NEW YORK -- Thirty years later, after learning he would not deliver any fist pump out of the Dave DeBusschere playbook, New York Knicks general manager Steve Mills winced and lowered his head. His team had just suffered its 66th loss, this one more painful than the previous 65, and that's why his face suddenly looked like one of those Patriots footballs in the first half of the AFC Championship Game.
DeBusschere won the 1985 NBA draft lottery, the Patrick Ewing lottery, and Mills ignored the conspiracy theories attached to that event like cans to a wedding car. Tuesday night he wore the same ring the late executive wore the day he won the rights to Ewing, DeBusschere's Hall of Fame ring, thinking the karma might land the 17-65 Knicks the No. 1 pick and the right to choose between two accomplished giants, Karl-Anthony Towns of Kentucky and Jahlil Okafor of Duke.
Holding the league's second-worst record, Mills ended up with the fourth pick instead, losing his spot to Phil Jackson's old team, the 21-win Lakers. The Knicks were the only participants on the board to take a painful plunge, and when the news was announced inside a midtown hotel ballroom a collective groan rattled around the walls of the place, as if the Knicks had just committed another turnover while turning Jackson's triangle into a square.
You win 17 games in the NBA, you deserve exactly what you get. And for those who would follow that logic to the conclusion that 16-win Minnesota sure didn't deserve the No. 1 pick, hey, at least the Timberwolves had their owner, Glen Taylor, sit up there with his dunce cap on.
The Knicks? The same organization that handed Jackson $60 million to elevate their sorry you-know-whats?
They sent someone other than Phil Jackson, whose $4.85 million Manhattan apartment is all of five blocks from the lottery's site.
This was a big night for the Knicks, their biggest since Jackson arrived as president of the team. Larry Bird wasn't too important to show his face for this loserville derby, but on the day he announced he'd be taking a pass Jackson sounded like an overlord who was above the indignity of it all.
Yes, he'd watched his teammate from the Knicks' glory days, DeBusschere, react in a memorable way to the sights and sounds of David Stern opening the envelope and declaring the second pick of the '85 draft the exclusive property of the Indiana Pacers. "But I don't want to be there to do it," Jackson said last month. "I submit my colleagues to go there and watch it go down."
What a joke. Jackson had an opportunity to prove that he's not merely a detached consultant who took the job, according to his former GM in Chicago, Jerry Krause, because he wanted to pocket James Dolan's money. Jackson had a chance to show everyone he isn't already reviewing future exit strategies as eagerly as he's scouting future pros.
But he just wouldn't reduce himself to a prop on that stage. Instead Knicks fans discovered something else Steve Mills isn't particularly adept at -- being a good-luck charm.
"Sure, there's a little disappointment," Mills said. "Obviously we would've liked to have received the higher pick. But we went into this knowing that anywhere between one and five we were going to get a good player, and as we look at this, this is a player that's complementary to a player we have in place in Carmelo [Anthony] and what we're going to do in free agency. So we feel this is a really good draft and we know we'll get a good player at four."
Just not the kind of player the Knicks would've landed at one or two. Jackson had talked of a big, intimidating force in the lane as a high priority for his wasteland of a roster, and now it's likely he'll have to settle for one of the top perimeter candidates in this class, D'Angelo Russell or Emmanuel Mudiay. Maybe that player will grow quickly into a consistent force, and maybe he won't. Mills said the Knicks' decision at No. 4 will be significantly impacted by their plans in free agency, suggesting that the call won't be made strictly on best-available-player terms. In describing the pending pick as a "complementary" piece, Mills didn't exactly summon the images of Ewing and other franchise-altering stars.
Towns was the prospect who best matches up with those images, and the Knicks scout who trailed him all season at Kentucky, Mark Warkentien, had fallen hard for him. So had every basketball lifer who watched Towns grow from a long-range shooter at a New Jersey high school, St. Joseph of Metuchen, into a defensive anchor with enough developing low-post moves to lead Kentucky to 38 consecutive victories and a place in the Final Four.
"In my mind he's the No. 1 pick in the draft," Bob Hurley Sr., the legendary New Jersey high school coach, said during the NCAA tournament. "Okafor is a more polished offensive player, but Towns is a better defender, rebounder, and foul shooter, and is a bit more versatile now. He's personable, a great interview, plays with passion, and has a more outgoing personality than most big kids do. You can put him on the Knicks and he's an NBA All-Star."
Only you can't put him on the Knicks now. Towns will be long gone, and so will Okafor, when the Knicks step to the plate in the unwelcome role as the draft's cleanup hitter.
"I think it's not a setback at all," Mills said.
It's a setback. The Knicks won at Orlando and Atlanta in their final three games of the season, results that ultimately cost them the lottery odds that landed Minnesota at No. 1.
But this isn't about victories No. 16 and 17, and whether or not the Knicks should've tanked those sets in classic Andre Agassi form. This is about the mind-numbing procession of losses that left a beaten-down Jackson hunched over the worst season in franchise history.
Bad teams earn their bad breaks, and the Knicks earned a brutal one Tuesday night. They had an 18.81 percent chance to get the second pick and one of the two elite bigs, and they lost their position to the Lakers, who had a 12.6 percent chance to end up at No. 2.
Unlike DeBusschere, Jackson wasn't there to witness the way his lottery went down. Perhaps he was busy preparing to watch those 3-point-shooting contenders he recently challenged on Twitter, contenders now playing for a spot in the championship round. Perhaps he was bracing for the sight of Steve Kerr, his first recruit who got away, winning Game 1 of the Western Conference finals as head coach of the 67-win Golden State Warriors.
Whatever. Jackson didn't have to be on this NBA stage, under a dunce cap, to understand the cruel reality of the Knicks' latest defeat. His miserable team most definitely earned its miserable luck, and nobody will attach any conspiracy theories to that.