Washington Bullets general manager John Nash will put his trust in horseshoes and shamrocks. Team president Susan O'Malley will whisper a silent prayer at St. Patrick's Cathedral in New York this morning.
The Bullets are leaving little to chance in this afternoon's National Basketball Association lottery for the 11 non-playoff teams, at the Equitable Center in midtown New York.
By being lucky, the Bullets will obtain one of the top three selections in the annual draft of college stars, which will be held June 26. That would put them in position to draft blue-chip forwards Larry Johnson of Nevada-Las Vegas or Billy Owens of Syracuse, or Georgia Tech point guard Kenny Anderson.
If unlucky, the Bullets will have to settle for the eighth choice or lower, where picking a bona-fide NBA player becomes a lot more speculative.
In 1989, the last time Washington participated in the lottery, it failed to land one of the top three picks and chose forward Tom Hammonds of Georgia Tech with the ninth selection. He still is considered a borderline pro.
"That year, I tried using one of Brooks Robinson's old bats as a good-luck charm," O'Malley said. "It shows you how much I know. If I'd have used one of Brooks' beat-up old gloves, we probably would have got the first pick."
Interestingly, the No. 1 choice in 1989 was Pervis Ellison, who became a Bullet last June after a three-team deal with the Sacramento Kings and Utah Jazz.
"This year, I'm placing my faith in Nash. He's a lucky Irishman," O'Malley said.
Nash proved more fortunate than O'Malley in 1988 when he was general manager of the Philadelphia 76ers. He secured the third pick and selected Pittsburgh power forward Charles Smith. Nash then traded Smith to the Los Angeles Clippers for Bradley guard Hersey Hawkins, the player he really wanted to solidify the backcourt.
"I also used a horseshoe at the lottery that year," said Nash, who owns a horse farm in Pennsylvania. "I got it from Bet Twice, who wound up winning the Belmont Stakes. But this year, I'm bringing a shamrock to reduce the odds."
With his team having only four of 66 balls in the lottery hopper, Nash realizes the chances of the Bullets' getting the first pick aren't great: 6 percent, to be exact.
"You'll talk to his high school coaches, former teammates, even trainers and neighbors to see what makes him tick," he said. "A lot of teams do psychological testing, but I'm not a strong believer in it. After you evaluate everything, you need to trust your gut."
If the Bullets fail to get one of the top three selections, Nash said, he might consider trading one of his surplus forwards for a higher position in the draft.
A player such as UNLV playmaker Greg Anthony or former
Louisiana State power forward Stanley Roberts, who played in Spain last winter and caught Nash's eye, could slip within the Bullets' reach.
Bullets coach Wes Unseld prefers to reserve judgment.
"I want to see where we are in the lottery before forming any strong opinions," Unseld said. "I've watched films of a lot of the potential lottery picks, but I'm keeping an open mind."
But Unseld shares Nash's view that the Bullets' prime need is a talented floor leader who can run the fast break and create easy baskets in a half-court offense.
But even getting the first pick is no guarantee of immediate success. Of the six teams that made the first selection since the lottery has been in force, only the San Antonio Spurs, who drafted Navy's David Robinson in 1987, had a winning record this past season. And the Spurs were forced to wait two years for Robinson to complete his service commitment.
There have been a number of major disappointments among the first three players chosen in recent years.
Nash ticks off names like Chris Washburn (third in 1986), Dennis Hopson (third in 1987) and Danny Ferry (second in 1989), who have failed to live up to expectations. Several third choices -- Kevin McHale, Buck Williams and Michael Jordan -- proved superior to those selected before them.
"There are no guarantees in this business," Nash said. "You need to know a lot of intangibles about these players other than their statistics and obvious skills. You've got to know their drive, heart and character."
Before making a choice, Nash said, he spends considerable time checking a player's background.