"You know," says the magician, "it's very easy to fix flipping a coin." For instance: The tosses before football games. Turns out they're totally riggable. Even with a straight coin. Con men know how. So does the magician, Richard Kaufman. He's in his 50s, has dark, curly hair, works as the editor of Genii, the nation's leading magic magazine. Specializes in card tricks. Only now, here in the sunlit kitchen of his suburban Washington, D.C. home, he's talking tumbling coins.
Heads or tails. Even odds. As indifferent as the universe itself, like the flips that sent Lew Alcindor to the Milwaukee Bucks, Bill Walton to the Portland Trail Blazers, Ralph Sampson and Hakeem Olajuwon to the Houston Rockets.
"See, when you flip in the air, you can get the toss location like this," Kaufman explains, losing me with a single, rapid hand flourish. "Heads side always to the left. Tails side to the right. It looks like it's spinning. But it's not. It's a true illusion."
I came here for illusions. To look right past them. To spot the sinister, hidden hand behind the not-so-random workings of the sports world. Specifically, I came to have Kaufman watch grainy, digitized footage of the 1985 NBA Draft Lottery -- the Zapruder film of athletic conspiracies -- and then tell me how commissioner David Stern managed to rig the whole damn thing.
I am not crazy.1
OK, sure: Maybe I've watched the '85 lottery so many times I can identify the key co-conspirators by tie color alone.2 Maybe I know exactly how many envelopes accounting firm partner Jack Wagner conspicuously bangs against the side of the clear plastic drawing cylinder. (One, and only one.) Maybe I've committed to memory the precise moments when Stern appears to thumb the bent corner of the winning envelope he's plucked from the cylinder, after grabbing and flipping and discarding two others. Maybe I can tell you that upon exposure to room temperature of 70 degrees, a plain manila envelope stored in a home freezer remains cold to the touch for 52.3 seconds.
None of this makes me crazy.
No, a crazy person would accept the lottery at face value. A crazy person would review the entire fortuitous chain of events3 that produced Patrick Ewing, New York Knickerbocker, and chalk everything up to dumb luck. Coincidence, even.
A sane person doesn't believe in coincidence.
A sane person believes in causation. Connects the jumbled dots. Creates an octopus chart linking Stern to the Knicks' Dave DeBusschere to Rod Thorn to Si Green to John Thompson to Ewing.4
A sane person knows that if a coin flip can be fixed, then anything5 can be fixed, that all it takes is motive and opportunity, people who can be trusted not to talk, and a public content to not ask questions, because asking questions and peeking behind the curtain and stuffing test envelopes between your ice maker and frozen fish sticks is ... crazy.
Or so they want us to believe.
Yes, a sane person forsakes the official, obligatory NBA denials and instead screens the '85 lottery with a magician, because magicians know smoke and mirrors when they see them. (A sane person thinks the 1993 Draft Lottery6 was a bit sketchy, too.)
Kaufman peers at my laptop. We're sitting at his kitchen table, draped by a yellow-and-tan cloth. It's a lovely afternoon; outside, a flower garden blooms. Kaufman has been performing card tricks since he was 12, wrote his first magic book at 14, has written or illustrated 20 books since. He has edited and co-owned Genii for a decade, traveled around the world for magic shows and conventions. In other words: if there's a trick Kaufman hasn't seen, it probably has yet to be invented.
On the screen, a pixilated Wagner drops the supposedly secret7 envelopes into the clear plastic cylinder. NBA head of security Jack Joyce8 spins the cylinder, allegedly to mix the envelopes. Stern steps away from his bright blue podium and approaches the contraption.
"Look at Stern," Kaufman says. "He has to look down to unlock it. Did you see him exhale?"
Wait. Kaufman is right. Just after opening a hatch on the cylinder -- just before reaching inside to alter the course of league history -- Stern exhales, audibly and visibly, cheeks deflating like old basketballs. Why so nervous, Mr. Commissioner? Something to hide?
"That could be innocent," Kaufman says. "He's got millions of people watching. He knows the Ewing pick is big. It's easy to mistake simple tension for something more sinister." Pause the video. Stern freezes, hands on the cylinder, eyes focused downward.9 Almost frowning. "If you had to do this, who knows, you might [soil] your pants," Kaufman adds. "If all he did was exhale in that case -- hey, he's ahead of the game."
Kaufman laughs. I don't think he believes. Not yet. He'll learn. I did.
I believe in the fix. I believe in the hidden hand, that sports have a secret, redacted history. I believe that Game 6 of the 2002 NBA Western Conference Finals was a sham, that Spygate was a cover-up of a cover-up, that Super Bowl III was preordained,10 that Dale Earnhardt Jr.'s heartwarming 2001 victory at Daytona was, in fact, too good to be true,11 that Michael Jordan's first baseball-playing retirement was anything but, that powerful forces don't want me to write this because powerful forces don't want you to read this. I believe that black is white, white is black,12 the 1990 World Cup draw was rigged13 and Sophia Loren was definitely in on the con.14 Most of all, I believe that on June 18, 1985, inside the Starlight Room of the Waldorf-Astoria hotel in New York City,15 in front of Pat O'Brien and nearly 150 reporters and umpteen popping flashbulbs and an entire world utterly oblivious to the conspiracy about to take place before them in plain sight, David Joel Stern did not act alone.
Of course, I might be crazy.
Read the full article at the PostGame
1. Individuals who refuse to accept the official version of events are typically dismissed as mentally ill. They also are called “conspiracy theorists” -- as if the truth is a mere theory -- and often lampooned for obsessive footnote use.↩
2. Commissioner David Stern, imperial red; silent, unblinking accountant Jack Wagner, trust-me silver and gray; New York Knicks representative Dave DeBusschere, innocent blue stripes.]↩
3. In short: New York City is the nation’s media epicenter. The NBA needs its New York franchise to be relevant. Since winning a championship in 1973, the Knicks have mostly struggled, with Madison Square Garden attendance dipping into the 10,000-per-game range by 1982; prior to the 1985 draft, the team loses superstar scorer Bernard King to a major knee injury. Meanwhile, Ewing is the biggest incoming college star since Magic Johnson and Larry Bird, the other lottery participants -- Atlanta, Sacramento, Indiana, Golden State and the Los Angeles Clippers -- are second-tier clubs and/or markets and the league has one year remaining on a $22 million per-season CBS national television contract. Against this backdrop, Stern just happens to randomly select the one envelope out of seven containing a New York placard, allowing the Knicks to pick Ewing. In the 48 hours following the draft lottery, the Knicks receive over 1,000 season ticket requests; Ewing later leads New York to two NBA Finals appearances, becomes the franchise’s all-time leading scorer and presides over 394 sellouts of Madison Square Garden. These are the facts. They are not in dispute.↩
4. As a young attorney, Stern helped broker the NBA-ABA merger; DeBusschere is a former ABA commissioner; DeBusschere played with Thorn in Detroit; Thorn played with Green in Baltimore; Green played with Thompson in Boston: Thompson coached Ewing at Georgetown.↩
5. For example: 1950s quiz shows, both Ali-Liston fights.↩
6. The 1992-93 Orlando Magic finished 41-41 -- barely missing the playoffs -- yet somehow beat 1-in-66 odds to claim the draft’s top spot for the second straight season, a pick the team parlayed into future All-Star guard Penny Hardaway. Why was Orlando so fortunate? Maybe because 1992 No. 1 pick and future face of the sport Shaquille O’Neal needed a perimeter wingman like Hardaway … who would help Orlando reach the NBA Finals two years later.↩
7. Stern takes great pains to proclaim that Wagner alone was “present in the room when he placed the [team] logos in the envelopes,” that Wagner has maintained “continuous and exclusive possession of the envelopes,” and that “as of this moment, [Wagner] does not know which logo is in which envelope.” Oh, really? Then why have Wagner handle everything alone? What about accountability? What about a verifying witness?↩
8. Blatant conflict of interest.↩
9. Again: what is he looking for?↩
10. Said former Colts defensive end Bubba Smith, “This might sound crazy, but I don’t think the game was kosher.” No. That does not sound crazy.↩
11. In the first race held at Daytona since his legendary father was killed on the same track, Earnhardt, Jr. won in storybook fashion, making a late charge from seventh place despite the use of horsepower-limiting restrictor plates. Said fellow driver Jimmy Spencer: “I knew going in that the No. 8 car (Earnhardt, Jr.) was going to win this race. Something was fictitious … I mean, you know, it’s not ironic that the No. 8 car would win at all.”↩
12. Jim Garrison, on the JFK assassination.↩
13. The ‘90 Cup was held in Italy, and the feeble United States squad -- playing in its first cup in 40 years -- was placed in the same group as the host nation, leading soccer legend Diego Maradona to claim that the draw was jimmied to favor the Azzurri over defending champion Argentina.↩
14. Observers claim that Loren -- who “randomly” picked a draw ball that placed the U.S. in Italy’s group -- magnetized her finger rings to attract a special American draw ball.↩
15. Quite the coincidence.↩