Seconds before the pingpong balls started flying in the real NBA lottery drawing, held in a locked-down room shortly before the televised version, Brian Wright, the San Antonio Spurs general manager, reached his right hand across his chest and tapped his left shirt pocket twice.

That is the end of the secret handshake Wright shares with his 9-year-old son. Something was in that pocket — some good luck trinket — but Wright would not reveal what it was after the Spurs won the momentous 2023 lottery and the right to draft French phenom Victor Wembanyama. At their family home, Wright’s son was supposed to have a corresponding good luck charm and execute their secret handshake, Wright said.

Hours earlier, R.C. Buford, the Spurs CEO, had arrived at his hotel room in Chicago and was astonished to see a familiar blue leather chair with a card attached. It was the same chair Buford had been sitting in in his office in San Antonio when the Spurs won the Tim Duncan lottery in 1997. He had given the chair to his daughter when she went to college, he told ESPN after the lottery Tuesday. His family secretly sent it to his hotel.

“I had a meditation in my blue leather chair this afternoon,” Buford said.

Back in the drawing room, the first pingpong ball came up: No. 14. Fourteen balls, numbered 1-14, zip around a classic air-powered lottery machine before a league attorney stops the machine and sucks one up. That ball becomes the first of four drawn in sequence, eventually making up a four-number combination. There are 1,001 possible four-number combinations using the numbers 1-14. The NBA tosses out one of them — 11, 12, 13, 14 — and divides the rest among the 14 lottery teams based on their team record and lottery odds.

The Spurs, Detroit Pistons and Houston Rockets held 140 combinations apiece — 420 of the 1,000. The New Orleans Pelicans, the lottery team with the best record, owned only five.

The combinations go in numerical order, so that the worst teams — Houston, Detroit, San Antonio — have almost all the combinations featuring the numbers 1 and 2. Seeing 14 as the first ball had the whole room in play for Wembanyama for a fleeting 10-second window. Wright panicked. “Oh my god, we are out,” he thought to himself, Wright told ESPN in the drawing room minutes after the drawing ended. (ESPN had one of 19 media members present to watch the drawing.) Each lottery team sends one person to the room to represent them. They sit in rows, with the teams with the best odds up front and the long shots in the back.

In that last row, Teresa Resch, the Toronto Raptors vice president of basketball operations, elbowed Bryson Graham, the New Orleans Pelicans assistant general manager, when that 14 came up, both recalled: We have a chance!

Ten seconds after the 14, up popped the next ball: 5. Almost everyone was still in play. Michael Finley, the Dallas Mavericks assistant general manager, knew that any of the teams below the Mavericks in the lottery pecking order — the Raptors, Pelicans, Chicago Bulls and Oklahoma City Thunder — leaping into the top-4 could knock the Mavs back from No. 10 to No. 11. That would have meant the Mavericks sending their top-10 protected pick to the New York Knicks — a potential embarrassment given Dallas’ late-season tanking to slide out of the play-in race and into that No. 10 slot. (The NBA fined the Mavericks $750,000 for “conduct detrimental to the league.”)

Finley stayed calm, knowing the odds still favored the worst teams. “I wasn’t nervous,” he said. Finley won a championship with the Spurs in 2007, and joked after that drawing that perhaps he should have brought along his Spurs championship ring for good luck.

(On the flip side, many within the league feared the Mavericks 3% chance of winning the lottery — and being rewarded for their late-season resting with Wembanyama.)

All around the room, team officials flipped through eight sheets of paper showing which teams owned each combination. The mood was frantic.

Ten seconds later, the third ball: No. 8. Several teams were still alive. Brett Greenberg, the Washington Wizards assistant general manager, knew instantly the Wizards had a chance. All 67 of their combinations had the No. 5 as the lowest digit. There were 11 balls left in the hopper. If the last ball drawn was No. 7, No. 9, No. 10, No. 11, No. 12 or No. 13, the Wizards would get Wembanyama. Eleven balls left; six were winners for Washington.

“Holy s—, we have a chance,” Greenberg thought to himself. He hunched over his combination sheets and took a deep breath. Greenberg was well-stocked with lucky charms: his father’s lucky coin (a Kona dollar); a replica 1978 Washington Bullets championship ring; and a silver coin inscribed with the Wizards logo and the phrase “game-changer” — a memento Flip Saunders, the Wizards head coach from 2009-2012, gave to players who made pivotal plays. Greenberg also wore orange socks — his grandmother’s favorite color. (Jon Phelps, the Detroit Pistons senior director of basketball strategy, wore socks with dinosaurs on them — a gift from his nephew, and the same pair he wore when the Pistons won the 2021 drawing.)

Joel Glass, the Orlando Magic’s chief communications officer and drawing room representative, also knew his team had shot: The No. 4 ball would send Wembanyama to Orlando. Glass continued his tradition of bringing the pingpong balls from Orlando’s previous lottery wins — Shaquille O’Neal, the No. 1 pick they turned into Anfernee Hardaway, Dwight Howard and Paolo Banchero last season — into the drawing room for luck. For the first time, Glass carried them in a small briefcase emblazoned with the Magic logo. It was gently suggested to Glass that needing a suitcase to carry all the franchise’s lottery winning balls was perhaps not a great sign.

Glass squinted to see if the last ball showed a single-digit.

Meanwhile, a No. 6 would give the Indiana Pacers the No. 1 pick. “For a short second, it was pure joy,” Kevin Pritchard, the Pacers president of basketball operations, told ESPN afterward. A No. 3 ball would have sent Wembanyama to the Portland Trail Blazers.

Then the final ball: No. 2. That disqualified most teams, but Wright wasn’t sure if the Spurs owned the winning combination: 14-5-8-2. As Wright scanned those eight pages, Clay Allen, the Houston Rockets general counsel, tapped him: “I think that’s you,” Wright recalled.

A league official announced that it was indeed the Spurs. Wright barely reacted. He stayed silent and gazed downward until Allen reached over to shake his hand.

“Brian was way too calm,” Graham joked afterward. “I mean, come on!”

“I was going to get up and run around the room,” Resch said of her plans to celebrate if the Raptors had won. (Resch was the team’s drawing room representative when they moved up to No. 4 in the 2021 lottery; she recalled raising her arms and letting out a brief “woop!” Another executive in the room was worried he would scream so loudly if his team won that security would have to subdue him or eject him.)

The drawing was largely anticlimactic after that, with the Charlotte Hornets, Blazers and Rockets claiming picks No. 2-4 in that order. (The NBA actually had to draw seven four-number combinations; the Spurs and Hornets each “won” the No. 4 pick — the Spurs twice! — before it finally went to Houston. That is believed to be a record for total drawings in one lottery, league officials said.)

After the drawing, everyone stays in the room for about an hour until the televised reveal is over. No one is allowed to leave. Everyone in the room surrenders their phones, tablets, laptops and smart watches upon entering so that no one can communicate the results to the outside world. The attendees gossip and eat until watching ESPN’s lottery broadcast — the only people alive who know the results already.

Wright sat in his same seat in the front row watching to see the moment the rest of the world would learn the Spurs had won. When that moment came — when Peter Holt, the Spurs governor, leaped and shouted in joy on the stage, the camera then cutting to an emotional Buford sitting in the ballroom — Wright tapped his chest twice again.

Buford knows better than most how one player can transform an entire franchise. The Spurs were stuck in the middle for several years after trading Kawhi Leonard in 2018 before making a choice over the last year to go into a full rebuild — peaking with the June 2022 trade that sent Dejounte Murray to the Atlanta Hawks for three first-round picks.

“We made a decision last summer,” Buford told ESPN. “We liked the way this year went for our team. We had good young players getting better. We’ve seen the impact and transformation that one player can have on a program. We hope we can do everything we can to set another player up for that kind of success.”

Some other tidbits from the drawing room and the ongoing draft combine in Chicago:

• The Blazers moving up from No. 5 to No. 3 raised eyebrows all over the league right away. The Blazers could of course keep that pick, but rival executives expect them to explore the kind of veteran help that pick — plus other players — might fetch for Damian Lillard. (Executives also expect the Blazers to re-sign Jerami Grant.) The No. 3 pick by itself won’t net a game-changing veteran. What might the combination of that pick and Anfernee Simons get Portland? If they do try to load up around Lillard — which requires Lillard indicating he’d like to stay in Portland — expect the Blazers to go after wings and big men, sources said.

Portland also has Shaedon Sharpe, but his strong finish to the season would make the Blazers even queasier about including him in any kind of win-now trade.

• I’d also expect at some point for the Blazers to try to renegotiate the protections on the first-round pick they owe the Bulls from the 2021 three-team trade in which they acquired Larry Nance Jr. The pick is lottery-protected every year through 2028 — restricting the Blazers ability to deal picks in trades. Such renegotiations are always tricky. The Bulls will want something.

• Executives and agents in Chicago are buzzing about the future of the Philadelphia 76ers. The team’s firing of Doc Rivers Tuesday morning had several league sources in Chicago cautioning that James Harden’s much-rumored interest in returning to the Houston Rockets may not be such a shoo-in with Rivers gone in Philly. (To be clear, Harden and the Rockets remain very much interested in the concept of a reunion, sources said.)

How does Houston losing out on Wembanyama and falling to No. 4 impact their potential pursuit of Harden? Winning the lottery would have reoriented the entire franchise around Wembanyama — perhaps reducing their interest in Harden. Does dropping to No. 4 enflame it? Time will tell. Remember: Houston owes a top-4 protected first-round pick next season to the Oklahoma City Thunder, so they have some incentive to improve fast.

• The coaching carousel has been the other major topic around Chicago this week. One thing is clear: The LA Clippers love Tyronn Lue as their head coach, and are happy to remind any team that might put out feelers about Lue’s potential availability that he remains under contract with the Clippers, sources said. Extricating Lue — if that is something Lue would even want at any point, and I have no indication today that it is — would appear to be very difficult.

• One executive in the drawing room proposed the league create a “loser’s lounge” in the room, complete with couches and alcohol, so all the representatives from teams who dropped back could drink and commiserate. Needless to say, this is a good idea.

• A window into how team executives think: several told me that if they couldn’t draft Wembanyama, they were rooting for him to end up in the opposite conference.

• Micah Day, the league’s senior director of events, has been the lottery drawing’s official timekeeper for several years. His job is to stand with his back to the lottery machine, hold a ticking stopwatch, and raise one arm every 10 seconds — the signal for the league attorney at the machine to suck up the next ball.

Day always uses the same red stopwatch. The seven drawings had his arm working overtime. I have been in the room for almost all of those drawings with Day. After the lottery, he presented me with a gift: the stopwatch, autographed by Day, with the number “7” to commemorate the seven drawings.

I’m taking this as a signal that I might have to retire from the drawing room.

• With the Spurs jumping Houston, the Pacers acquire the No. 32 pick in this draft — the result of a complex, multi-team set of swaps of second-round picks.

• Executives here are also buzzing about the future of the Golden State Warriors after the Los Angeles Lakers eliminated them over the weekend. Judging from my conversations, there remains a strong level of interest in Jonathan Kuminga around the league.

• The league’s general managers have an annual meeting here on lottery day to discuss competition issues, and this year’s appears to have been lively. There was a lot of talk about whether the game has tilted too far toward offenses, and what if anything could be done to help defenses, sources said.

• The team inspiring perhaps the most curiosity league-wide entering what could be a wild summer: the Utah Jazz. Utah exceeded expectations last season. They have several young building blocks, including Walker Kessler and Lauri Markkanen. They own the No. 9 pick in this draft, plus a boatload of other picks from the Cleveland Cavaliers, Minnesota Timberwolves, Lakers and Sixers. Rival executives have a hard time reading Utah’s intentions. How interested are they in hitting the accelerator and sniffing around trades for big-name veterans — presumably veterans under long-term contracts, given Utah is not a free agent destination?

I’d expect Utah to poke around, but finding the right veteran splurge might be tough. Could a smaller deal be in play?

• The general managers also discussed the possibility of turning the NBA draft into a two-day event, sources said.

• As expected, the issue of load management and star player participation took up a good chunk of the dialogue at the general managers meeting, sources said. It has already been reported at ESPN and elsewhere that the new collective bargaining agreement will include a 65-game threshold (with some exceptions) for end-of-season awards eligibility. League officials in attendance at the general managers meeting suggested there could be other new load management-related rules as early as next season, sources said. Most in attendance read that as a signal that the league might revise its rules regarding when teams may and may not rest players — and the penalties teams may face for violating those rules.

• Several in attendance also raised the possibility of the league again penalizing flops with an escalating series of fines, sources said.

• Another robust topic of conversation at the general managers meeting: the jockeying for playoff and lottery seeding that makes the last week-plus of the season difficult to watch. Concrete solutions are hard to come by. In the past, at least one team has proposed a system under which after some point in time — very close to the end of the season — teams outside the playoff picture could boost their lottery odds with each additional win.

Officials have also discussed the general concept of somehow making each playoff seed incrementally more valuable — a method of cutting the practice of teams tanking games to fall into specific matchups. How to do this is unclear. Some of the floated ideas are too radical or complex to be realistic. One fix is letting the top three seeds pick their first-round opponents.

• There are a small number of coaches pushing for the return of dress suits on the sidelines, sources said. They appear to be (vastly) outnumbered by team casual, those same sources said.

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