The first people I recognized on the day of the NBA draft were the Zeller parents on the ninth floor of the Westin hotel in Times Square. This couldn’t have been more fitting. If you’ve watched any college basketball the last five years, you’ve seen them. As the parents of three sons who played college ball, Mr. and Mrs. Zeller have gotten as much airtime on ESPN as Dick Vitale.* Cody, the Indiana center, was this year’s draftee, so when he showed up to meet his parents for breakfast, followed by his oldest brother and his family, I felt right at home.
*In the Zeller family, each son is better than his older brother, as opposed to the Kahn family where the middle son is by far the most talented.
I was at the hotel by 9 a.m. to shadow Trey Burke throughout the most important day of his life. I chronicled Burke’s experience for Michigan Today. Due to a word count and the fact that the piece focused on Burke, many of my observations went unreported. Here is what didn’t make it into the story, starting with what I saw at breakfast:
- Ben McLemore sat with his mom drinking orange juice and filling out basic paperwork for the NBA. From talking to him at the media session the day before and observing him on draft day, he’s the type of kid who’s at his most comfortable on the court.
- Victor Oladipo was full of energy, bouncing around the room and chatting with everyone. At one point he sang a few lines from Rihanna’s “Unfaithful” for no apparent reason. He had a film crew following him and he later wore Google glasses for recording purposes. Other than Burke, of course, Oladipo’s day was chronicled more thoroughly than any other player.
- Like the one-and-done Kentucky center before him, Nerlens Noel is really long and lean. I feel sorry for guys that tall because they have to duck through doorways. Perhaps a small price to pay for the ability to dunk while barely jumping, but still.
- Alex Len, another 7-footer, wore a protective boot. I was thinking the casual fans of the team that drafts him will not be happy to see him limping across the stage in a boot, but Len wisely ditched it once he got to the Barclays Center.
- Steven Adams had a huge smile on his face throughout the day, like he knows he fooled everyone into thinking he was worthy of a lottery pick (he went 12th to Oklahoma City).
I spoke to Burke’s parents, Benji and Ronda. Mrs. Burke told me that she was sold on the University of Michigan before Trey was. She fell in love with the campus on their first visit, even though the new Crisler Center still only existed on paper. The same thing happened with me—my mom loved Ann Arbor right away. Speaking of my mom, she would have liked the draft day experience—meeting other players’ moms, going to various events—so it’s a shame I came up just short in my quest to become an NBA player.
At the 11:00 meeting for the green room invitees, Harrison Barnes and Andre Igoudala stressed showing up early to earn teammates’ respect. The message was clear: basketball is their job now.
- Barnes, even though he’s 21 and just finished his rookie year, seemed like a veteran compared to the draftees.
- I asked Igoudala, a lottery pick in 2004, if he remembers which player spoke to his draft class. “That was 10 years ago, man! I remember David Stern’s hair; that’s about it.” I’m not saying Andre and I are new best friends, but you can read between the lines.
- The meeting took place on the ninth floor in a room overlooking Times Square. In case you were wondering which sport is king in this country, all you had to do was look out the window, where a huge billboard advertising the NFL Draft, which took place in April, was on display.
After the meeting I rode the elevator with Burke, Noel, and Zeller. It was like an NBA draft promo poster come to life inside a cramped space. Nobody spoke except for a few goodbye grunts as each got off at his floor. That’s when Burke and I spoke for the longest amount of uninterrupted time. Here are some of his comments that didn’t make it into the original story:
- Burke uses visualization techniques before big games: “It gives me confidence knowing that I see the game before it happens. I’ve been doing that since my sophomore year of high school. It helps me out to imagine myself on the court, the sounds, coach calling plays, me getting to the rim, scoring.” (Note to self: visualize before rec league games.)
- Burke’s dad is his agent (“He has my best interest in mind. I can trust him with anything”) and the Legacy Agency will handle his marketing (Burke is the agency’s only basketball client). He employs Compass Management for his finances, a company led by two recent Michigan grads: Daniel Sillman and Jordan Dumars, son of former Detroit Pistons’ star Joe. I caught up with Sillman in the hotel’s lobby later and he said this of Burke: “He’s very unique. To take a guy who’s coming out of his sophomore year of college and throwing him into a situation like this, I don’t think many would handle it with the maturity and professionalism that Trey did.”
- As for where he’ll get drafted, Burke is confident he won’t fall past Detroit at 8, but he admits he has no idea exactly where he’ll land. During the interview process at the combine he was often told by team executives, “We’re really interested. We’ll draft you if you’re available. You worked out really well; it seems like you have your head on right; we look forward to talking to you soon.”
While Burke was at lunch with his family, the other top prospects, and David Stern, I roamed around the hotel. Some observations:
- Haircuts were being given in a room on the fifth floor. I didn’t see any players take advantage of this, only family members.
- Rumors were swirling, and I couldn’t help that most of them wouldn’t be remembered in five minutes yet alone five years. Everybody’s an expert this time of year, both in terms of evaluating talent and projecting the draft order. “Now if Len goes 4 like I’m hearing, that opens things up…”
- My Barry Larkin sighting was a highlight. I caught the tail end of him telling a story near the elevator (“…OK, so I’ll throw your ball across the street then.”) that had everyone cracking up. Unfortunately the doors closed before we could meet and become best friends.
- The NHL’s Board of Governors meeting was taking place on the fourth floor. That’s all I’ve got to say about that.
During this time I spotted three guys wearing Trey Burke t-shirts and introduced myself. It turns out they were groomsmen in Benji’s wedding: Scott Reeves, Keith Warner, and James Farmer, all originally from Columbus, OH, and former college players at various levels. A charter bus of 60 people was coming from Columbus for the draft, but these three came separately. Here’s what I learned from them:
- When Burke was as young as three, he would shoot on a Fisher Price hoop while the three men watched NBA games with Benji. When Jordan or Ewing or Malone did something on the screen, Burke would emulate them. The adults would block his shot, rarely letting him score. “Get that stuff out of here,” they say. They toughened him up at an early age.
- “All his life he’s been trying to prove people wrong,” Farmer says. “When [Jared] Sullinger left Northland [High School], he had to prove them wrong that it wasn’t just about Sullinger. When he went to Michigan, they thought since he’s undersized he couldn’t play at that level.” The three believe he’ll succeed in the NBA, especially considering his skill in the pick-and-roll.
- Reeves showed me a picture on his phone from an AAU tournament when Trey was 12. “You knew then there was a potential,” Reeves says, with his friends finishing his sentence, “to be special.” By the second half of Trey’s freshman year at Michigan they realized he was an NBA prospect. And in a few hours his name will be called as one of the top picks in the draft. “He’s living out something we dreamed of doing,” Warner said. “But it’s still real for us because he’s close enough to us that we feel connected.”
Being a smart New Yorker, I took the subway from the hotel to Barclays instead of the media shuttle, and beat the players to the arena. That allowed me to go on stage and use this pointless awesome feature on my phone to take this picture:
That’s the view the players saw when shaking Stern’s hand (minus the ladder). The players arrived at Barclays a little before 6:00. Here’s what went down:
- Burke and the other green room invitees posed for pictures on the stage. Burke stood front and center and got to hold the basketball. I asked another point guard, Michael Carter-Williams, if he thought he should have gotten the ball, and he told me, “Ah, no, man, it doesn’t matter. He’s the shortest so he’s got to be in the middle.” Sour grapes from Michigan’s Final Four victory over ’Cuse, if you ask me.
- Players returned to the green room, which is neither green nor a room, but a roped-off area on the floor in front of the stage. Indiana fans got as close as possible to chat with Oladipo; several Michigan fans show up with maize No. 3 jerseys.
- The players go back on stage for more photos. Burke and Oladipo are joking and after Oladipo says he is shivering, Burke says, “It feels like a championship game, doesn’t it?” Later I asked Burke if he was more nervous on draft day or before the national championship. He had to think about it, but he said “probably” the game.
- When Stern joins the group, Burke has to give up the basketball to the commish. It was much safer in the Player of the Year’s hands; the 70-year-old Stern tries to pass it to the photographer standing on a ladder in the middle of the crowd of media members but ends up hitting someone in the first row. If you see someone step with the wrong foot and awkwardly toss a ball 15 feet short of their intended target, feel free to say they “Sterned it.”
- I spotted some folks wearing the Burke Nation shirts and went up to their section to talk. They were part of the charter bus from Columbus. One of Burke’s aunts told me that Burke wasn’t able to convert the true OhioState fans. “They are just Trey Burke fans,” she said. “They still call Michigan ‘that school up North.’”
- Burke is joined at his green room table by his parents, his younger sister, and his older brother and sister. All the tables include a basketball in the center inscribed with the player’s name.
- At 7:35, Stern takes the stage to loud boos, a draft tradition. His smugness was overwhelming, but most people liked it. It’s his last draft; I suppose I should let him have his fun. When he started to utter the name of Cleveland’s No. 1 pick, the ‘A’ sound made me think Alex Len. Instead, it was Anthony Bennett.
- Pre-recorded videos played in the arena between picks. In one, Burke chose Justin Timberlake over Justin Bieber and Tim Hardaway Jr. took Beyonce over Rihanna. Fine choices, Michigan Men!
- The time between picks seemed like an eternity to me, and I had no direct stake in where any of the players went.
This is what I’ll call the Twitter section:
- Between the picks, Burke’s family would discuss which teams he worked out for and which needed a point guard. Benji followed the Twitter feeds of several draft experts, paying particular attention to Jonathan Givony of Draft Express, so he had a good idea of the picks before Stern announced them.
- I chose not to follow Twitter during the draft. It was much more fun that way.
- The top draft spoiler (i.e. best reporter) is Yahoo’s Adrian Wojnarowski. He sat one row in front of me and furiously texted throughout the night, one step ahead of his competitors, who often tried to pass his leads off as their own (this backfired when Woj mistyped the particulars Noel trade). Like many NBA media people, he’s not too familiar with the college players; he had to ask other writers about the spellings or colleges for several players before breaking which team would draft them.
As I waited for Burke outside of the holding room while he was in the process of being traded from Minnesota to Utah, most of the draft picks stopped by for a makeshift photo shoot:
- Len was back in his boot.
- Seeing McLemore open his suit jacket to reveal his Kansas jersey stitched inside may have been the highlight of my night. How much would it cost to get my elementary school jersey sewn into my jacket? There really isn’t an amount I wouldn’t pay. Noel and others did this as well, but McLemore’s was the first I saw. The photo I took doesn’t do it justice. Here’s a much better one:
- Shane Larkin stopped by as well, and I introduced myself, asking if he knew Kevin Towle, a friend of mine who was the manager for the University of Miami men’s basketball team the last few years. “KT? Yeah, that’s my boy!” If Kevin thinks I’m calling him anything but KT from now on, he is mistaken.
- A few writers were waiting for other players to come out of the holding room. This trade between two scribes didn’t require league approval: John Calipari’s cell number for Noel’s cell number. I offered Benji Burke’s and Scott Machado’s digits for the Kentucky pair, but was shot down. Negotiations are ongoing.
- I can hear the roar when Hardaway Jr. is picked. Coming from Knicks fans at the draft, that means a lot.
- One of the security guards outside the holding room sees my credential and tells me he’s seen my name before. He was probably thinking of Andy Katz, but I use the ego boost to get me through the rest of the night.
Burke emerged after two hours and made his way to his first press conference as a pro. Along the way, the photographer urged him to come back, at some point, for his shoot. “You’re too clean not to get your picture taken!” From the press conference:
- The second question was from an SB Nation writer: “I want to say on behalf of all Utah Jazz fans, we are really super stoked to have you. We really needed a point guard. We’re not going to need any other point guard after you.”
- Talking about his time at Michigan, Burke said, “The competition was at an all‑time high level at Michigan. I think that’s what made us really good. We competed against each other each day in practice. And we pushed each other to get the potential out of each other. I think that helped us all get better.”
- The final question, asked just two hours after he became a professional and days before he’ll sign his contract: “Are you going to start a foundation or anything to give back to the community or anything like that?”
Burke left for Salt Lake City the next day, returned to Columbus late on Saturday, and left for summer league in Orlando the following Tuesday. I think he’ll do well in the NBA. I spoke with Hardaway Jr. on the phone after the draft and he told me that Burke was quiet and didn’t go out much in college. He transformed himself from a freshman who didn’t show his emotions to a mature, vocal leader as a sophomore.
The two often played NBA2K13 together and Burke borrowed a lot of his on-court moves from the video game (note to self: buy an XBox). Hardaway said Burke would switch up which teams he played with. “Any team you think he can’t win with he’ll try to play with that team.” It sounds a lot like the situation he’s entering with the rebuilding Jazz.