Utah Jazz: Marathon NBA drafts of yesteryear led to some amazing selections
For a middle-aged information technology consultant, Vic Sison admits he's won his share of bar bets over the years. Just consider that Sison, who never played high school or college basketball, once was a New Jersey Nets draft pick.
His selection is immortalized on page 128 of the Nets media guide. Sison, a former student manager at UCLA, was the 206th overall pick in the 10th round of the 1981 draft, taken four spots ahead of a future Baseball Hall of Famer named Tony Gwynn.
"It was a surprise for me, more of a graduation present from Larry Brown," said Sison, now 51, living in the Indianapolis area and still an admitted 5-foot-7. "I always say it was between me and pass."
Such were the days of the old NBA draft -- now celebrating its 20th anniversary of being shortened to two rounds -- a lost-but-not-forgotten era of favor trading, publicity stunts and curiosities that could lead to a Vic Sison getting drafted.
An era in which nobody blinked when Brown, having just left UCLA to coach the Nets, used a final-round pick to select his old manager, who happened to be the only senior the Bruins could claim that season.
"Vic was one of those kids that you fell in love with, he was such a hard worker," said Jazz general manager Kevin O'Connor, then an assistant coach on Brown's staff in Westwood.
The day after the draft, O'Connor called Brown: "I said, 'You know, according to the NBA regulations, Larry, you've got to bring him in." Unfortunately, Sison's NBA career started and finished on draft night.
Nobody is advocating a return to the days when teams exhausted players and patience well before their actual picks, but the list of notable players selected in rounds that no longer exist is long.
Rod Thorn might have had the greatest haul in draft history as general manager of the Chicago Bulls in 1984. Not only did he select Michael Jordan with the No. 3 overall pick, but Thorn also nabbed track star Carl Lewis in the 10th round.
"Carl was quoted someplace as saying he couldn't believe that we didn't try to sign him," said Thorn, now the Nets' president. The Lewis pick, he added, was pure publicity stunt by one of the Bulls' owners who thought it would be "cute."
In addition to Lewis, Olympic champions Bruce Jenner (1977) and Bob Beamon (1969) also enjoy the distinction of being former NBA draft picks. Dave Winfield (1973) and Gwynn both went from the late rounds of the basketball draft to Cooperstown, N.Y.
The Jazz famously drafted Delta State's Lusia Harris in the seventh round in 1977, but they also selected Mark Eaton in the fourth round in 1982 and Bobby Hansen in the third round in 1983, both of whom enjoyed long careers.
At the same time, the Jazz drafted players from Wisconsin-Eau Claire (Joe Merten, 10th round, 1981), Oklahoma Christian (Ron Webb, ninth round, 1983) and Hartford (Mark Mitchell, seventh round, 1986) whose names Frank Layden no longer can remember.
"Some of them showed up, some didn't," Layden said. "Some of them tried to play in Europe or some of them would just be smart enough to say, 'I'm going on and finishing my education.'"
Favor for a player
John Stockton wasn't the only point guard selected by the Jazz in the 1984 draft. So was Niagara's Mike Curran with the 222nd overall pick in the 10th round. Layden remembers it as a favor for a player from the college where he used to coach.
Curran was fishing on Lake Ontario with a friend when he returned home and learned from his father that Utah had called. Much to his surprise, he'd been drafted. He was sent a contract later in the summer worth $65,000 ... if he made the team.
"My parents are immigrants from Ireland and they said, 'Well, you'll be signing that,'" Curran joked. "I said, 'Yeah, Dad, I don't have a big negotiating stance.'"
Curran reported to a rookie/free agent camp that fall, where he roomed with current Toronto Raptors coach Jay Triano. However short his stay with the Jazz lasted, Curran never forgot the advice Layden gave him on his final day.
"He looked at me and said, 'You're a good player. You'll be a good businessman,'" Curran said.
It sounds strange to say, but Curran wasn't your typical 10th-rounder. He had size (6-foot-3), was a four-year starter at Niagara and played against Chris Mullin while in college. The NBA, though, was a different level entirely.
Curran's greatest moment came when he slid in underneath a player going up for a dunk, attempting to take a charge. He thought he'd impressed Layden with his hustle. He couldn't have been more mistaken.
"Frank blows the whistle and goes, 'What are you doing?'" Curran said. "He said, 'This is the NBA. What would have happened if that was Dr. J.?'"
After he was cut, Curran considered playing for the CBA's Albany (N.Y.) Patroons, coached at the time by Phil Jackson. He turned down the opportunity after hearing the only thing worse than the van rides were the paychecks.
Now he works in San Francisco as managing partner of The Curran Group, an executive search firm in the financial services industry, with "fond but quick memories" of being an NBA draft pick.
"There was definitely prestige in it, even if it was the late rounds back then," Curran said. "I know a lot of guys I played with who didn't get the chance to show an NBA coach what they could do, even if it was a week-and-a-half."
No matter how desperate NBA TV is for programming, the odds are slim the league will return to the 21-round draft, which finished with only one team still picking in 1968 and 1960.
If anything, the old days of the draft serve as a reminder of what the NBA was in its not-so-distant past, a league whose Finals still were broadcast on tape delay as recently as 1981.
As the NBA's 82-year-old director of scouting, Marty Blake can remember the drafts when it felt as if he was picking for every team in the room in the late rounds, since he most often was the only one who'd seen a prospect in person.
"Somebody wanted a pick, they'd come over and I'd give them a pick," Blake said. "Now I don't know if that helped them, but it gave people a chance to be observed."
The draft was filled with the good and bad in those days. As Atlanta's general manager in 1970, Blake used two late-round picks on Mexico's Manuel Raga and Italy's Dino Meneghin, setting the stage for the future influx of international players.
Yet Blake also can remember teams that drafted the owner's doctor, somebody's brother or the son of a season-ticket holder. That last pick backfired, Blake said, when the father started asking in August what happened to his son's contract.
Layden has memories of listening to the draft on a conference call, with Hubie Brown on the other line, as he scribbled through 10 rounds of picks on a yellow legal pad. There is one late-round pick, though, that sticks in Layden's mind all these years later.
That would be Keith Webster, a guard from Harvard whom the Jazz selected in the seventh round in 1987. Layden was doing a favor for Webster's father, the coach at Bridgeport (Conn.), but Webster impressed in training camp.
"I think he was better than guys we had drafted and given money to," Layden said. In particular, Webster outplayed Billy Donovan, the Jazz's third-round pick and current Florida coach, according to Layden.
Phil Tollestrup, who played at Brigham Young, has the distinction of being a 20th-round pick of the Buffalo Braves in 1973. His coach on the Canadian national team, Jack Donohue, had a connection to the Braves. Tollestrup learned he'd been drafted in the newspaper.
Tollestrup went through a four-day rookie camp with the Braves. Ernie DiGregorio was Buffalo's top draft pick and a future NBA rookie of the year. Jack Ramsay was the coach and future NBA MVP Bob McAdoo was in attendance.
"It was great fun, especially rooming with Kenny Charles," Tollestrup said. "He was a star player from Fordham and I learned a lot from him. I thought I played well in the games. They were just looking for a bigger, faster, stronger small forward."
So ended his NBA career, but Tollestrup went on to play in Spain, then for the Canadian team that finished fourth at the 1976 Olympics in Montreal.
"I often thought that after '76, I should've given [the NBA] a try. If I had been a little bit more pushy, I might have gotten a tryout," Tollestrup said, adding, "You get to that level, you don't call them. They call you, more or less."
Tollestrup now is a social studies and history teacher at Magrath High in Alberta. Reached in his classroom last month, he asked how long the draft was now. Told that it was only two rounds, the former 211th overall pick laughed. "That's amazing," he said.
In the basketball world today, two former late-round picks -- Mike Dunleavy and Triano -- are current NBA coaches. Ed Stefanski, a 10th-round pick out of Penn in 1976, now is general manager of the 76ers, the same team that once drafted him.
Numerous college coaches, among them Jamie Dixon, Lorenzo Romar, Craig Robinson, Lon Kruger, Al Skinner and Jim Larranaga, also were late-round picks. So was ESPN's Jay Bilas, a fifth-round selection out of Duke in 1986.
The defining story, though, from the days of the 10-round draft belongs to Landon Turner, who was paralyzed in a car accident only four months after helping Indiana to the 1981 NCAA championship alongside Isiah Thomas.
Unbeknownst to Turner, Hoosiers coach Bob Knight had reached out to Boston's Red Auerbach. The Celtics used the final pick of the 1982 draft -- 225th overall -- to select Turner in recognition of the player he would have been.
Turner said the gesture came as a "total surprise." It didn't end with the draft, either. Auerbach sent Turner watches to commemorate the Celtics' championships in 1984 and 1986, watches that Turner still keeps in a safe at home.
He admits that Boston wasn't his favorite team -- "I didn't like those green uniforms," Turner said -- but he still follows the Celtics and wants to see them do well for what Auerbach did for him.
Every time he gives a speech, Turner said he is introduced with a retelling of the story that led to him being drafted. It's part of the message he tries to impart whenever he talks to young people.
"Just to get the best out of their abilities, be the best they can be," Turner said, "and don't let adversity get in the way."
Bill Duffy is one of the NBA's leading agents, representing Carmelo Anthony, Steve Nash and Yao Ming, among others. Back in 1982, though, Duffy was a fifth-round pick (109th overall) by the Denver Nuggets out of Santa Clara.
He was alone in his apartment when he found out he'd been selected. With the draft not televised, Duffy learned the news in a call from the college's sports information director. "The dynamic has changed now," Duffy said. "It's become this grandiose spectacle."
Duffy had entered his senior season expecting to be a second-round pick at worse. But he missed half of his senior season with an injury and couldn't play in the Portsmouth (Va.) Invitational. He was surprised to have been selected at all.
It was the North Carolina connection between Dean Smith and Nuggets coach Doug Moe that led to Duffy being drafted. He had played well against the Tar Heels and Jordan in the Cable Car Classic. Smith passed along a recommendation.
Duffy had been a highly regarded high school player, but wound up transferring from Minnesota to Santa Clara and battling injuries in his college career. He never played in the NBA, but said of getting drafted, "It validated my path."
But from the perspective of an agent, Duffy wouldn't mind seeing the draft shortened even further. "I'd prefer one round," he said. "I'm in favor of as much mobility as possible."
The 10-round draft outlived its usefulness with the rise of guaranteed contracts, and was eventually shortened to seven rounds in 1985 and three rounds in 1988 before the current two-round format was adopted in 1989.
"Selfishly, you probably would like to have it another round to take a flier on a foreign player or something," Thorn said. "But the reality is it's probably what it should be at two rounds."
Even so, 72 players selected in the seventh round or later from 1970 to 1987 went on to play in the NBA, according to Basketball-Reference.com. Mario Elie, Sedale Threatt, Charles Jones, Randy Smith and Artis Gilmore all were late-round picks.
O'Connor called the two-round draft "more professional" while Thorn said of players, "It's very, very difficult to be missed now, I don't care who you play for, because of the depth of scouting both here and abroad."
The Players Association pushed for the two-round draft, with greater opportunities for undrafted players as free agents. Ronnie Price, as one example, broke into the NBA with Sacramento in such fashion after going undrafted out of Utah Valley.
Layden described the old draft as "tedious" but had one criticism of the two-round format. He cited a "herd mentality" among teams, which seem inclined to reach similar conclusions about players and write off too many, too quickly.
With only two rounds, another Vic Sison might be harder to find than another Blake Griffin. What's most remarkable is that Sison was drafted five picks ahead of Derrick Rowland, who went on to play two games with Milwaukee in the 1985-86 season.
Not bad for a UCLA economics major who attended business school at North Carolina on the recommendations of Larry Brown and Dean Smith. Sison called two rounds "the right number" for the draft, but acknowledged he has an ulterior motive.
"I kind of like it that way," Sison said. "There won't be another story like mine."
|Name||College||Year drafted||Team||Round||Claim to Fame|
|Doug Moe||North Carolina||1960||Detroit||7th round||Coached Nuggets for 10 years|
|George Raveling||Villanova||1960||Philadelphia||8th round||Coached Washington State, Iowa, USC|
|Kevin Loughery||St. John's||1961||New York||11th round||Michael Jordan's first NBA coach|
|Gary Cunningham||UCLA||1962||Cincinnati||7th round||Followed John Wooden at UCLA|
|Donnie Walsh||Fordham||1962||Philadelphia||11th round||President of the N.Y. Knicks|
|Larry Brown||North Carolina||1963||Baltimore||7th round||Hall of Fame college, pro coach|
|Jim Fox||South Carolina||1965||Cincinnati||8th round||Averaged 9.3 points in 743 games|
|Bubba Smith||Michigan State||1967||Baltimore||11th round||Two-time All-American in football|
|Mike Riordan||Providence||1967||New York||12th round||Nine seasons, one NBA title|
|Rick Adelman||Loyola Marymount||1968||San Diego||7th round||Coach of the Houston Rockets|
|Merv Jackson||Utah||1968||Phoenix||9th round||Won ABA title with Utah Stars|
|Jim Marsh||USC||1968||Seattle||11th round||Former U. of U. assistant coach|
|Billy Paultz||St. John's||1970||San Diego||7th round||Ended 15-year career with Jazz|
|Tracy Tripucka||Lafayette||1972||New York||7th round||Ex-Ute assistant, Kelly's brother|
|Bernie Fryer||BYU||1972||Phoenix||7th round||NBA referee, supervisor of officials|
|Dave Winfield||Minnesota||1973||Atlanta||5th round||Future baseball Hall of Famer|
|Dave Logan||Colorado||1976||Kansas City||9th round||NFL star, Denver Bronco announcer|
|Mike Dunleavy||South Carolina||1976||Philadelphia||6th round||L.A. Clippers coach and general manager|
|Ed Stefanski||Penn||1976||Philadelphia||10th round||76ers president and general manager|
|Lucy Harris||Delta State||1977||Jazz||7th round||First and only woman drafted in NBA|
|Bruce Jenner||Graceland||1977||Kansas City||7th round||Olympic decathlon champion|
|Tom Schneeberger||Air Force||1978||Denver||9th round||U.S. Olympian in 1984 (handball)|
|Lorenzo Romar||Washington||1980||Golden State||7th round||Washington Huskies coach|
|Tony Gwynn||San Diego State||1981||San Diego||10th round||Future Baseball Hall of Famer|
|Jay Triano||Simon Fraser||1981||L.A. Lakers||8th round||Toronto Raptors coach|
|Randy Smithson||Wichita State||1981||Kansas City||9th round||Head coach at his alma mater|
|Ed Nealy||Kansas State||1982||Kansas City||8th round||Played 10 seasons in the NBA|
|Landon Turner||Indiana||1982||Boston||10th round||Member of 1981 NCAA championship team, paralyzed in car accident|
|Sedale Threatt||West Virginia Tech||1983||Philadelphia||6th round||14-year NBA veteran with five teams|
|Trent Johnson||Pittsburgh||1983||Boston||8th round||Coach at Nevada, Stanford, LSU|
|Danny Tarkanian||UNLV||1984||San Antonio||8th round||Son of controversial Rebel coach|
|Carl Lewis||Houston||1984||Chicago||10th round||Olympic sprint and long jump champion|
|Mario Elie||American International||1985||Milwaukee||7th round||Played on three championship teams|
|Buzz Peterson||North Carolina||1985||Cleveland||7th round||College coach, Jordan's college roommate|
|Jay Bilas||Duke||1986||Dallas||5th round||ESPN analyst|
|Mark Gottfried||Alabama||1987||Detroit||7th round||Coached 'Bama for 11 seasons|
|Jamie Dixon||Texas Christian||1987||Washington||7th round||Pittsburgh coach|
|Carl Lewis||Houston||1984||Chicago||10th round||Olympic sprint and long jump champion|
|Mark Eaton||UCLA||1982||Jazz||4th round||Went on to be top NBA defender, Utah stalwart|
|Bruce Jenner||Graceland||1977||6th round||Kansas City||Publicity stunt after Jenner won gold|
|Spud Webb||North Carolina St.||1985||4th round||Detroit||Won NBA slam dunk contest|