In their own words: How the legendary 2003 NBA draft shaped basketball’s future
There aren’t many things in professional sports that live up to the hype. The 2003 NBA draft was one of them.
Excitement was building for over a year — first among league executives and then among fans — about the new blood on its way. And boy, did the league need it.
The NBA was in a recession. With Michael Jordan retired, for good this time, and a scarcity of marketable young stars, fan interest had waned. Outside of the Los Angeles Lakers and their stars, Kobe Bryant and Shaquille O’Neal, the league didn’t have many national draws.
The 2003 NBA Finals between the San Antonio Spurs and New Jersey Nets was the lowest rated in history, losing more than 50% of the audience from just five years earlier when Jordan won his last title with the Bulls.
There was a belief, or at least a hope, that a new generation of stars could turn things around, and the 2003 class had several promising candidates.
LeBron James was the first high school basketball player whose stardom had already reached to national level thanks to several magazine covers and games broadcast on ESPN before he’d even turned 18 years old. Carmelo Anthony catapulted into the spotlight by leading Syracuse to the national title as just a freshman. A tough Chicago kid named Dwyane Wade also made a name for himself in the same NCAA tournament, leading Marquette to an improbable Final Four run and completing one of the greatest performances in tournament history with a triple-double against Kentucky.
It wasn’t just domestic players, either. With Dirk Nowitzki becoming a superstar and Yao Ming a superstar in the making, teams began jetting off across the world to try to find the next international star, and a 17-year-old with bleach-blond hair named Darko Milicic became an obsession for many who did.
“When you’ve been around long enough you get to where you know it when you see a potential franchise player,” Miami Heat president Pat Riley said. “We all knew there were several special players in that draft. You could feel it. And we all wanted them.”
With so much talent to be had, draft positioning became a major storyline of the 2002-03 regular season, with fans and media alike keeping a close eye on the bottom of the league standings. With so much interest, the usually mundane draft lottery — in which the league reveals the order of the teams with the first 13 picks — became a major TV event. And on the night of the draft itself, several teams made decisions that charted a course for the league over the next decade.
It’s now been 20 years since those events, and the people involved all have stories to tell. Some of the memories are fond. Some are disastrous.
Editor’s note: This story was originally published on June 23, 2013 for the 10th anniversary of the 2003 draft.
May 22, 2003, the day of the draft lottery, was a pivotal one in NBA history, but the action began the night before.
Just after midnight on that Thursday morning, James arrived at a hotel in downtown Akron, Ohio, to sign paperwork that instantly made him one of the richest basketball players in history. He was 18 years old and two weeks shy of graduating high school.
After a monthslong recruitment, private jets picking him up after school, parties and visits to corporate headquarters, James had decided on a shoe company. Officials from Reebok were in the hotel and expected to make a deal with the young star. But even though Reebok offered more guaranteed money, James chose an offer from Nike at the last moment.
It was for seven years and would eventually earn him in excess of $100 million, but there was a $10 million bonus as soon as James signed the offer sheet in the wee hours that morning. The check arrived a few days later via FedEx.
All before James had played an NBA game, been drafted or even knew which team was going to win the right to take him with the No. 1 overall pick that night. Which was the point of doing it on lottery day.
LeBron James (forward, St. Vincent-St. Mary’s, Ohio): I was able to go into the lottery with an open mind when I got the Nike deal done. It was something that took a while to come together but it was set up so it didn’t matter where I played. That was important to me.
Aaron Goodwin (James’ agent, 2003-05): The shoe companies were concerned about what market he was going to be in; they preferred to wait until after the lottery. I wanted it to be about him, he was in maximum position in a bidding war. We took out the “what-ifs.” Getting that done was the culmination of an intense few days.
Maverick Carter (James’ friend and business partner): That was a big event. Reebok was offering more money but LeBron picked Nike. We were so focused on the things we had to do, like his first commercial or what his first shoe would look like, than we were about the money.
Goodwin: A few days before that LeBron did a deal with Upper Deck and got a million-dollar check so he was already rolling in dough.
Carter: A hundred million is a lot of money but it wasn’t like he could go into a room with it and swim in it like Scrooge McDuck. He just couldn’t wait to do the work.
Goodwin: The suite I was in at the hotel had a large Jacuzzi and after all the paperwork was done I wanted to relax so I got in. I was so tired I fell asleep in the damn tub.
The lottery was also on the night of Game 3 of the Eastern Conference finals between the New Jersey Nets and the Detroit Pistons. The Pistons went to John Jay College in Manhattan, N.Y., a popular spot for visiting NBA teams, for their morning shootaround.
Marc Cornstein (Darko Milicic’s agent): I remember it so well. It was the day of the lottery and we used the gym at John Jay as our draft training gym. The Pistons were there, too. It wasn’t set up as a workout for the Pistons. It was a regular day where Darko was working out and our other guys who were in the draft were on the road so he was in the gym by himself. He was just out there with a trainer. It was the same time we did it every day. It had nothing to do with the Pistons. It was a pure coincidence.
Chad Ford (draft analyst, ESPN): Darko had just arrived in New York a few days before that. There’s just a curtain that was separating the two gyms and I walked over to [Pistons president] Joe Dumars and asked if he knew who was working out next door and he said he didn’t. I told him Darko was over there. He asked Cornstein if he could come over. It was an impromptu workout.
Chris McCosky (Pistons beat writer, Detroit News): I don’t think it was a coincidence. I remember they were talking about it the day before.
Cornstein: A number of guys filtered over to the other gym. Every shot, every move, he just looked phenomenal. Everyone from the Pistons was there. Joe Dumars, [coach] Rick [Carlisle]. Top to bottom, they were all there.
Ford: Darko was just phenomenal. It couldn’t have been more perfect in a certain way. At some point the coaches got involved and asked to see particular things. And Darko couldn’t miss and was aggressive and rose to the moment with the players watching. I was sitting next to [Dumars]. He’s not expressive, he plays everything close to the vest. But Darko was just so impressive. It was literally the best workout I’ve ever seen. I’ve seen hundreds and it was the best. When you have a 7-1 kid, who is 17 years old, doing the things he was doing, it was a “wow” moment, especially for a team that needed a big man. There was just a buzz afterward.
Tony Ronzone (Pistons executive, 2001-10): Our guys were like, “Oh my God, look at this guy.” One dribble from the foul line, dunk. Lefty hook. Quick feet. He had great lateral quickness for a big. He had spin moves. It was unbelievable. He was a freak athlete at 17. He runs like a deer. He jumps. You were saying “wow.” You could check off everything on the list.
Jon Barry (Pistons guard, 2001-03): I remember Joe Dumars saying we’re working him out. I think half a dozen of us went over to watch. Dumars, he was telling me this guy is going to be the deal. Said “he’s better than Dirk. He’s going to be an absolute stud.” So I said, I’m going to go check him out.
Cornstein: The Pistons walked away impressed but depressed. They thought when everyone else eventually saw him there would be no way they’d be able to draft Darko.
For the first time, the lottery was broadcast in prime time and was a standalone half-hour show. ABC had just taken over the NBA rights from NBC, which had always shown the lottery during halftime of a weekend playoff game. With so much attention on this draft class, ABC extended the coverage and broadcast it from what was then the NBA Entertainment Studios in Secaucus, New Jersey, just a few miles away from the Meadowlands Arena, where Game 3 of the Eastern Conference finals would happen.
With 17-65 records, the Cleveland Cavaliers and Denver Nuggets had the best chances to win, at 22.5% each. But the team with the best odds to win the lottery hadn’t since 1990.
Mike Tirico (host of lottery show, ABC): This was a big deal draft because it was LeBron and Carmelo and America knew who these guys were. We were in prime time and it was our first year of the deal. All those trains were coming into the station at the same time. Management decided to make it a big event. Looking back, that was a great decision. One of the things I really remember was this reception before the show. It was filled with all anxious and uncomfortable people. It was a unique scene to be a part of. It was quite intimate. I remember thinking most people in there are going to walk out unhappy.
Chris Tomasson (Nuggets beat writer, Rocky Mountain News): [Cavaliers owner] Gordon Gund seemed a bit apprehensive. He ate dinner with some media members, which never happened in the five seasons I covered the Cavs at the Akron Beacon Journal. It was amazing he did it in that pivotal of a moment because he’d always kept his distance. I think he was looking for anyone he knew to ease the tension.
Warren Thaler (Cavaliers board of directors): We were in the hallway and it was time for me to go into the room where they were doing the lottery drawing. I was about to part ways with Gordon and I could just tell he was nervous. I wanted to try to relax him. So I said, “Gordon, you know, this isn’t like finding a cure for blindness.”1
Gund: I looked at Warren and told him, “It’s pretty damn close.”2
Tirico: The lottery is a hard show because it’s specifically scripted and we get into all these explanations. It was so involved we had to have a full rehearsal in the studio. In the rehearsal I remember the Nuggets won the lottery. It was a unique time for us. We had live shots from the hotel where LeBron was in Akron, Carmelo was at his house in Baltimore and Darko was at his agent’s house in New York.
James: There had been a lot of speculation that I was going to be the No. 1 pick so I knew whoever won the lottery, that’s where I was going. So of course I was nervous. We had rented out this suite at the Radisson Hotel in downtown Akron and all my friends and family were there. I just remember sitting alone with everyone behind me. And with each pick I could hear this buzzing behind me.
Goodwin: LeBron and everyone were nervous. There were a lot of people there but you could tell they were enjoying it.
Carmelo Anthony (forward, Syracuse): I was just happy that I was going to be in the league. I was excited that this was just the next step. It was a good time.
Kiki Vandeweghe (Nuggets general manager, 2001-06): I remember thinking about loving both LeBron and Melo and I really thought Melo was going second at that point. So you’re really hoping to get in those first two picks.
No team was in a more awkward position on lottery night than the Memphis Grizzlies. After going 28-54 in the 2002-03 season, Memphis had the sixth-best chance [6.4%] to get the top overall pick. But that’s all the Grizzlies could hope for.
In 1997, then-Vancouver Grizzlies general manager Stu Jackson traded a future first-round pick to the Pistons for Otis Thorpe. The pick had various protections on it, but by 2003, the only way the Grizzlies would keep their pick was if it was No. 1 overall.
The Pistons made the move, at least in part, because Thorpe clashed with then-coach Doug Collins. Thorpe, who was 35 at the time of the trade, played 47 mostly unhappy games with the Grizzlies before being traded to the Sacramento Kings for Bobby Hurley just before the trade deadline in 1998.
Memphis also owned the Houston Rockets‘ No. 13 pick from the 1999 Steve Francis trade. But that pick only had a 0.5% chance of moving up to No. 1. It did not. Memphis ended up taking Marcus Banks with that pick and trading him on draft night to Boston.
Jerry West (Memphis Grizzlies general manager, 2002-07): I hate the lottery; I think it’s a terrible thing. And I say that knowing it has worked reasonably well. You have to rely on hope.
Ford: I’m surprised Jerry wanted to be there. I think Memphis had a 6% chance of getting the top pick; anything else and it would immediately lose the pick to Detroit. Any other result than getting No. 1 would’ve made it a disappointment. Maybe it would’ve been better if Stu Jackson [by then a vice president with the league office] had to be there. That trade was horrible.
Shane Battier (Grizzlies forward, 2001-06): We knew the whole year that we weren’t going to get an impact player in the draft because of Otis Thorpe. It became a running joke. I don’t think Stu Jackson could’ve come to a Grizzlies game that year because the fans of Memphis knew it, everybody knew it.
West: For a trade that, when you look back in history, was made for whatever reason, it was hard to imagine that a trade like that would’ve been made and not protect a team that hadn’t proven its worth yet. I’m not going to bad mouth anybody but that was an ill-advised decision.
Tirico: The thing about the lottery is it is both tense and very boring. Teams with very little chance of moving up are called off. But things changed when [NBA deputy commissioner] Russ Granik opened the envelope for the sixth pick that was supposed to be the Grizzlies. It wasn’t, it was the Clippers logo and we knew we’d just had something dramatic happen. The Grizzlies had moved up.
Riley: I wasn’t even watching, I was sitting in my office with my eyes closed just listening to the TV and hoping to move up. We were supposed to be fourth. But then Memphis moved up past us. At that point, I was rooting for Jerry to get LeBron. That was all he had, everyone knew about that trade.
James: My mind was moving fast. I was thinking about a lot of different possibilities. I was thinking about Chicago winning it because I’d been a Bulls fan when I was younger. I knew New York was in there. Not everyone was rooting for Cleveland [40 miles from James’ hometown], people had different picks. Some people wanted me to go to Miami for obvious reasons. I never thought once about Memphis.
When Granik finished opening the first 10 envelopes, only one team had moved up: the Grizzlies. They were in the top three along with the Nuggets and Cavs. The Toronto Raptors, who had a 15% chance of winning, were knocked to No. 4. ABC went to commercial as the studio and fans of all three teams tensed.
West: You’re sitting there scared to death that we’re not going to have our pick and you’re begging, “Please let us have this pick.” We all knew what was at stake for us. Then you see that you’ve moved up and your heart goes into your throat a little.
Gund: Jerry had always been lucky so I somehow felt good about our chance. I told him, “Here we go.”
James: When it went to commercial and we knew the top three were Denver, Memphis and Cleveland, I just had a feeling that I’m going to stay home. I could hear the chatter starting in the room. They were getting excited.
Goodwin: By then we all wanted Cleveland, it was going to be a fairy tale.
Vandeweghe: I was nervous. I was telling myself, whatever happens now it’s OK because we’re going to get someone we really like. But you’re always wanting that first pick.
Battier: I was like, holy s—, we might get this kid.
Granik opened the envelope for the third pick, revealing the Nuggets’ logo. Then he cracked the one with a large No. 2 on it and pulled out the Grizzlies’ logo. “That means …” Granik said. Few involved even saw him pull the Cavaliers’ logo from the envelope.
James: When the envelope opened and said [Memphis] I don’t even remember them opening the one that said Cleveland. Everyone just started yelling and coming over to me and jumping on me. From then on that night it was a blur. I didn’t even see them pull out the jersey with my name on it, I didn’t see that until later.
West: It was devastating to the franchise to not have that pick. We were able to build a respectable team after that but just imagine having a player like Mr. James playing for your team. It was unbelievably disappointing. For some of us, we were filled with anger because we were thinking, “How could we not have this draft pick protected?” With all the good things that have been done in Memphis and where they are today, that franchise could’ve come so much farther. It hurts to think about. It was a sad day.
Battier: I still remember the look on Jerry’s face.
Ford: It was cruel in a certain way to the Grizzlies. Jerry couldn’t constrain his facial expression. It made for great TV but it was very rough on him.
The following season, West won Executive of the Year after the Grizzlies made the playoffs for the first time in franchise history.
Anthony: At that point I was pretty sure I was going to Detroit. I thought I was going to definitely be that No. 2 pick if Cleveland was taking Bron as it looked like.
Dumars: When they drew the Nuggets card at No. 3 my heart stopped for the 60 seconds it took Russ Granik to reveal who was No. 2. It didn’t start until I heard Memphis’ name at No. 2.
Cornstein: The stars had aligned. It was surreal. Eight hours earlier the Pistons were dreaming of getting Darko and then they had the No. 2 pick. By the end of the night I’d heard from the Pistons and were pretty sure they were going to take him with that pick.
Ronzone: We were like, “Can you believe this guy just fell into our lap?”
James: The only thing I really remember from after the lottery that night was seeing Austin Carr crying on television. That got to me; that got me excited.
Austin Carr (No. 1 overall pick in 1970, Cavs broadcaster): We held a lottery party at this restaurant and when that envelope opened and they pulled [Memphis] the place just exploded. I was overcome with emotion and I couldn’t hold back. I had no idea the cameras were on me. I just knew he was a great player and would do great things and I wasn’t wrong.
Goodwin: Within a half hour I heard from Jim Paxson that they’d be taking LeBron and they’d be in touch soon.
Jim Paxson (Cavs general manager, 1999-2005): Right after we won I got in the car and drove to a lottery party the team was having where Austin was crying in front of the cameras. Then my phone rang and it was from a 609 area code. That was [Gund’s] area code and I thought he was calling me back because we’d only briefly talked. I answer and it’s Wes Wesley. He basically said congratulations on winning the lottery and Larry Brown would really like to coach LeBron. We didn’t have a coach at the time but weren’t thinking at all about Larry; he was the coach of the 76ers, but I knew Wes was very close to him. We hung up but I never heard from Wes or Larry about it again.
Within 10 days, Brown had resigned as coach of the 76ers and was hired to replace Carlisle as coach of the Pistons. Brown led the Pistons to a title the next season.
Cornstein: After the lottery, we all went out to dinner at Mr. Chow’s. And then Mariah Carey sat down at the next table. I mean, this day was surreal, you couldn’t make this stuff up.
Ford: Darko had never had Chinese food before. He was upset because he wanted bread. They brought him out some mu shu pancakes. He was like, “What the heck is this?” That’s when you realized how young he was and how new this all was to him. He was discombobulated. It was funny at the time but it was one of those little signs of how hard the transition was going to be for him.
Tirico: During halftime of the Nets-Pistons game we did a three-way interview with LeBron and Carmelo. What struck me then and even now was how composed LeBron was. I couldn’t have done that when I was 18. He came right out of high school and was about to become a global megastar in his backyard.
Anthony: LeBron and I were talking during the lottery about what was going on. I kind of knew Cleveland was going to get the No. 1 pick. I think they rigged it. But no, I’m kidding, don’t quote me on that.
The 2003 NBA draft took place on June 26 at The Theater at Madison Square Garden in New York. Many who work in the league called it one of the deepest drafts in history. It has ended up producing nine All-Stars, a handful of franchise players and two Finals MVPs, and seven years later, it spawned the greatest free agent class ever.
Paxson: I thought there was a chance a few teams would call us with great offers for the No. 1 pick. There was probably no way we’d have traded but I expected teams to try. I think I might’ve tried. But we never got one real call about it. We brought LeBron and his mother to a [WNBA Cleveland Rockers] game and had dinner with him for a face-to-face sit-down so everyone could get to know each other. We had a sham of a workout for him, but it was mainly for the media.
James: I knew I was staying home. It was a calm day for me until I had to go up and meet [NBA commissioner] David Stern. I had dreamed about that moment, walking across the stage and putting on the hat. So I got a little anxious when I got up there.
Goodwin: It was a special moment for LeBron and [his mother] Gloria. I really enjoyed their emotion even though they already knew he was getting picked. That’s a once-in-a-lifetime moment there. The next year, when I represented Dwight Howard, I knew for a couple days the Orlando Magic were taking him No. 1, but I didn’t tell him until right before the pick because I think that’s such a wonderful moment.
James wore an all-white suit that immediately became one of the more memorable in draft fashion history. Later, a company put it on a bobblehead.
James: That was a disgusting suit. It was too big, and I looked like Casper the Friendly Ghost, all that white. I know it goes down as one of the memorable draft suits with Karl Malone and his tie and Jalen Rose and Samaki Walker with his hat. But I can’t bear to look back at it.
There was no drama with the first pick, but the rest of the draft lacked such certainty.
Ford: About a week after that Darko workout in New York, the Pistons brought him to Detroit and he worked out again. It wasn’t as good as the first one but he was impressive and they pretty much committed to him then. Will Robinson was this legendary scout for the Pistons. He had discovered Grant Hill, Joe Dumars and many, many others. Will compared him to a young Wilt Chamberlain. I wrote his quote but people always seem to attribute it to me.
Will Robinson (Pistons scout, 1976-2003): [Darko] is going to own the game. Own the game. We’re going to have to build a new arena. The only thing that could destroy a kid like that is a woman. 5
Ford: Turns out Darko’s two greatest moments were those workouts for Detroit. And I could never watch another workout again without a high degree of cynicism.
Cornstein: We canceled all other workouts. He was going to Detroit. It looked like a great situation on paper. There was a void there. It really made sense. At the time, we didn’t think the Larry Brown hire would affect Darko at all. We were wrong.
Vandeweghe: [Cornstein] said Darko’s not going to work out for us because he’s going to be gone after the Detroit pick. I was surprised at that point. I was a little skeptical, let’s put it that way. In that position, you have to be because everyone is trying to play games. I flew to New York so I could watch Darko work out. I’d seen him play in Europe. One game he didn’t play at all and another game he only played a few minutes. Hard to get a great idea.
Ronzone: Teams kept calling us about the No. 2 pick, offering us all kinds of packages. We had a couple of conversations about Carmelo. Chris Bosh had a great workout with us and we really liked him. But we were focused on Darko.
McCosky: Right up to the draft, right up to the Pistons going on the clock, the Nuggets wanted to trade up to get the No. 2. Kiki might’ve wanted Darko. The Pistons just weren’t that high on Carmelo. They had Tayshaun Prince and they needed a big guy. If they had traded back and Darko was gone, I think they would’ve taken Chris Bosh at No. 3 and not even Carmelo there.
Tomasson: Kiki never publicly gave us his personal order but several Nuggets front-office members I talked to before the lottery said they had Darko ranked ahead of Melo. They worked out some other guys but I think they were pretty locked in on Melo after the lottery. Lottery night it was reported the Pistons were probably going to take Darko No. 2.
Vandeweghe: I called about trading for the No. 2 pick; teams behind us called about trading for our pick. I wasn’t really sure what Detroit was doing and wanted to investigate all options.
Anthony: I was flat-out told by somebody that I was going to be the No. 2 pick and go to Detroit. But something happened. To this day, I don’t know what it was.
Ford: It was just a moment when the unknown had eclipsed the known. Many of the younger GMs had this international fever. There was a mania to find the next Dirk. There was a realization by these NBA guys that these Euro players could play. As scouts were bemoaning the state of basketball in the U.S. because of AAU, here are these Euros who were so skilled and had been drilled in all the arts. Scouts were flocking over to Europe. Jerry West was the one voice who was consistently calling me and asking me why Darko was rated so high. I thought he was being xenophobic. He was old school.
West: We did our research. There’s no way we would’ve taken Darko at No. 2.
The Pistons, of course, took Milicic in what became one of the biggest mistakes in draft history. He played less than three seasons with the Pistons, averaging fewer than two points and two rebounds in 96 games. He went on to an unremarkable career with five other teams, never averaging more than seven points and six rebounds over the course of an entire season.
“It was a calm day for me until I had to go up and meet David Stern. I had dreamed about that moment, walking across the stage and putting on the hat. So I got a little anxious when I got up there.”
Dumars: Absolutely, it was a mistake. I could give a dissertation on [background research] now. After I drafted Darko, from that point on, the amount of background we do on every single player that you see us draft is ridiculous. We do as much or more background than any other team in the NBA because of that. The background on Darko was about 20 percent of what we do now. I look back on it now and realize you didn’t know half of the stuff you needed to know. With Darko, we may have had two sources of information. That was it. We may have talked to a couple of guys over in Europe. That was it. 6
Darko Milicic (center, Hemofarm Vrsac, Serbia): They did waste a pick, you know. Why did they take me? Who knows if I really had a chance to play like these players that play like Dwyane Wade or Carmelo, those guys are incredible players. So for me, being a second pick, I don’t get why they didn’t play me at all. Why did they take me? You should take someone that they really think was going play right away because just taking someone to sit on the bench, you waste a pick and you waste the guy’s time. So I just didn’t get it. I guess they thought they were going be champions forever. I don’t know. 7
Cornstein: We don’t live in a vacuum. We know what has happened since. You have to remember, he was as impressive-looking physically and what he could do in a workout [was as impressive] as anyone I’ve ever seen. I’m sure now if you asked everyone in the lottery that year, all 13 would tell you they’d have taken Melo second. Not only is that not true, more would’ve take Darko at No. 2 than not. I know that for a fact. He was 17, had an incredible body for his age. He was very mature for his age, which I know may sound odd now that you look back. Look, you can have lightning in a bottle.
Taking Anthony third seemed like a no-brainer, but the Nuggets had to think it through. Anthony was listed at 195 pounds on the official Syracuse roster. When he weighed in at pre-draft camp in May, he was 233 pounds. When he went to visit Denver, he didn’t do a full workout and mostly just shot around. He was a little winded during the workout, which he attributed to the altitude.
Vandewedge: We talked about him keeping himself in the best shape. I had a conversation with him saying it was so much easier if you just keep yourself in playing shape instead of working into it during training camp. But we all liked Melo, we knew it was a franchise-caliber player. We had been rebuilding and targeting that pick for two years, and it really worked out for us.
Dwyane Wade (guard, Marquette): Denver called and brought me in for a workout. When I got there, I was like, “Why am I here?” I didn’t think they were going to take me at No. 3. But they said they weren’t sure who would be there at No. 3 and they were still making their decision. I’m not sure what that was about.
Anthony: That’d be even better, going to Detroit. That’s a playoff team. When I first heard [I might go to the Nuggets], I was like, “I don’t want to go to Denver.” But then I sat down with my agent and he told me how much money [under the salary cap] they’re going to have. They have a chance to be good. 8
The Nuggets signed Andre Miller and Earl Boykins that offseason using some of their cap space. They used the rest of it in 2004, when they signed Kenyon Martin. With the addition of Anthony, Denver went 43-39 in 2003-04, its first winning season since 1993-94, and made the playoffs for the first time since 1995.
Chris Bosh (forward/center, Georgia Tech): The first workout I had was right after the pre-draft camp in Chicago, we went right to the Bulls’ facility and there was about seven of the top big guys in the draft there. I had the jitters. I was like, “Oh, no, I’m not ready for this.” I did terribly and I wanted to go back to college after that.”
Henry Thomas (agent for Bosh and Wade): I was very confident Chris would go high. His draft status was established very early on.
Ford: No one doubted Bosh would go in the top five. He had a terrific workout in Toronto and Detroit, and that cemented it.
Bosh: I don’t remember doing that well in Toronto. I was going up against Nick Collison a few times, and sometimes I played better than him and sometimes he played better than me. But then I went to Miami, and they had the No. 5 pick. When it was over, they said, “We like you but we hear you’re going to be gone by our pick.” That was first time I realized I probably was going to go in the top four.
Thomas: I’ve known [then-Raptors general manager] Glen Grunwald for some time. He’s from the Chicago area and I’m from Chicago, and in a prior life, we used to play against each other in the lawyers league. I knew they were going to take Chris.
Bosh: I couldn’t breathe. I was sitting there with my family. My brother cracked a joke to get me to relax, and I was like, nothing is funny right now. I just started sweating. It was the longest three minutes of my life to that point. It was a crazy time.
The Raptors took Bosh with the fourth pick. He went on to have five All-Star appearances in seven years with the team and led the Raptors to their only division title in the 2006-07 season.
Wade: I knew who the top four picks were going to be. I think most people did. Except for Chris; he never believed he was going until they took him. I always felt the draft would really start at No. 5. That’s what I felt that night.
Ford: We had Wade ranked No. 13 coming out of the NCAA tournament, which is kind of embarrassing when you look back on it. Jerry West loved Dwyane Wade. West really thought he could get Wade with his 13th pick at one point. West had been talking him up. If Jerry loved Wade, then you have to give the guy a second look. The concern about Wade is that he was an undersized shooting guard who was trying to sell himself as a point guard.
Riley: I’ve always wanted to coach veterans. I’ve always preferred to coach 25- or 26-year-olds who had some experience. I also never believed that our team was ever going to be bad enough to think we’d get a high pick. But that year we ended up with No. 5, and I was looking at point guards and centers; that’s what we needed. I had guys like Kirk Hinrich, T.J. Ford and Chris Kaman high on our list, and I was interested in them. Dwyane was on there, but at the start of the process, I wasn’t sure.
Thomas: Even though he had a great year at Marquette, people had a lot of questions about Dwyane. He was a little undersized to be a shooting guard and didn’t have a great shot. He wasn’t a classic point guard. We ended up sending him to about 11 or 12 workouts with teams because he had to prove himself.
Tim Grover (NBA personal trainer): Henry Thomas called me and told me to get Dwyane ready for team workouts. When I saw him, I said, “Is this the same kid from the NCAA tournament?” I just didn’t see it. I don’t know if he was nervous or what it was in the drills. But when we started to compete, it was like a different person. He went on a tear. I was like, OK, I see what they’re saying. He has a switch that very few people have.
Ford: When you saw his wingspan, athletic ability you were interested. Then there was word that he was killing everyone in the gym. He was outplaying NBA guys like Corey Maggette, Quentin Richardson and other younger NBA players. You saw it might work out for this guy.
Wade: I was a tweener but I was a playmaker. When I was in meetings and teams asked, I told them I could handle the ball and make plays. I told teams I was a basketball player.
Randy Pfund (Heat general manager, 1995-2008): We came to Chicago to work out Chris Kaman and we were standing around waiting for him to come out for the workout. And Dwyane was working out at the other end of the gym with Tim Grover. And Pat turned and said, “Who’s that? Who’s that kid down there?” I said, “That’s Wade.” And he said, “Whoa.” Dwyane was impressive-looking, and that caught Pat’s eye from a distance. And I think that was probably four or five days before we worked out Dwyane in Miami.
Riley: I was coaching a horrible team, and I was in Milwaukee and watching a game where Marquette was playing Kentucky [in March]. I was on the treadmill and it was raining and it was a bad night. I watched Dwyane put up 30 points. He was so unique, almost Jordan-like in the way he controlled the game and moved on the court. He was fearless. That night had a great impact on further researching him.
Wade: I went to Miami for a workout and I went to dinner. At the dinner, Pat said, “We think we know who we’re going to take,” and then he said he was flying to see someone else the next day. I didn’t know if he was talking about me or what. I didn’t have my best workout after that.
Riley: I’m not sure why I told him that but he had a horrible workout. He was very nervous. I remember shaking his hand and thought the only time I ever shook a hand of a rookie that came in that had more sweat on his palm was James Worthy. He couldn’t make a shot. But that wasn’t going to sway us.
Israel Gutierrez (Heat beat writer, Miami Herald): Riley was big on the bigs, and that was Kaman. He also really liked T.J. Ford. I know he was interested in Wade but it was known that his staff had to do some convincing to get him to decide on Wade.
Thomas: The Heat wanted a big man; we didn’t think that was where Dwyane would end up.
Pfund: There were some strong opinions in the draft room that year, and they weren’t all the same. I had seen some things in Dwyane’s game and I felt he had a star quality. I felt we needed that.
Grover: I knew Dwyane’s ceiling was the seventh pick and Chicago. I knew they were going to take him there. But the day of the draft, Pat Riley called me. He said, “All right, Tim. Wade or Kaman: Who would you take?” I had worked with both of them and I was honored he called me to ask my opinion. I was thinking about it, and the 1984 draft flashed in my mind when Portland took Sam Bowie ahead of Michael Jordan. I told them to take Dwyane.
Riley: It was never just my call even if I have that authority. That night it was a consensus. We discussed it. When it comes right down to it, I’m not going to be bull-headed. We made the decision a few hours before the draft that we were going to take Dwyane if he was on the board.
Wade: Miami wasn’t in my head. It was Chicago, Chicago, Chicago. I grew up a Bulls fan. The media was pointing in that direction. My best workouts were in Chicago. I didn’t even work out for the Clippers at No. 6 so I never thought about going there. I was headed to Chicago with the No. 7 pick.
“We came to Chicago to work out Chris Kaman and we were standing around waiting for him to come out for the workout. And Dwyane was working out at the other end of the gym with Tim Grover. And Pat turned and said, ‘Who’s that? Who’s that kid down there?’ I said, ‘That’s Wade.’ And he said, ‘Whoa.'”
Randy Pfund, former Miami Heat GM
Thomas: Randy Pfund called me and hollered into the phone, “We’re taking Wade.” I calmly hung up the phone.
Wade: [Thomas] came over and sat next to me. He whispered in my ear, “Don’t change your expression but the Miami Heat are going to pick you at 5.” It happened in a flash.
Riley: I thought we’re going to make him a point guard and we’re going to have the most athletic and most gifted point guard in the league. I remember watching film and saw sometimes when he dropped to make a drive and would turn the corner, sometimes his shoulders were lower than his knees, he could find areas on the court and get to the rim better than any other player I’d ever seen. Dwyane just turned out to be the player of all players for us.
Wade did play point guard for the Heat that season, and they surprisingly reached the second round of the playoffs under first-year coach Stan Van Gundy. Since, Wade has won three titles with the Heat and was instrumental in recruiting two men he sat alongside that night at the draft, James and Bosh, to sign in Miami before the 2010-11 season.
The rest of the draft
With the No. 6 pick, the Los Angeles Clippers took Kaman, who later became their franchise center and an All-Star. The Bulls, disappointed they missed out on Wade, took Hinrich with the No. 7 pick.
The No. 8 pick belonged to the Milwaukee Bucks, and at the time, Bucks owner Sen. Herb Kohl was in deep talks to sell the team to the recently retired Michael Jordan. Bucks general manager Ernie Grunfeld was four days from leaving to become the GM in Washington, and coach George Karl left before the start of the next season. The Jordan purchase fell apart just after the draft but there was always a question as to who was controlling that pick.
Grunfeld: We were going young. We’d traded Glenn Robinson to Atlanta for that draft pick and we were about to trade Sam Cassell to Minnesota. We needed a point guard and wanted either Hinrich or Ford. We liked them both, and when Hinrich went to Chicago, we took T.J. The rumors of the sale were there, of course, but that did not affect who we drafted.
Larry Harris (Bucks executive, 1990-2008): We heard after it was all done that it really did come down to the wire, he almost sold the team. Jordan was never part of our decision; that pick was 100 percent for Herb. There’s no gray area there. It was Sen. Kohl’s team, and we drafted for him. There was never any three-way message or anything. We were never drafting for anyone else.
The 2003 draft produced numerous American-born stars, but it didn’t really turn into the international revolution some in the league expected. Including Milicic, eight international players were drafted in the first round and 20 were taken overall, both of which were records.
However, none of them became stars. The most successful were Boris Diaw, Carlos Delfino, Leandro Barbosa and Zaza Pachulia.
That international interest from league executives pushed down some players who might have gone higher, including future All-Stars David West, Josh Howard and Mo Williams.
David West (forward, Xavier; No. 18 pick to New Orleans): Everyone knew those stars at the top but I always felt like I was the best of the rest. Obviously my opinion doesn’t mean much, it was up to the GMs and I didn’t get invited to the draft so I was at home in North Carolina. I guess I hoped it would just work out. There were a lot of other guys who went in front of me who aren’t in the league.
After the draft
The next day, James flew back to Cleveland on a commercial flight and was a guest of the Cleveland Indians that night. He took batting practice and threw out the first pitch, a photo op that later became a baseball card. But it was not a memorable scene. If there was one thing worse than James’ attempts to make contact, it was his woeful attempt at a first pitch.
James: It was terrible. You haven’t seen me throw out another first pitch since then. And you never will.
Bosh apparently meant it when he said he didn’t expect to get drafted by Toronto. He left his passport at home in Dallas and was not immediately admitted to Canada when he flew there for his news conference the next day.
Bosh: We had to tell them the story before they let me in. Then my bags got lost. I had another suit in there for the press conference. I only had two suits, one for the draft and one for the press conference. So they gave me a polo and I wore sweats. I was like, “Sorry I couldn’t dress up.”
Wade was still stunned he was headed to Miami.
Wade: I was numb. They sent a private plane; I had never been on a private plane before. I came right to the arena. Pat Riley met me in the family room and he brought me a big playbook and the first thing he said was “learn this.” After, they put me up at a nice suite at the Mandarin Hotel. I walked out onto the balcony and looked at the city and looked out over the water. I thought that this was where I’m at now. I didn’t grow up like that. I couldn’t believe I was there. My family was emotional.
This was my new life.
Riley: We made the right choice but also sometimes you get lucky. That year, 2003, is when this franchise changed and for the last 10 years this franchise has been on the right track.
David West: It’s worked out for us in the long run. I think all of us who were taken in ’03 have a certain pride about being a part of that class up until this day. There was a point where there was almost a starter on every team from that class. I think it should go down as one of the best ever.
James: I think it’s pretty obvious, the draft had a pretty big impact on my life.
1 – Gund, who has Retinitis Pigmentosa and went blind as a young man, has spent his life funding research for a cure.
2 – The interviews with Gund and Thaler took place in 2006.
3 – Dumars said this in an interview with ESPN.com on the day of the lottery.
4 – Anthony said this in a live interview on ABC the night of the lottery.
5 – Robinson said this to ESPN.com in May 2003. He died in 2008.
6 – Dumars said this in a news conference following the 2012 draft.
7 – Milicic said this in a 2010 interview with Slam Magazine.
8 – Anthony said this in a May 2003 interview with the Rocky Mountain News.