SECAUCUS, N.J. – With his championship ring on her hand and her late husband’s dreams of another on her mind, Irene Pollin stood in shock as the Washington Wizards won the draft lottery.
Towering over her to the side, Mikhail Prokhorov watched the New Jersey Nets lose yet again.
The Wizards won the draft lottery Tuesday night, moving up from the No. 5 spot to earn the top pick in next month’s draft, when it will likely choose between Kentucky freshman John Wall and national player of the year Evan Turner of Ohio State.
Washington was represented by Irene Pollin, who wore the 1978 Bullets championship ring of her late husband, longtime owner Abe Pollin. When the Wizards pulled off the surprising win, her jaw dropped and appeared to mouth ‘Oh my God!!’ with wide eyes.
Abe Pollin died at age 85 in November.
“This is very, very special. I have been in this my entire adult life and to be here, representing my husband, this is very special to me tonight,” Irene Pollin said. “I think it’s the culmination of my husband’s dream because he wanted another ring and maybe this will get us another ring.”
The Philadelphia 76ers, another disappointment this season, moved up from the sixth spot to grab the No. 2 pick. The Nets continued the run of failure by teams with the best chance of winning, falling to the third.
Prokhorov, the 6-foot-6 Russian billionaire who was approved as Nets owner last week and had a front row seat for the loss, shrugged off the disappointment.
“Sometimes luck makes all the difference, but it never comes down to one player,” Prokhorov said. “I’m sure we’re going to get a great player. For our team, the only way is up.”
The lottery victory — despite only a 10.3 percent chance — is just about the only thing that has gone right in a disastrous year for the Wizards, marred by the suspension of All-Star Gilbert Arenas for bringing guns into the Verizon Center locker room. They finished 26-56 after being widely forecast to finish in the middle of the Eastern Conference.
Irene Pollin hopes the lottery win will help fans forget a turbulent season, when the Wizards also traded former All-Stars Caron Butler and Antawn Jamison to cut salary after things fell apart.
“Fans are fickle. But I think this is a wonderful thing for our fans who have really stuck by us,” Pollin said. “They really have been through a very, very tough year. Actually when I got up and spoke to them, I was thanking them for sticking by us and being so supportive even though we had all the problems.”
Now they hope the No. 1 pick can help spark a quick turnaround under Washington Capitals owner Ted Leonsis, who is close to completing a deal to buy the franchise from the Pollin family. Leonsis met with some NBA owners earlier Tuesday, and the sale is expected to be completed early in June.
“We have a lot of work to do with the franchise,” Leonsis said. “The players, the culture, the expectations, the discipline around the team, but I do think it is a breath of fresh air and does revive the franchise and gives us a shot to be an exciting team with a lot of expectations. I know how hard it is to rebuild a team. I am going to be patient but I have a strong belief that our management team and ownership team is very focused.”
The Nets had a 25 percent chance of winning after going 12-70. Instead, the team with the worst record still hasn’t won since 2004, when the Orlando Magic selected Dwight Howard.
Asked before the lottery about potentially changing the system to keep teams from losing on purpose to improve their probability of winning, commissioner David Stern said he thinks, “the results of the lottery, if anything, are causing teams with the worst record to feel as though a paucity of wins is not being adequately recognized and compensated.”
So will Arenas play with the No. 1 pick or be replaced by him?
“I’m just going to come in and work hard … just try to win games for the organization this year,” Wall said.
Team president Ernie Grunfeld told reporters on a conference call that earning the No. 1 pick would not affect the team’s plans for Arenas.
“Gilbert is still with us. He’s been down at our gym, working out and getting ready,” Grunfeld said. “The more good players you have, the better.”
But the Wizards will have to do better than they did last time they had the No. 1 pick. That was in 2001, when Hall of Famer and former Washington executive Michael Jordan selected Kwame Brown, considered one of the biggest busts ever at No. 1.
The losers this time were the Minnesota Timberwolves, who fell from second to fourth. Sacramento (No. 5) and Golden State (No. 6) also tumbled — the second straight year the Kings went the wrong way in the lottery.
The Kings went from first to fourth last year, but did end up with Rookie of the Year Tyreke Evans — who represented them Tuesday. So maybe the Nets shouldn’t lose hope.
The NBA draft is June 24 in New York.
Philadelphia brought its own lucky charm, a used hockey stick from the Philadelphia Flyers’ rally from 3-0 down to stun the Boston Bruins in Game 7 of the Eastern Conference semifinals. Still looking for a coach after firing former Wizards coach Eddie Jordan, they stand to grab either Turner or Wall.
“We had a rough year,” team president Ed Stefanski said. “We feel that our talent was better than our record but we have to prove it now.”