The 1985 Patrick Ewing, Knicks, David Stern ‘Frozen Envelope’ Conspiracy… Proved!
Patrick Ewing is undeniably one of the greatest players to ever don a New York Knicks jersey. He spent 15 years with the Knicks in what was one of the most successful stints in franchise history. And yet, we’re about to discuss the 1985 NBA Draft conspiracy involving all aforementioned players and David Stern.
At this point, it’s hard to imagine Ewing not being with the Knicks. Ewing did play with the Seattle SuperSonics and Orlando Magic to finish out his career, but notwithstanding those two odd seasons, he’s basically a Knicks lifer.
What some may not know is how Patrick Ewing got to the Knicks and the conspiracy theory surrounding the events. This is the story of how the 1985 NBA Draft was allegedly rigged to hand Ewing over to New York.
Unlike today’s NBA, the league back then was dominated by big men. Sure, this was the era of Larry Bird and Magic Johnson, but still, there’s no denying that at that time, height was might.
Patrick Ewing was the consensus first overall pick in the 1985 draft after a tremendous career with Georgetown where he averaged 15.3 points (on 62.0 percent shooting), 9.2 rebounds, 1.2 steals, and 3.4 blocks per game. He pretty much won it all during his time with the Hoyas, including the NCAA title in 1984. Simply put, he was the next big thing — literally — and NBA teams were lining up to acquire the services of the once-in-a-generation talent.
At that time, David Stern was the league commissioner. 1985 actually marked the first time the lottery took place after owners got sick of teams blatantly tanking for the top pick, with Donald Sterling’s Los Angeles Clippers a main culprit. The seven teams that didn’t make the playoffs the season before all had an equal chance (14.3%) of bagging the first overall pick.
The conspiracy theory revolves around the notion that Stern and the league wanted the Knicks to establish themselves as part of the upper echelon of teams in the NBA because of their standing as one of the big-market franchises. An increase in their stature (the team was coming off a 24-win season in the 1984-85 campaign) would have theoretically translated to a boost in the overall popularity of the NBA, which would have helped when working on a new television deal.
Come the NBA Draft Lottery, David Stern allegedly had his mind set on giving the first overall pick to the Knicks, which would virtually hand over Ewing to the franchise. There were even rumblings before the draft that it had all been arranged.
Stan Kasten, then the GM of the Hawks, recalls attending a college tournament in Hawaii a few months before the lottery. “I was sitting with a couple of NBA guys,” says Kasten, “and I remember one high-ranking- team executive, who I will not name, was a million percent convinced of what was going to happen. ‘He’s going to the Knicks,’ he kept saying. ‘He’s going to the Knicks. It’s all arranged.’ ” Kasten pauses, chuckles. “I didn’t believe him at the time.”
At that time, one large envelope for each team in the lottery was placed in a large, transparent plastic ball and shuffled up before David Stern picked them out. As the conspiracy theory goes, the Knicks’ envelope was either purposefully given a creased corner while it was being tossed in the ball or it was “frozen” to make it easier for Stern to choose. (Or maybe it was both?!)
One report in a New York tabloid suggested that Ernst and Whinney, the accounting firm involved in the lottery, played a role in the rigging:
It did little to dampen the mood in the NBA office when, a day later, a New York tabloid reported a curious fact: Ernst & Whinney just happened to also be the auditing firm for Gulf & Western, which just happened to own the Knicks. Asked by McManis about the possibility of a fix, Madison Square Garden president Jack Krumpe responded, “Hey, I told them how to fix it 60 days ago. You call up Ernst & Whinney and you say, ‘If we don’t get Ewing, you’re fired.’”
It was an Ernst and Whinney employee who put the envelopes in the ball, and some believe that person made sure the corner of the Knicks’ envelope was creased when it was put in:
Whatever the case, the Knicks indeed won the No. 1 pick, and the rest, as they say, is history.
David Stern was asked about a rigged lottery at the time, but he brushed it off. Instead, he focused on the popularity of the new event:
“If people want to say that [the lottery was fixed], fine,” David Stern said. “As long as they spell our name right. That means they’re interested in us. That’s terrific.”
In the end, nothing was actually proven, and this is still nothing more than a conspiracy to this very day. Some might even say that this is the biggest conspiracy theory in NBA history, perhaps alongside Stern’s “secret suspension” of Michael Jordan for gambling.
This lottery fiasco prompted the league to change the format of the lottery. Ping pong balls were introduced shortly after, and that has been the norm ever since. Whether or not there was a direct correlation between the conspiracy theory and the league’s decision to reformat the lottery is not something that we will ever be able to determine conclusively.
The Knicks certainly weren’t complaining about any of this, and they enjoyed the Hall of Fame services of Patrick Ewing for a long time, even if they never got a title out of it.