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The backstage
by Marc Narducci / June 26, 2004

He may not have been the No. 1 pick in the NBA draft, but Connecticut's Emeka Okafor was the hands-down winner for best duds among prospective rookies who gathered at Madison Square Garden Theater for the festivities. Wearing a pinstripe grey suit, Okafor sure looked the part of a soon-to-be millionaire athlete.

"I'm not a fan of the big baggy look," said Okafor, whose suit was cut just right.

His only error came when he was asked what type of tie he was wearing. After looking at the back of the tie for the label, he told an inquisitive press corps, "Elevee game me the tie," he said.

Luol Deng had to wait longer than usual at the draft. Normally when a player is selected in the first round, he does the obligatory interviews with the media and then scoots out of the draft for a night of celebration.

The trouble was that Deng was taken with the seventh pick in the first round by the Phoenix Suns. Everybody in the building knew that the Suns and Chicago Bulls had made a trade, with the Bulls receiving the No. 7 picks for a No. 2 choice and future No. 1.

The only problem was that the trade didn't become official until late in the second round. Even Deng's agent Leon Rose went to NBA officials to find out what was happening.

Finally the crowd knew the trade was official when Deng switched hats, exchanging Phoenix for Chicago.

In a nice gesture, Deng had an extra hat and presented it to a fan at Madison Square Garden who was dressed in Bulls attire. Looks like he has gained at least one Bulls fan for life.

Del Curry wasn't nervous at all, which made him one of the few NBA executives in the building who was calm all evening. One of the great shooters in NBA history, Curry is now the director of player development for the expansion Charlotte Bobcats. He knew coming into the draft that they would be getting a quality player with the No. 2 pick.

"I know we are going to get a good player," said Curry, referring to high school hotshot Dwight Howard, who was drafted first by Orlando, or Okafor, who the Bobcats chose.

Then smiling, Curry added, "Either way we can't lose, but if we had stayed with the No. 4 pick I would have been a lot more nervous."

The most candid comment of the evening went to Connecticut guard Ben Gordon, chosen No. 3 in the first round by Chicago. When asked if he was surprised that he was drafted so high, Gordon shot back faster than a three-pointer.

"No, I'm not surprised," he said. "I know what I can do as a player. I think other people may have been surprised, but I always thought I should have gone one."

The crowd favorite at the draft was Jameer Nelson, the point guard of Saint Joseph's, who was selected No. 20 in the first round by Denver and then subsequently traded to Orlando for a future first round choice.

Nelson won several college player of the year awards, was a four-year starter, scored 2.094 career points, led the Hawks this year to an undefeated regular season and NCAA Elite 8 appearance had had his number retired at Hawk Hill. Still, eight high school players were taken ahead of him.

When he was finally chosen, the Garden erupted in loud applause. In fact even before he was drafted, every time Nelson was shown on the big screen from the ESPN telecast, he received a thunderous ovation. And so did his son Jameer Jr., who was dressed as spiffily as his pop.

Nelson is used to being snubbed. When he was a senior in high school, several guards from Eastern schools were considered better, but Nelson never said a word. All he did was outplay them all in college.

And last night he didn't pout at his long wait to be drafted. All he did was hug his 2-year-old son when he was finally selected. Nelson also refused to take the bait when asked what went through his mind when high school point guard Sebastian Telfair was drafted at No. 13 by Portland and Nelson was left waiting for his name to be called.

"Nothing," he said matter-of-factly. There are no negative thoughts in my mind at all. We are all fortunate in this situation."

There is somebody with a true perspective.

Marc Narducci covers the NBA for the Philadelphia Inquirer and is a regular contributor to HoopsHype.com

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