BROOKLYN -- I don't know Nerlens Noel; I don't even know much about Nerlens Noel. I, however, knew details of some of the most important moments in Nerlens Noel's life well before he did.
While Noel fidgeted through the final seconds of Cleveland's pre-draft clock, I read that his long-awaited relief wasn't yet due. With each subsequent selection, I knew to train my gaze on him so I could catch each moment his hopes got dashed again and again and again and again. By the sixth pick, Noel had practically slid under his green room table, but while he slouched, face ashen and flat-top quite possibly drooping to one side, I knew the Pelicans were about to pluck him from purgatory.
And while Noel navigated the gauntlet from stairs to Stern handshake to photo op to stairs to Battier bro-hug to getting interviewed and screamed at by strangers, head surely swimming with images of New Orleans and loose recollections of who the hell is on the Pelicans, I already knew he was headed to Philadelphia instead.
It's strange to begin with how professional sports allow grown men's livelihoods to be driven willy-nilly by the whims of executives. Now that the most connected reporters have the means to collect and broadcast scoops on every single pick, we get to watch that process take place in rapid real time while its objects remain in the dark. It's downright surreal. That momentary information lag registers somewhat through a TV broadcast, but it really resonates when you're actually in the arena beside that stable of teenagers waiting to learn their new employers and salaries and hometowns. You can observe every second of the tension, not just the glimpses provided by the cameras.
Minutes before each pick, the Barclays Center suddenly segmented into tiers of hushed dramatic irony. Any crowd member refreshing Twitter could feign prescience to the bros around him, and possibly get yelled at (based on reactions, it seems like most attendees are comfortable learning picks at their prescribed times straight from David Stern and Adam Silver). Sometimes a player got word from a text or phone call, but had to keep a straight face until his pick got called. More often, the hundreds of media facing laptop screens watched updates cascade in before the prospects knew their own fates.
The draft prospects and their companions do all have phones, and they often speak directly to teams during the draft. Alex Len, for instance, took a call and began to beam and dry his palms well before David Stern announced the Suns' fifth pick. That contact with the outside world is intermittent, though, and those following Twitter usually know how the rookies' fates will unfold minutes before they do. Like, Anthony Bennett claims he learned he was the surprise first pick when everyone else did -- when Stern announced it -- but anyone following Adrian Wojnarowski knew and started freaking out a full minute or two before Bennett did, and those of us adjacent to the green room all sat there staring at him wishing we could scream "DUDE IT'S YOU! YOU ARE THE FIRST PICK IN THE WHOLE NBA DRAFT! A DESTINY-ALTERING MOMENT YOU'VE PROBABLY DREAMED OF YOUR WHOLE LIFE IS ABOUT TO ARRIVE AND I KNOW IT BUT YOU DON'T AND THAT IS WILDLY UNFAIR!"
Is it, though? Twitter has been slightly ahead of draft-night revelations for a few years now, and we're at the point where multiple reporters call every single pick before it happens, sometimes before the team in question is even on the clock. Is that wrong? It's certainly eerie -- one pictures Woj, Ken Berger, and Chad Ford basking side by side in a Minority Report-esque tub of future goo, sloshing and wailing premonitions of Denver and Utah swapping picks. And they're never wrong -- or, if they are, it's only because the stream of information gets too rapid to follow.
And that says something: Woj and company don't seem to be digging hard for their intel, and even then, they're just doing their jobs. Someone willfully tips every single team's draft intentions to reporters before word reaches the podium. Are the teams themselves just CC-ing Woj when they file their picks and trades with the league? If so, why give the next teams on the clock any head start in their decision making? And, for our purposes, why allow reporters and Tweetfolk some insight while the young men with their destinies on the line have to squirm for a few more minutes? That seems unusually uncompetitive and pretty cruel. Imagine if, like, the Oscars worked that way. It'd be so sad and bizarre staring down Ben Affleck knowing his disappointment before it even synapses. (No? OK.)
Sure, the prospects in the green room could check Twitter themselves and sure, the teams sometimes contact them in advance, but why aren't those guys always the first to know directly? Why isn't that the default? Why not surprise Anthony Bennett with the good news before you leak to everybody else on Earth? Is it, then, not the teams themselves? Is some intermediate clerk between team and league divulging every memo that crosses his path? Or is it Stern, chortling backstage while he uses Woj as a proxy to spoil the draft for the booing masses? It's the perfect troll! They'd never guess!
Sports and sports reporting are already weird, but a sports event that contains 60 or more instances of increasingly uneven arrival times for the night's most crucial information, often leaving the very beneficiaries and victims of said information for last ... that's exceptionally weird. Someday, draft-night intelligence will just radiate directly into the cerebra of all interested parties as we lay in our own tubs of future goo, but for now, we have Twitter, and Twitter makes draft night strange, and perhaps a bit cruel, too.