May 22, 2023 - Sports

How the 2003 NBA draft lottery revitalized Cleveland

LeBron James soars for a dunk in high school.

The future king. Photo: Al Tielemans/Sports Illustrated via Getty Images

Twenty years ago today, the Cavaliers won the NBA 2003 Draft Lottery and secured the No. 1 pick.

Why it matters: That pick was an 18-year-old LeBron James, who turned the Cavaliers into a championship contender and transformed the city of Cleveland.

Driving the news: The 2023 draft lottery, won by the San Antonio Spurs last week, has drawn comparisons to 2003 with Victor Wembanyama, who is regarded as the most exciting NBA prospect since James.

Flashback: The excitement heading into the 2003 lottery was unprecedented thanks to James, a high school phenom from Akron and the most hyped young star in basketball history.

The intrigue: Because of the lottery system, the NBA's draft positioning is not a foregone conclusion as it is in the NFL, where the worst team automatically gets the No. 1 pick.

  • After finishing the 2002-03 season with a league-worst 17-65 record, the Cavs had the most balls in the lottery machine and a 22.5% chance of winning.

What they said: James was with friends and family in a suite at Akron's Radisson Hotel when it was revealed the Cavs had earned the top pick.

  • "Everyone just started yelling and coming over to me and jumping on me," James told ESPN in 2013. "From then on that night, it was a blur."

Zoom in: The Cavs held a draft lottery party at Champp's restaurant in Valley View that night.

  • Cavs great Austin Carr burst into tears as he held up a No. 23 team jersey with "James" on it.

By the numbers: A study conducted by The Plain Dealer determined James brought $200 million in annual spending to downtown Cleveland during his 2003-10 stint with the team.

The bottom line: The story of Cleveland's 21st-century — culminating with James and the Cavs' championship in 2016 — begins with the 2003 draft lottery.


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