer and general counsel Joel Litvin explains the rules, those in attendance place cellphones, BlackBerries, and all other wireless devices in envelopes, to be kept under the watchful eye of two NBA security officials in the back of the room.

Just before 7:30, and more than an hour before the results are announced on the live ESPN broadcast, 14 Ping-Pong balls are released into a tumbler at the front of the room.

Cho turns to Pritchard and says, "What do you say we go 1-2?"

Pritchard replies, "Or 2-1 will work also."

An official timer stands in a corner with his back to the tumbler. When the timer raises his arm, a ball is drawn. This happens at 10-second intervals. Out come 5, 9, 14, 13. Cho turns to Pritchard and says, "That's you."

"We're thrilled," says Pritchard, in what is easily the understatement of the evening. "We feel like the tide has definitely changed for us. We've changed our culture. Maybe it's a little poetic justice [after having the worst record last year and falling to fourth].

"We feel like we're moving forward and this is a big piece of it. No decision has been made. We just want to make sure we get to know a couple kids at the top . . . I'll concede that it's a two- horse race right now."

When NBA officials repeat the process for the No. 2 pick, it is Cho's turn to be thrilled. Pritchard and Cho take turns showing each other the lucky charms they brought to Secaucus. For Pritchard, it is a ladybug key chain given to him by his 10-year-old daughter, Kendall. For Cho, it is a picture of his 20-month-old daughter, Miranda. After Atlanta takes the No. 3 spot, one NBA official walks over to Pritchard to offer congratulations and apologizes for not coming over sooner.

Grousbeck quips, "You don't need to apologize to him. He's fine."

Laughter breaks the tension that has built from the moment the room went into lockdown mode, though it takes time before the lottery winners and losers can truly absorb what has happened. The TV in the front of the room is turned on, and a strange time warp takes place.

With the lottery drawing complete, team representatives watch as ESPN teases the announcement of the 2007 draft order. There is laughter when Tom Heinsohn and Jerry West, representing the Celtics and Grizzlies, respectively, are shown entering the NBA Entertainment Studios, as everyone inside room 3A knows the disappointment that awaits the Hall of Famers.

The room quiets down after Dan Patrick tells the TV audience, "Those Ping-Pong balls rarely have been more valuable."

The next hour passes quickly for some and slowly for others, the winners and losers conducting interviews with the four media members allowed into the room.

Surprisingly, when the results are announced on the telecast, there is more laughter in room 3A than at any other time during the night. It is surreal watching the suspense build as deputy commissioner Adam Silver works his way toward the top pick. Cellphones and BlackBerries can be heard buzzing inside the envelopes at the back of the room.

The stoic faces of Heinsohn and West elicit more laughter. No. 2 and No. 1 are revealed, and more laughter follows. But the post-lottery analysis is far from humorous, as talking heads view Boston as the big loser. Still, Grousbeck smiles gamely through the rest of the evening.

"I've been looking forward to next season for a long time," says Grousbeck. "I'm ready to turn the page. This, in a sense, lets us turn the page. Now we know what we've got. We know where we'll be going. We'll be adding a good player. In a sense, I feel like next season has finally begun because this was actually hanging over from last season.

"Uncertainty is part of the game, and there was a high level of uncertainty in this room, which was actually quite an experience. Now it's resolved, we're on to the draft, and I'm looking forward to the workouts."

Once Portland is announced as the lottery winner, NBA security allows those in room 3A to collect their cellphones and BlackBerries. All the envelopes are opened except one.

In all the excitement, Pritchard has left his BlackBerry behind. He rushes back into room 3A, grabs the device, and says, "My guess is this is full already."

Winding his way downstairs for more interviews, he counts 19 voice messages and 28 text messages. For Portland, it is the first taste of the excitement to come. For Boston, it is time, once again, to move forward from a disappointing lottery.

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