Sixty young men will be selected Thursday night in the NBA draft at the Barclays Center. Bleacher Report sought out five former and current players to get their memories of that moment in their lives.
From Willis Reed's failed attempt to persuade the Knicks to give him a $15,000 contract in 1964, to Grant Hill's relief when Dallas selected Jason Kidd instead of him in 1994, to Shaun Livingston's decision to enter the 2004 NBA draft straight out of high school—a decision that required him to tell Mike Krzyzewski that he would not be accepting his scholarship offer to Duke—these players revisit the pivotal moments before, during and immediately after the draft.
Through it all, one thing is clear: When it comes to draft night and the couple of months leading up to it, things have changed. A lot.
THE 1964 DRAFT
Willis Reed grew up on a farm in Bernice, Louisiana, in the segregated South. He was a two-sport star at West Side High, good enough as a tight end to be offered a football scholarship at Grambling by legendary coach Eddie Robinson. He turned that down, though, accepting a basketball scholarship to Grambling instead.
Fresh off a senior season in which he averaged 27 points and 21 rebounds, Reed was invited to try out for the 1964 U.S. Olympic basketball team. An event like the Olympic tryouts was the closest thing the 1960s had to a combine. It was time to show-n-prove.
REED: The Olympic trials wasn’t my first exposure. I had played in the Pan American Games and the World Games, prior. But the trials really helped me with the NBA. I didn’t make the team, but NAIA players never made it. In fact, Luke Jackson [who made it in ‘64] was the first. But there were a lot of pro scouts there. I knew based on the way that I competed that I was one of the best big men in the country and, hey, maybe I’d have a shot.
But there were only nine teams back then and but so many roster spots, so I couldn’t bank on the opportunity. If it didn’t happen, I had gotten my degree, which was the biggest thing. I was planning to get into teaching and coaching, maybe go back to school and try to become a professor and college coach.
There was no such thing as draft visits back then. Players didn’t have agents, either. Young men like Reed were in the dark in terms of possible landing spots. He still had a preference, though.
I wanted to go to Detroit. They had the second pick in the first round. Earl Lloyd [the first black player in the NBA] was scouting for them at the time and saw me play one of my best games in college. I knew they were looking for a center. That’s the situation I wanted.
Detroit ended up picking “Jumpin’” Joe Caldwell, whom Reed described as his day’s LeBron James, in terms of athleticism. There was no draft ceremony back then, so Reed didn't think anything of it when he was called into the principal’s office at the school where he was working as a student teacher.
I was already teaching a summer program at the time. Had no idea what was going on. Then I reach the principal’s office and they hand me a phone. It’s [Knicks] coach Eddie Donovan. He told me that they used the first-round pick on Jim “Bad News” Barnes—and he was a really good player—and that they picked me with the first pick of the second round.
I was disappointed I wasn’t going to Detroit, but I was also upset that I wasn’t in the first round. I knew there weren’t nine players better than me. And I knew I had lost money.
So I go to negotiate my contract on my own. Remember: no agent. I’m sitting in an office with the GM, Fred Podesta, and Donovan. They offer me a $3,000 signing bonus and a contract at $11,000 per year. That was good money. I mean, in 1964, you could buy a brand new car for $3,000. But I was trying to get $15,000 per year.
So after they came in at $11,000, I tried for $13,500. I said to them, “OK, I’ll take the $11,000, and I’ll play for a $2,500 bonus at the end of the year. And I guarantee you’ll think I deserve it.”
Reed averaged about 20 points and 15 rebounds in his rookie season, was selected as an All-Star and won Rookie of the Year. He got that bonus.
The draft was nothing like it is today. No hoopla. But what happened that day was a critical part of my journey. Not getting drafted in the first round and losing out on some money, it really motivated me. I always played every game like I was playing for next year’s contract.
THE 1989 DRAFT
Twenty-five years after Reed found out he’d be a Knick via a phone call, the NBA draft had begun to morph into something of an event. It was held in New York City at the Felt Forum (now known as the Theater at Madison Square Garden). There were about 2,500 fans in the audience, and it was telecast live on TBS. The night’s host, Bob Neal, described the draft as one of the most “up for grabs” in history.
With the No. 1 pick, the Sacramento Kings had to choose between size (Pervis Ellison), a blue-blood shooter and Player of the Year (Danny Ferry) and a versatile, two-time All-American in Sean Elliott. Scouting in those days, however, was primitive. Due diligence? Not much.
ELLIOTT: Before the draft, I talked to Bill Russell [then the Kings’ general manager] for less than five minutes. That’s it. No meeting, just a real quick conversation. That’s just how it was back then. I guess they more went on what they saw on TV and tapes or the appeal and profile of the player. Things in scouting probably changed, I guess, when teams kept whiffing on picks.
The Clippers had the second pick, and I did go out and visit them. That was a disaster. I mean I get out there and nobody is at the airport to pick me up. I was a kid with no money. I had to call my agent [Bob Woolf] to get a hotel. They tried to take me to a gym to work out, which wasn’t a part of our agreement.
And I almost sued them.
They took an MRI of my knee and leaked a report to the media that my knee was severely damaged. It just so happened that, when that medical report came out, there was a radiology conference going on in Boston, where my agent was based. And my agent had the slides of the MRI. So he asked one of the top guys at the conference (Dr. John Crews) to look at it.
The guy came to Bob’s office, put the slide up against the window and said there was no way the Clippers doctors could report what they did based on the slides. I don’t know what they were trying to accomplish with that.
I actually went down to Miami [which had the fourth pick], and they were great. It was just their second season of existence, but they already had their act together. I was actually hoping to go there.
I didn’t talk to San Antonio at all, though. Not once. The first time I talked to anyone from the Spurs was on draft day.
San Antonio selected Elliott with the third pick. The Spurs were a franchise of moderate success up to that point, known nationally mostly for George Gervin’s virtuosity. But they were nothing like the model franchise that we know today.
The first person I talked to was the owner, Red McCombs [in his first season of full ownership]. I had no idea who he was. I love him nowadays, but that night he had to explain to me who he was. I had to be reminded who the coach was and everything. But then I was like, “Oh, yeah. Larry Brown’s the coach.” And, “Oh, yeah, big Dave Robinson is gonna be there next season.” [Robinson, the top pick in ‘87, had to finish his service with the U.S. Navy before starting his NBA career.]
I knew Big Dave because we played in the 1986 World Games together and were both at the 1988 Olympic trials. We hung out a lot. I was excited.
First, however, he had to get signed. There was no rookie wage scale, so Elliott had to wait for the dominoes to fall.
It was definitely a frustrating process because, not only was San Antonio very conservative with money and not just going to open up the bank, but everyone was waiting to see what Pervis got first. And then Danny wouldn’t sign with the Clippers. He refused to play for them. So there was no baseline for me.
So I was still a holdout in the first week of training camp. When I did finally sign, I go to my first practice, and after Larry Brown ends the session, he says I have to stay. Then he brings in [general manager] Bob Bass and they start running me through drills. And I’m thinking, “Wait, you drafted me already. Now you’re putting me through a tryout?”
Elliott was eventually a two-time All-Star who played all but one of his 12 seasons with the Spurs. He was the starting small forward on San Antonio’s 1999 championship team. His jersey was retired in 2005. He’s been a member of the Spurs broadcast team since 2005.
I’m glad the Clippers didn’t pick me that night.
THE 1994 DRAFT
Grant Hill and his “overachieving” Duke Blue Devils had lost a close game to the “40 Minutes of Hell” Arkansas Razorbacks—led by coach Nolan Richardson and Corliss Williamson—in the ‘94 NCAA championship game. These days, after such a loss, he’d have almost immediately jumped into training for the draft. Not 20 years ago, though.
HILL: Preparations are a lot more sophisticated now. But back then, in North Carolina, all the Duke and UNC guys and the guys at Wake Forest and N.C. State, if your eligibility was up, you would go out and barnstorm throughout the state. So me, Brian Reese, Eric Montross and a bunch of guys would go and play these game—you know, N.C. is basketball country—in these smaller towns like Asheville, Rocky Mount and whatnot, where they didn’t always get to see college stars play. And we got a little cash for it. It probably wasn’t the smartest thing to do with the risk of getting hurt.
Nowadays guys aren’t declaring for the draft and playing pickup ball. They’re going straight to specialists and trainers to get them ready for the draft.
But for me, honestly, my time between season’s end and the draft was not much different from when I was a student. I stayed down in N.C., and it was pretty much hanging out and playing ball every day.
There was some business he took care of, though. He chose Lon Babby, his lawyer at the time, to be his agent [Hill was Babby’s first major client as a sports agent], and scored a sneaker deal with FILA (a coup for the shoe company at the time, as Nike and Reebok were the kicks kings).
Most players didn’t get shoe deals before they were drafted back then. But Hill was a star, with a polished charm and pedigree that made him destined to be a pitchman. On the court he was a super-versatile wing who drew apt comparisons to Scottie Pippen.
Along with Glenn “Big Dog” Robinson and Jason Kidd, he was a consensus top-three pick. He worked out for only two teams, however—Milwaukee and Detroit. The Bucks had the top pick, the Pistons the third. He chose not to work out for Dallas, which had the second pick.
I had my heart set on Detroit.
Let’s face it. Glenn had just had a sensational season [Big Dog averaged 30 points and 10 rebounds on his way to a Big Ten championship and Wooden Award]. We knew he was basically a lock at No. 1. I even think that Milwaukee held up a jersey with his name on it when they won the lottery.
So, I didn’t want to work out for Milwaukee, really, but my agent said that I had to make the visit to the team with the first pick almost as a courtesy.
So, it was really between J-Kidd and I for the next two picks, and I felt I had a really good visit with Detroit. I felt like it was the best fit for me. They had just drafted Lindsey [Hunter] and Allan [Houston], the year before, so they had the 1 and 2 positions set. That meant I could come in and play 3. And you still had the veteran, Joe Dumars, there to mentor. It just felt right.
Dallas already had Jimmy Jackson and Jamal Mashburn at the wing positions. So Jason was the natural fit there. Little did I know how much point and point forward I’d end up playing in my career.
The Bucks, as expected, picked Robinson (who’d go on to sign the biggest rookie contract ever up to that point—10 years for $68 million guaranteed, the last straw in what would create a rookie salary cap). Then came the moment of truth with Dallas on the clock.
Bob Neal, Hubie Brown and Doug Collins were the TNT broadcast team at the Hoosier Dome that night. They pumped up the suspense for the second pick. Who’d it be, Kidd or Hill? The Mavs, as we know, picked Kidd. As the future Hall of Fame point guard made his way to the stage, he stopped by Hill’s table to give him what almost seemed as a consolation tap. Little did he know Hill was elated.
Man, I was so nervous Dallas might pick me. It’s funny, but when they announced the Mavs drafted J-Kidd, I think my table clapped and cheered almost as loud as his.
Looking back, I don’t know if I was ever that nervous before. And that’s with me even knowing I’d be top three. I can’t imagine going through that night not knowing if I’d be drafted or not.
Up to that point you control your destiny. You choose your high school, you choose your college. Now they’re picking you. It was such a relief. Man, walking across that stage...that was monumental.
One of those guys in 1994 who had no idea if David Stern or Rod Thorn would call his name was Charlie Ward, a two-sport athlete at Florida State and the winner of the 1993 Heisman Trophy.
Shortly after quarterbacking Florida State to a close win over No. 2 Nebraska in the Orange Bowl for the national title, Ward had a decision to make. Forgo his senior hoops season and focus on prepping for the NFL draft or go play for Pat Kennedy. He chose basketball.
The NFL draft took place about a month after his basketball season ended. He had thrown for scouts at FSU’s pro day, moderately impressing, but didn’t hold out much hope for getting drafted. He watched the draft at his parents' home in Thomasville, Ga. It was their anniversary. His name wasn’t called.
WARD: I wasn’t expecting to get picked in the NFL draft, because I wasn’t going to quit basketball. I wanted to keep my options open. So my focus as soon as football season ended was preparing physically for basketball. I never really gave too much thought to a pro basketball career in college because I was just enjoying playing both sports.
But after not getting picked in NFL draft, it became my focus. I got a chance to play at the NABC [National Association of Basketball Coaches] All-Star Game at the Final Four and I won MVP. Then I went on a Nike tour through four countries with some other college players. John Calipari was our coach. And when I went to the combine, I wasn’t a superstar, at all, but our teams did well in the competitions. So I was proving myself.
Ward worked out for Orlando, New York, Denver and San Antonio—all teams with late first-round picks.
All those teams knew what they would be getting. Even though I was a senior, they were not getting a finished product. They were getting upside. But I definitely didn't know if any of those teams would give me an opportunity to be a first-rounder.
I didn’t know if I’d be drafted, at all. Had no clue.
Ward spent most of the predraft lead-up working out with the late Kenny “Eggman” Williamson, who was an FSU assistant coach and ultra plugged-in to the pro circles. He was Ward’s champion.
Coach Williamson had a lot of friends. I learned that he put in a good word for me with Ed Tapscott [the Knicks’ assistant general manager, at the time], who, I suspect, vouched for me with [Ernie] Grunfeld [Knicks’ general manager] and Pat Riley [who would be entering his final season as Knicks coach]. I’m not sure who signed off, whether it was Grunfeld or Riley, but I’m grateful.
Ward, far from a surefire pick, was not invited to attend the draft ceremony. As he did with the NFL draft, he watched at his parents' home in Georgia. It was a subdued event. Ward said he was managing expectations. As the first round proceeded, Denver and San Antonio passed on him.
His agent, Eugene Parker, told him the Knicks were a possibility, but the Knicks, with the 24th pick, chose Monty Williams. They did, however, have another pick coming up at 26. That’s when Ward got the call (“I can’t even remember who called. It was either Grunfeld or Tap.”).
He was going to be playing ball at the Garden with Riley, Patrick Ewing and the defending Eastern Conference champs. Quite a change for a reserved Southern boy.
I had been up there before for Heisman weekend. I remember thinking that I couldn’t live there, that it was something I wouldn’t want to be a part of. And, you know, coming from a small town in the South, you heard all the stories about New York, about all the muggings and stuff like that. But, lo and behold, that’s where I go, where God sent me.
The good thing is that, as a late first-round pick, you’re going to a more established team. And I needed that time to develop. It was a great opportunity for me to get mentored by Derek Harper and Doc Rivers and Greg Anthony. They taught me the position, how to be a professional. I learned a lot.
Ward spent 10 seasons with the Knicks and was the starting point guard for the ‘99 Finals squad and the next season when they returned to the Eastern Conference Finals. A legit career.
But he also represents the other side to draft night, for the majority of prospects who aren’t in NYC, stuntin’, practicing in the mirror how they’re going to walk across the stage and shake the commissioner's hand, or planning after-parties. For these kids, it’s more anxiousness than anticipation.
I don’t have the same memory of draft night like the top guys. I ended up in the first round, but I was really on the edge. I just remember what it made possible. And I’m thankful for that.
THE 2004 DRAFT
When owners and the players union negotiated a new collective bargaining agreement in 2005, the new age limit was one of the major items. Starting with Kevin Garnett in 1995 and then Kobe Bryant and Jermaine O’Neal the following year, the number of preps-to-pros players kept increasing. The 2004 draft was something of a tipping point. That year, eight high school kids were drafted in the first round. One of them was Shaun Livingston.
In 2003, going into the Adidas Big Time Tournament in Las Vegas as a rising senior, Livingston was no doubt elite. He was 6’7", all limbs, hops and court vision—a Magic Johnson clone. He was not, however, Sebastian Telfair or Dwight Howard or even Josh Smith. He wasn’t a star.
Then he showed out in Sonny Vaccaro’s Sin City summer classic—flying up the court throwing Houdini passes and putting defenders in his trick bag, using his intuition and Stacey Augmon skills to burglarize the passing lanes—and things changed.
Prep-to-pro whispers started. Livingston hushed the NBA talk, put his head down, returned to Peoria Central for his senior season and led his squad to a repeat championship. So, now what?
LIVINGSTON: Duke was a very real possibility. I had actually committed and everything. All throughout my senior season I ignored the draft talk and I really did have my heart and mind set on going to Duke. But I had to look into going pro. So I went out to Chicago and participated in some involuntary workouts at Hoops Gym with Tim Grover [who rose to national prominence as Michael Jordan’s personal trainer]. A lot of other future draftees were there, too.
I hadn’t declared yet or chosen an agent, because I wanted to keep my college eligibility. But there were a lot of teams represented there and the rumors really picked up. I was hearing I could go top seven or top eight. I heard Atlanta definitely wanted me with their second pick. So that gave me validation that, yeah, I need to do this.
This meant Livingston had to break some bad news to a certain Duke coach who was losing his two best players to the draft (Luol Deng and Chris Duhon) and hoping to restock his coffers with his prized recruit.
Man, telling Coach K I wasn’t coming to Duke was the hardest conversation I ever had in my life up until that point. I thought he was going to be disappointed or angry, but of course he didn’t make me feel that way. He did disagree with my decision, though. He thought I needed to come to college and develop my body and game. But he understood.
Coach K wasn’t wrong, either. Livingston not only had a raw game, but he also was a chopstick. Heading into the draft, he wouldn’t have tipped 190 pounds on the scale.
By 2004, the predraft combine and individual team workouts had significantly evolved. Teams went from barely seeing or talking to eventual picks to putting them through rigorous tests, drills and interviews. Livingston worked out for the Bobcats, Bulls, Clippers, Hawks and Suns, which had the second, third, fourth, sixth and seventh picks, respectively.
He was often battling pro prospects two and three years his senior. A lot of the workouts include one-on-one and two-on-two competitions. They put him on Front Street.
I worked out by myself for the Bulls. Then I went to Atlanta and was in a workout with Ben Gordon, Devin Harris and Royal Ivey. I had the jitters. I was like a deer in headlights. Had no idea what to expect. Plus, I was overmatched. They were just better than me, stronger than me. But I showed my potential. They got the best of me a lot, but I think I proved I could compete on that level.
It was hard, though. Like, I had to go up against Jameer Nelson in my Phoenix workout and ... man, listen! He was a bulldog. He was so good and I was underdeveloped. The older guys would kind of push me around, so I had to use my length to compensate.
Plus, for me to be projected to go higher than a lot of those guys, they had to feel some type of way about it. Devin and I even had the same agent [Henry Thomas], and we didn’t really like each other. I’m sure he was like, “Who is this punk kid? I was the Big Ten Player of the Year, an All-American. I’ll bust his ass.”
But I wasn’t gonna hide. If this is what I wanted to do [going pro], then I had to step up and accept their challenges.
Heading into the draft, Howard and UConn center Emeka Okafor were no-brainers for the top two picks, and although Livingston was a consensus top-five prospect, picks two through five or six were fluid. The Bulls had the third pick, which might have seemed like a good fit for an Illinois kid who grew up downstate in Peoria. But Livingston wanted no part of Chicago.
“I wanted to get out,” he said. “I wanted to go far away.” Ultimately, however, he wasn’t stressing where he’d land. And so it went that Livingston arrived in New York City for the draft with a small group that included his father, Reggie, grandfather Frank, uncle Barry and some other family and friends.
There was a lot of excitement and not much nerves to tell you the truth. In the back of my mind I felt confident. I was projected to go high, I was invited to the green room. I was good.
So when the draft started I knew how the top two picks would go. Then the Bulls drafted Ben third. Right after that my agent started making some calls, and that’s when Henry told us what the plan was. When Commission Stern called my name, man, I didn’t wanna cry, but I was smiling ear to ear. That moment was almost too big for me to even realize what was happening. It sounds cliche. ... All my dreams had come true.
After taking that walk across the draft stage to shake Commissioner Stern’s hand, Livingston had a brief phone conversation with Clippers coach Mike Dunleavy and general manager Elgin Baylor.
I didn’t know everything about the Clippers, but I did know that, at the time, they didn’t have the best reputation as far as how they treated players or with winning. They were kind of like the butt of jokes. They weren’t, like, the Lakers or Spurs, known as quality organizations.
I didn’t really know what to expect, but all I could do was go there and try to make my mark. Once I got there, I kind of learned some of their rep was true. For instance, we practiced at a community college at the time. I’m like, “What is this, the D-League?”
By his second season, Livingston had developed into a significant cog in the Clippers’ rotation. He averaged about 28 minutes per game during the Clippers’ 12-game 2006 playoff run. The next season, just as the youngster had worked his way into the starting lineup, he blew out his knee and had to sit out a year and a half.
The superstitious blamed the infamous Clipper Curse. The Clips released him after the 2007-08 season. For the next five seasons he bounced around the league in trades, on the waiver wire or on 10-day contracts. All that unique talent derailed by injury.
He was a quintessential “what if?” Then, on July 11, 2013, Livingston signed with the Brooklyn Nets for a career rebirth.
I don’t have any regrets about being drafted by the Clippers. I loved my time in L.A. before the injury. I look back on that draft night with good memories. Really, I wish I was more in the moment that night. It was such a whirlwind, like a tornado that sucked me in and spun me into my lifelong dream.