Was flipping around the TV Monday night and came across a replay of the 1995 NBA Draft. All the memories came flooding back. In a previous life, being the Raptors reporter for The Fan radio in Toronto was my big break.
Covering the team back then was an incredible experience. The draft was a particular favourite. With this year's event upon us (Thursday), let's look back at the ones I covered closely.
Almost one year earlier, Isiah Thomas said privately, "The best player in this draft will be someone named Kevin Garnett. Unfortunately, we won't be able to draft high enough to get him." At that time, Garnett was still unknown to the general public. It wasn't until midway through the next season that he really got on the radar. The week of the draft, he was Sports Illustrated's cover boy.
(The draft was in Toronto that year, and the players stayed at the Westin Harbour Castle. What I won't forget: the size of Garnett's entourage. No one else's was even close.)
Isiah was right about two things: Garnett was the best player. And the Raptors, picking seventh, weren't going to get him. The belief was that the high-schooler was going fifth, to Minnesota. The top four went as expected: Joe Smith, Antonio McDyess, Jerry Stackhouse and Rasheed Wallace. Garnett did go fifth. The Vancouver Grizzlies chose Bryant Reeves next. (The pick wasn't as bad as the contract they later gave him.)
Thomas had been very secretive about who he was going to take. A few days earlier, we did a mock draft on the radio, and invited Frank Zicarelli of The Toronto Sun to make the Raptors' selection. Zicarelli picked Damon Stoudamire, which was a surprise. I certainly didn't think he'd be the pick. A few moments later, a radio reporter from Miami (the Heat were picking 10th) heard that choice and made fun of it.
When the Grizzlies took Reeves, Thomas was ecstatic. Teams had five minutes to make their picks, but he was asked if he wanted to select right away. He said no, "Let's take our time." (I wasn't in the room, but was told about this later.) The choice was Stoudamire, famously booed by local fans who wanted Ed O'Bannon.
When Thomas met the media later that night, he looked at Zicarelli and said, "I was trying to keep that a secret. How did you know?" Zicarelli replied something along the lines of, "You said you wanted to build with a point guard, and he was the best one available."
Toronto ended up with three second-round picks by trading BJ Armstrong to Golden State. The first was Jimmy King, who we all knew. I can still remember exchanging blank looks with Doug Smith (then of The Canadian Press) as they selected Martin Lewis and Dwayne Whitfield.
This was a wild one. The 76ers, picking first, were going to take Allen Iverson, although the Raptors believed they wavered in the final hours and thought about taking Marcus Camby.
For a while, Thomas, with the second choice, considered both Camby and Shareef Abdur-Rahim. But Abdur-Rahim announced he was going to stay in school and the organization honed into the UMass shot-blocker.
When I first got into the business, a few people I really respect warned me about taking things at face value, especially when it came to trades and the draft. "GMs will lie," they told me, "to get misinformation out there. They will use you. It happens to all us. The key is trying to figure out what's truth and what's not."
That's why I didn't believe Thomas when he gave me the scoop, on tape, that they were taking Camby. The Fan played it three times an hour the day he said it (was one month before the draft) and referenced it constantly. But I didn't believe him, and became even more sceptical when I ran into a Raptors scout who asked if I'd heard anything about Abdur-Rahim leaving school for the NBA.
It was true. He'd changed his mind.
Twenty-four hours before the draft, Thomas held a media availability. Asked about Abdur-Rahim, the GM said, "He's awfully tough to pass up." Refusing to believe he was actually telling me the truth about taking Camby, I took that to mean they were going to pick the California forward. Boy, was I wrong. I refused to change my mind, even after Craig Daniels of The Toronto Sun, who was tight with Thomas, wrote the next morning that Camby would be the pick.
Afterward, during the media interviews, Thomas looked at me and said, "How could you get that wrong? I told you I was taking him." I'm not sure who enjoyed ripping me more, Thomas or Bob McCown.
For all of the problems Thomas had as an NBA GM, he was good at drafting players. His first-round picks were, for the most part, good choices.
About a month before this draft, he worked out Bobby Jackson, who would go 23rd overall. Afterwards, he told two reporters, myself and Chris Young of The Toronto Star, that he badly wanted Tracy McGrady. He was excited, thinking there was a good chance McGrady would still be available at the ninth spot, where the Raptors were slotted. Thomas predicted many teams would still be afraid to take a high-schooler.
It sounds weird now, but in 1997, taking such players wasn't common. There was Garnett, Shawn Kemp (17th in 1989), Kobe Bryant and Jermaine O'Neal (13th and 17th, respectively, in 1996). It wasn't until 2001, when four high-schoolers were taken in the first round things really exploded. So Thomas had reason to be optimistic.
(This time, when he said he was interested in someone, I listened.)
One Raptor official said later the organization felt it would know after the fifth pick if McGrady was theirs. Everyone knew Tim Duncan was going first. Keith Van Horn went second and Chauncey Billups third. That brought up Vancouver and Denver. The Raptors believed that, if available, Ron Mercer was going sixth to Boston and Tim Thomas seventh to the Nets. They also thought there was no way Golden State would take the risk of selecting McGrady.
The Grizzlies took Antonio Daniels. The Nuggets chose Tony Battie. Celtics czar Rick Pitino had badmouthed Mercer's talent, but most saw that as a typical draft lie. (Pitino had coached Mercer at Kentucky.) Thomas was a New Jersey legend, and the home team wasn't passing on him.
Golden State selected Adonal Foyle, and the Raptors had their man. The GM was ecstatic about the pick, the most excited I ever saw him on draft night. Things unravelled quickly, however. Thomas, unable to work with new Raptors ownership and unable to buy the team himself, quit early next season.
When he told the players, Thomas turned to McGrady and said, "Welcome to the NBA, kid."
Glen Grunwald was in charge for this one, with Butch Carter as coach. And Vince Carter was their guy the moment he showed up to work out.
Grunwald was much tighter with information than Thomas, not as willing to admit who he liked. After the draft, he revealed that the UNC swingman's workout was absolutely incredible. They really try to exhaust everyone they brought in, but Vince handled everything.
Butch was a big believer in something called "The Beep Test." Basically, cones are set a certain distance apart, and you have to run from one to the other whenever there is a tone. As the test continues, the time between each beep decreases. Players who've done it say it's a killer. Apparently, Vince aced it. Between that, and his obvious physical gifts, the Raptors targeted him.
The overwhelming number one pick in 1998 was future bust Michael Olowokandi. Everyone knew he was going to the Clippers. The Grizzlies took Mike Bibby and the Nuggets Raef LaFrentz. I was working at The Score for this draft, and we had the rights. I was on edge for this, because I'd reported that the team had traded Marcus Camby to New York for Charles Oakley, and the Raptors were not confirming it. I'd also guessed - and I mean guessed - Carter would be the pick when was asked to predict by the desk. (I think it was Greg Sansone, but I'm not certain.)
So imagine the horrible feeling in the pit of my stomach when they took Antawn Jamison. Of course, that was a cosmetic selection, as Jamison would be traded to Golden State for the next pick, Carter.
After Carter was named Rookie of the Year, I asked Grunwald if he would've take Vince second overall. Grunwald said he was taking him no matter where they picked.
"Even over Olowokandi at number 1?"
"Well, maybe not there," Grunwald laughed.
Regardless of how you may feel about Vince Carter now, good thing they didn't have the top choice.
One year later, Butch Carter said the Raptors tried to get a second first-rounder to take Jason Williams. (This is the University of Florida/Sacramento Kings version of Jason Williams.) Grunwald got upset when Carter revealed this, but refused to confirm if it was true.
1998 was the last draft I really covered closely, although I do remember a few other moments: In 2000, Grunwald was going to take Speedy Claxton, only to have Philadelphia grab him right before Toronto's selection. (The Raptors took Morris Peterson.) And, in 2003, Grunwald did try to get a second first-rounder, in order to grab TJ Ford. That didn't work, although the team did get him later.
Love drafts. Miss covering them.
Do you have improvements to suggest for this page?