NEW YORK -- Of all the years for me to attend my first-ever NBA draft, this was a terrific one. Legitimate intrigue. Active, consistent surprises. And hey: trades trades trades! Every mock draft was shredded about, oh, five minutes in, but just to be certain, people kept feeding them into the wood chipper for the next four hours anyway. It was a wild, goofy, giddy draft.
But all I could think about the whole night was David Stern.
If you haven't seen Stern in person in the last couple of years, you should know: He is extremely frail. Stern has never seemed particularly old, but he's going to be 71 in September, and he's beginning to look it. Before the draft began, he did a run-through at the podium, and when he was done, he hobbled, slowly, across the stage and had to be helped down the stairs. I'd seen Stern earlier this season at Madison Square Garden and was taken aback by how elderly he suddenly appeared, but this was a lot worse. I found myself wondering if he'd make it through the night.
And then the draft began, and Stern turned into a professional wrestler.
This was David Stern's final draft before he retires in February, and there is no way he's ever had more fun at one of them than he did on Thursday night. He has always soaked in the inevitable boos he receives at the draft -- the boos have become more a valued tradition than an accurate representation of the majority of fans' views about him -- but this year he actively embraced them. (And made sure they were loud.) His energy level, once the cameras were on and the show was on the road, skyrocketed. He was clearly having the time of his life. I couldn't take my eyes off of him. Particularly when this happened.
The best moment was right before he announced the No. 21 pick, the Utah Jazz's selection of Louisville center Gorgui Dieng (who was traded to Minnesota). Stern stepped up to the podium … and didn't say a word. The boos washed over him. He grinned. He stayed silent, still grinning. And then: "We had to explain to our international audience that the boo is a sign of respect."
The most awesome thing happened: The crowd began cheering. It grew louder and louder. Deep down, we love you, and we're going to miss you. David Stern has been in control of the NBA for almost 30 years and is personally responsible for just about everything that has happened in the league, for good and bad, that entire time. But the draft has always been his night when everyone is watching, when he is at the total center of the world he has created. Thursday was his last one, and you could see him do everything in his substantial power to not let it go, even at that last perfect moment with Hakeem Olajuwon and incoming commissioner Adam Silver -- who, in a splendid twist, was booed upon arrival.
There was nothing frail about Stern. He, as always, was in complete control. I miss him already.
* * *
It's difficult to put together a cohesive narrative about attending an event in which the names of tall men are read for four hours about 25 feet from me, so I'm just going to do the rest of this in a hail of bullets.
• Biggest takeaway from being at the draft in person: It is legitimately, undeniably moving. When Stern announced No. 1 pick Anthony Bennett's name, most of the crowd at Barclays and watching at home gasped. But that's not what I heard. I heard, about 15 feet to my left, five guys just start roaring. Turns out they were five of Bennett's closest friends, and they were going crazy. They just erupted. They started chanting "FIRST PICK! FIRST PICK!" for a solid minute, and when he walked on stage Bennett looked right past Stern to his friends, who saluted him. It was fantastic. I was lucky to get to see it.
• Almost all drafts have sort of been ruined by Twitter these days, thanks to terrific reporters like Yahoo's Adrian Wojnarowski and ESPN's Jeff Goodman, who scoop almost every pick before they're announced. I spent most of the night trying to figure out whether I should be following along on Twitter or not.
THE CASE FOR NOT FOLLOWING ALONG ON TWITTER: There is absolutely no drama in the evening if you're incessantly checking Twitter. Basically, every single thing David Stern says all night was something you know he's about to say. This makes the act of sitting and watching in person seem particularly stupid: You're basically sitting there for stagecraft. It can make you feel kind of dumb. Not following along allows you to be legitimately surprised by unexpected picks. It's much more fun to be surprised by something David Stern said than something Adrian Wojnarowski tweeted.
THE CASE FOR FOLLOWING ALONG ON TWITTER: Well, basically almost everything David Stern said on the evening was wrong. If I hadn't been on Twitter, I would have spent the entire evening wondering why in the heck the Timberwolves drafted another point guard and getting excited about Nerlens Noel and Anthony Davis playing together in New Orleans. Those trades weren't announced until hours into the draft, if they were at all. In other words: Being there in person means you're not watching on television, which means if you're not checking Twitter, you have zero idea what is actually going on.
Twitter both salvages and ruins the draft. That's to say: It does to the draft pretty much what it does to everything.
• I was actually sitting three feet away from Wojnarowski the whole draft. The guy was the Tasmanian Devil. At one point I was pretty certain he was going to spontaneously combust. I found myself repeatedly looking at his phone to make sure it was charged. I'm sure he had six spares.
• One disappointment: Discovering that players are never surprised when they're picked because, well, there are cameramen standing right above them to catch their reaction. I suppose I should have known this already -- it's not like the Oscars, with cameras on every nominee -- but it still sort of bummed me out. As if it weren't stressful enough to have your entire professional future decided on national television in front of millions of people, now you have to act like you didn't know it was coming.
• Best advice I can give you if you ever decide to attend the NBA draft in person: Get the cheapest tickets possible. Sit in the very top row. People pay more for tickets to sporting events because you can see what's happening better the closer you are. (Exception: the NFL, which I find nearly impossible to understand from the sidelines.) But the draft is by definition not an athletic activity. People barely move. You don't need to see anything. So save your money and just get in the building. You're not missing anything.
• Sources: The Brooklyn Knight is not allowed within 100 feet of elementary schools.
• If you were at Barclays Center for any of the Knicks-Nets games this season you already knew this, but Knicks fans rather obviously outnumbered Nets fans. They were a ton louder too. And the cheer when Tim Hardaway Jr. was selected was the biggest non-Stern-related noise of the night.
• Also, the whole place cleared out after that pick. I had this idea that if the Knicks or Nets traded into the second round, a bunch of NYC fans would be pounding on the doors of Barclays Center, demanding to be let back in.
• To be honest: I didn't make it all that far in the second round myself. After Nate Wolters is off the board, what's the point?
• All in all, it was an enjoyable enough evening, but I'm not sure I could do this again. Not only is there no real action, the only actual events -- the reading of the names -- are bracketed by endless amounts of down time. If I had a friend I hadn't seen in years and had a whole lifetime to get caught up on, the NBA draft would be the ideal sporting venue, because we could talk for hours and not be interrupted. Then again: We'd probably just be on our phone checking Twitter the whole time.
* * *