Would you go to your graduation if you didn’t know whether you were going to graduate? Would you rent a cap and gown, even if you had no idea whether or not you’d get to walk across the stage? Would you ask your family to fly in to join you? What if they were coming in from another country? Would you subject yourself to hours of waiting, as your classmates shook the principal’s hand and received a diploma, anxiously watching everybody else get the reward you wanted?
I did not know who Mathias Lessort was during the NBA draft on Thursday night, as I sat eight feet away from him during some of the most critical moments of his life. NBA experts did — our Draft Guide described him as “an elite athlete who plays relentlessly on offense and defense.” I just knew he was a very tall person in a very beautiful suit, which meant he was at the NBA draft to get selected. But as the draft marched on, I feared the moment he’d flown his family to New York for would never come.
Lessort caught my eye from far away. The 6-foot-9 power forward hadn’t been invited to the NBA’s green room, where the best players in the draft class sat with their families a few steps from the stage, where they’d shake Adam Silver’s hand. But Lessort’s agent assured him he would get drafted. So his family flew to New York — some from Martinique, the island in the Caribbean that Lessort and former NBA-er Ronny Turiaf come from, some from mainland France, where Lessort and his brother play. He and 16 other players who thought their names might get called sat in the stands, their huge bodies crammed into regular arena seats. They weren’t quite mixed in with the audience — there was a distinct area of about 10 rows where players and their families sat, with the players on the aisle so they could exit for the stage should their name be called. But that section was sandwiched by regular fans. From about 200 feet, I could see the pristine white of Lessort’s jacket, a beacon in a sea of Process Trusters and children in Kristaps Porzingis jerseys.
Things tend to empty out at the end of a draft. LaVar and the Ball clan hung around for almost three hours after Lonzo got picked, but left at about the time the 22nd pick was being selected. You’d think the commissioner of the NBA would be interested in all the proceedings, but Adam Silver handed off hosting duties, as he always does, to deputy commissioner Mark Tatum after the first round. There was a special in-arena broadcast hosted by NBA TV’s Rick Kamla and Dennis Scott, with Pacers forward Myles Turner providing updates on social media, but they, too, peaced out after one round, leaving the arena with just music and occasional announcements from Tatum. When the first pick was announced, the lower bowl of Barclays was filled and some fans sat in the second tier; by the end, I’d guess there were under 300 people remaining. The section for non-invitees even thinned, as player after player heard his name called.
Lessort and his entourage — his girlfriend, his mom, and two brothers — remained. Around pick 45, about four hours after the draft’s start, I decided to walk into the stands and sit near Lessort and his family. Security didn’t stop me, and the constant stream of leaving fans and families left wide swaths of seats near the remaining players.
Lessort seemed anxious. He had two phones, and he nervously flipped them over and back between his two hands. He stared at the Jumbotron, he checked his phone, he stared at the Jumbotron again. He was seated next to his girlfriend, but didn’t say a word to her — or anybody — for the first few minutes after I sat down near him.
I began to worry for Lessort. What if his family had come all this way for nothing? You ever think about how wasteful it is that we wear wedding dresses only once? What if you bought your dream dress and got left at the altar? What would Lessort do with his suit — would he go back to the store for extremely tall people and sheepishly return the jacket days after he’d asked them to sew the flag of Martinique into its side?
And then from nowhere, a flurry of activity. Lessort’s agent, Jason Ranne, descended from the concourse and kneeled next to Lessort. Words were said; phones were inspected.
If Lessort and his agent were the first to know about the pick, Twitter — and ESPN event staff — weren’t far behind. A camera crew ascended into the stands, the telltale sign that the person they were walking toward was about to get drafted. The few fans remaining — mainly screaming children past their curfew looking for Snap material — swarmed toward Lessort, but security blocked off the aisle a few rows above and below him to ensure a clean camera shot and a clear path to the stage. No, he wasn’t officially picked yet, but he’d heard the news and there was a camera pointed directly at his face. In the age of social media, there are no surprises.
Tatum announced that with the 50th pick in the 2017 NBA draft, the Philadelphia 76ers had selected Mathias Lessort. The crowd around him went wild, especially the kids and 76ers fans who had no idea who the hell he was. Lessort was calm: He opened the right side of his suit jacket to let the world know where he came from.
I assumed Lessort would come back to his family at some point, but no: He was whisked away to interviews and photo shoots, and eventually somebody came to beckon his family down to join him.
I spoke to Lessort by phone Friday afternoon. He said the situation wasn’t quite as fraught with worry as it seemed. His agent had arranged all the travel for his family, and assured everybody that Lessort would be selected, and continued to assure them of that throughout the night. He knew the range to expect, and remained confident his time would come. Was he nervous? Yeah, waiting was hard: “I think everyone was nervous, from no. 1 to no. 60.”
It’s true, there’s drama for the top picks — some slots are worth millions more than others, some teams aren’t ideal destinations. But everybody in the green room generally gets drafted in the first round, leading to rich guaranteed deals. Everybody celebrates eventually.
Nothing was promised for Lessort. Nothing is promised for Lessort. He made his way down to Philadelphia for an introductory press conference, but admitted he has no idea what’s next, even in the coming hours and days. Maybe he’ll play in summer league for the Sixers, maybe he’ll go back to Europe. He’s reportedly signing a contract with a German club, but it would allow him to leave for the NBA.
For the last picks in the draft, even the things that seem concrete are not. They’re traded haphazardly: I overheard some guys in the entourage for Edmond Sumner say something to the effect of how New Orleans had to get ready for him after he was selected 52nd overall by the Pelicans; apparently the city opted not to get ready, because a few minutes later he was dealt to the Pacers. Some will sign with their teams and make the roster; others will sign with their teams and get cut, instantly becoming free agents. Some will be drafted and stay overseas until the team that picked them feels they’ve developed enough to earn a roster spot — this is likely what the Sixers want from Lessort. For some players, that day will never come: Europe is filled with players selected 57th overall by teams that have long forgotten about them.
His selection might be the start of a long, exceptional NBA career. It also might be the entirety of his NBA career. Getting drafted tells us nothing about who he will become — you could argue it actually hurts him, as players who go unselected are free to sign with any team, whereas Lessort is limited to signing with Philadelphia.
But regardless of the future, when Mark Tatum read his name, he became a part of the NBA. And as Lessort told me Friday, that was a moment worth traveling for. “It will only happen once in your life.”