Thirty years ago, one of the greatest conspiracy theories in sports history was born:
The Frozen Envelope.
According to conspiracy theorists, then-NBA commissioner David Stern rigged the 1985 Draft so that Georgetown standout Patrick Ewing could go to the New York Knicks, who had the first overall pick. How could Stern do that, you ask? By placing the Knicks’ envelope in a freezer so that he would know based on feel which one belonged to New York.
Sports Illustrated writer Chris Ballard has an upcoming feature about the conspiracy theory and dropped by CBS Sports Radio on Wednesday to discuss it.
So, did his reporting add more intrigue to the theory or punch some holes in it?
“I think in the end it punched some holes for me” Ballard said on The DA Show. “But I think like a lot of fans, it’s really fun to believe. And I did hear from people around the league – no one would go on record who had anything to say because they’re all still scared of Stern, even in retirement. But I heard someone say three out of ten people around the league think this might have happened. Other people say this is very plausible because if you go back to 1985, that was before the heyday (of) Jordan and Bird and Magic. We think about the ’80s and Nike and this big boom. That hadn’t happened by ’85. By ’85, they were two years away from almost abandoning six of the NBA teams. There had been a big cocaine problem in the league, they were showing the NBA Draft on the USA Network on a weekday in the afternoon. I spoke to Stern for this (feature). He told me he actually paid USA Network $40,000 one year to cover costs just so they could get the draft on TV.
“So there was definitely a desperation,” Ballard continued. “And this is not the slickest-running show in the world. I talked to people who set the set and people who did the envelopes – all that stuff. They were just hoping this would not be embarrassing on TV. It was sort of a game show idea that no one had really done before, so culturally, it had a pretty big impact. Now we have Mel Kiper Jr. and all this stuff, but back then, this was novel to televise basically the drawing of straws.
“So in the end, it’s sort of hard to believe, but it’s sort of fun to believe it might have happened.”
Once the Lakers beat the Celtics in the 1985 NBA Finals to really ignite the rivalry, and once Michael Jordan became a global icon, the league was well on its way to mega-success. Before then, however, it was a little dicey.
“There was excitement about (the league), but this was all building,” Ballard said. “The reason they instituted the lottery is because teams were tanking so blatantly. Donald Sterling came right out in 1982 and said we can win by losing. The Houston Rockets spent two years just unapologetically tanking down the stretch, and it worked for them. Back then, there was a coin flip for the two worst teams, so they had a 50/50 chance (of getting the first pick). One year they got Ralph Sampson, and the next they got Hakeem Olajuwon. That’s when Stern and the board of governors said we got to change this.
“There was a lot wrong with the NBA,” Ballard continued. “There were some positives – the Magic/Bird thing was happening – but it was really just starting.”