BROOKLYN — The green room of the NBA Draft is less of a green room and more of a black carpeted floor. Projected high picks sit at round tables draped with their families as they wait to learn where they’ll live and work in the coming years. Each young man is decked out in a beautiful suit he’s picked out to signal to the world that he has arrived and a big payday is coming. Tearful fathers and mothers (the league tells moms to wear waterproof mascara) sit with their children, ready for the moment their sons get to put on the hats of NBA franchises and validate all the years of sacrifices, blood, sweat and—at least—most of the tears.
None of the projected second-round picks get seats in this coveted spot. But not all first-round picks do, either. Many of them sit in the stands to the right of the stage, mixed in with beer-drinking fans who hold out their phones and take pictures of anyone who looks remotely famous or like they someday might be.
This category includes most of the people at the draft. Every tall man wearing a sharp suit must Be Somebody. When you don’t know who that Somebody is, you feel kind of like a doofus. Which is silly, because sometimes they’re not Somebody at all, they’re just the assistant of an agent, or a person managing a brand’s Instagram or your brother’s friend’s girlfriend’s cousin who’s a huge Sixers fan and figured he’d dress up.
You can tell who the players are, though. They’re young, with a nervous energy that sets them apart. You can practically see the waves of expectation radiating off of their meticulously maintained bodies. Bruce Brown, who was a junior guard for Miami before he declared for the draft, is sitting eleven rows up from the floor next to his agent, Ty Sullivan. Brown is wearing an orange suit with a green vest, which he chose to honor Miami’s colors. There have been rumors that he may go to the Celtics in the first round. He worked out with the team just a day before the draft, and having grown up a huge Boston fan in Dorchester, it would be a dream come true.
“Oh yeah,” he says, jiggling one of his legs. “I’d love to go back. But I just want the draft to get started, I want to know where I’m going to go. I could live anywhere! It’s wild.”
Well-known players dot the seats around him. Mo Wagner, the big German forward from Michigan, sits with his family and coach John Beilein. Khyri Thomas sits with his family and Creighton coach Greg McDermott. Grayson Allen, Duke’s latest villain, and his parents sit a few rows behind Brown. Everyone’s excited as the clock winds down and the crowd counts “5, 4, 3, 2, 1.”
And just like that, the Suns are on the clock, and the rest of these young men’s lives begins.
Phoenix selects Deandre Ayton, as everyone assumed they would, because any executive in that front office would’ve had to really hate the team not to. The guys in the stands watch as Marvin Bagley III, Luka Doncic, Jaren Jackson Jr., Trae Young, Mo Bamba, Wendell Carter Jr. and the rest of the top 10 hear their names called, hug their families and walk across the stage. Finally, they have answers. They know where they’ll live next year. They know who their coworkers will be. They can change their Twitter bios and post celebratory Instagrams.
None of the guys up here do. Brown stares at his phone. Thomas’s nephew starts crying. Hours go by. Allen shifts in his seat as cameramen climb the stairs and train their lenses on him. The Jazz are about to select him with the 21st pick. Just as the lights go up over his head, a fan asks to take a picture with him. Allen’s parents look somewhat annoyed, but Allen obliges. It’s only when Adam Silver walks onto the stage that the fan realizes there’s something big going on and leaves them alone. Allen is beaming, holding his mother’s hand.
“It feels great,” he says, grinning even bigger, his phone exploding with texts in the seat beside him. “I’m excited.”
Fans—who either secured tickets to sit among the NBA’s freshest crop or snuck by the flustered ushers—are having the time of their lives. Two bro-y looking dudes sitting directly behind Brown, each one wearing a different color fishing shirt and holding four empty cups underneath their full beers, yell Wagner’s name until he finally turns around and winks at one of them.
“Did you see that?” the guy says to his friend. “Mo winked at me!”
Speaking of Mo, he gets drafted. The Lakers take him at 25, and the stands around him erupt. His 16-year-old brother practically implodes with excitement, and Beilein looks like he just won March Madness (too soon?). Once he and his entourage return to their seats, Beilein stays standing behind him, clutching his new Lakers hat. He says something to Mo then turns and sees McDermott and Thomas in the stands, where they’re hoping some good news comes through for Creighton soon.
“Hang in there,” Beilein says to McDermott, grabbing his hand. “Hang in there.”
The Celtics make their pick and take Robert Williams. Wendell Carter Jr.’s father comes and hugs Grayson Allen’s parents. Both Duke players know what their futures hold. Bruce Brown still doesn’t. He stares straight ahead, not talking to anyone, not looking at his phone. The first round ends, taking with it the hope of a guaranteed contract, and neither he nor Thomas have been granted one. Thomas’s mother shakes her head again and again. The excruciating pain of waiting gets worse as the tedium intensifies. It’s almost cruel, really, to give young people—and their families—who’ve worked so hard so many chances to get their hopes up only to be disappointed.
The night ultimately works out for Thomas and Brown—they both end up on the Pistons in the second round. But it’s a strange juxtaposition. On one side of Barclays, fans are having the time of their lives, clamoring for the free t-shirts that hype men throw out into the crowd. The atmosphere is tailored to a game rather than the determination of people’s livelihoods. It’s like taking the SATs at a bar, or your driving test in a game of bumper cars.
Outside, in the concourse of Barclay’s, Wagner’s family is hugging each other. They have their Lakers’ hats on, the gold and purple popping against their subdued suits. This is what it looks like when dreams come true.
If only all of them could.