When Allen Iverson was the #1 pick in the lottery the consensus was the Philadelphia 76ers had greatly improved their talent. What no one could have predicted was the NBA world was going to be turned upside down. Allen Iverson’s greatness was on center stage as were Allen Iverson’s flaws. He was a dynamic scorer and playmaker, a volume shooter, a heart on his sleeve desperation player, he was relentless and passionate, he played hard, he became a folk hero, he was embraced as a cultural phenomenon, he was a legend and he was a myth. In essence, he more than lived up to his hype. He did what his #1 pick status implied. He played 40 minutes. He averaged 24 points and 8 assists as a rookie. He was Rookie of the Year.
The 1996 lottery answered every question that is asked of a lottery class. Did the lottery class produce All Stars? Yes. 7 All Stars, a record. Allen Iverson. Marcus Camby. Shareef Abdur-Rahim. Stephon Marbury. Ray Allen. Antonie Walker. Kobe Bryant. Did the lottery class produce MVP’s? Yes. 2 MVP’s, Allen Iverson and Kobe Bryant. Did the lottery class produce All-NBA selections? Yes. The 1996 lottery class produced 26 All-NBA Selections. Did the lottery class produce a Defensive Player of the Year? Yes. Marcus Camby. Did the lottery class produce NBA titles? Yes. 7 titles. Did the lottery class produce long careers? Yes. The lottery class played in more than 10,000 games.
Allen Iverson was the first. He was the #1 pick. Kobe Bryant was the last, the #13 pick. Kobe was a 17 year old high school player from Philadelphia by way of Italy. Before the draft, the prediction of where Kobe Bryant would land was dependent upon who was talking. Some had him as high as third, others late in the first round. It was a conundrum for front office personnel. No guard had ever played in the NBA without the benefit of college. But Kobe’s talent, athleticism and ambition was something that was hard for teams to overlook. Still, five teams who were in desperate need of a shooting guard passed on him. Toronto had Alvin Robertson. They passed. Vancouver had Byron Scott. They passed. Boston had Greg Minor. They passed. The Nets had Ed O’Bannon. They passed. But sometimes high risk is high reward. Kobe became the greatest player of his generation, the most competitive, the most driven, the hardest working, the one with the most titles.
As is the case with every lottery there are busts. The 1996 lottery only had one. Todd Fuller. Todd played in 225 games. He was a left handed center who averaged 4 points and 3 rebounds in 11 minutes. In his last season in 2001, Todd Fuller shot 28% (he is six foot eleven). He averaged 3 points and only played in 10 games.
There are a thousand Todd Fuller’s. Tall players who are not talented enough to be NBA players, who are unable to sustain a career. That was not the case with Lorenzen Wright who the Clippers took with the 7th pick. He was 6-11 too, a wiry center who was agile in the lane, could rebound and had post moves. He had a 13 year career and played for the Clippers, the Hawks and the Grizzlies. He averaged 8 points and 6 rebounds. His best years were when Kobe Bryant was winning championships number two and three. Lorenzen averaged 12 points and 8 rebounds and 12 points and 9 rebounds with the Hawks. He retired in 2009. Then in the relentless humidity of a 2010 Memphis summer Lorenzen went missing. It was a broiling day when someone came upon the remains of a decomposing 57 pound body decimated by the heat and rain and buried in a shallow ditch. The police were called in to investigate the homicide of Lorenzen Wright, one that has never been solved.
And so it was, the draft lottery of 1996. The Bold and the Beautiful. The tragic. It was the greatest lottery as far as All Stars. No other lottery has produced seven All Stars. No other lottery has produced six All Stars in the first six picks. No other lottery has produced three guards who defined their position in a way that had never been done before. Iverson was relentless, tough and dynamic and created a cult following. He proved why he was the #1 pick. Ray Allen is the best three point shooter in NBA history, one of the best clutch shooters of all time and a manic preparer. And Kobe is a great two way player with a versatile skill set, an array of shots and post moves, he is a perfectionist and the ultimate competitor.
Before the draft no one would have guessed it would have turned out quite like this. The high school player still at it after 18 years. The Connecticut sharp shooter on his fourth team and with two rings, trying for a third. The Georgetown lightening rod-everyone thought he would play forever, he was that tough-but basketball is over for him. The son of a paralyzed father, a generous and kind human being, murdered and dumped in a field.
1996 was one of the great draft lotteries in its 29 year history. The success of the ‘96 lottery class has not been matched just because the players were that dynamic, their willfulness and dedication was greater than their contemporaries, their ambition was overwhelming and they had good health and a little luck. From that class there will be three Hall of Fame Induction speeches sometime in the future. There will be nostalgia: Remember when Iverson scored 60 points against Orlando. Remember when Kobe took over the overtime period at Indiana in game 4 of the NBA Finals. Remember when Ray Allen preserved the Miami Heat’s second title rule. Iverson, Kobe, Ray- they changed the game. They exceeded expectations. It’s all you want you want a lottery pick to do.