After Midnight at the NBA Draft, Dreams Still Come True

Mark Tatum, the deputy commissioner of the N.B.A., had an important job — though not a glamorous one — on Thursday night.

He had the late shift.

Shortly after 11 p.m., Tatum clocked in to begin announcing the names of the players who had been selected in the second round of the N.B.A. draft at Barclays Center. By then, the crowd had thinned, leaving just dozens of scattered fans — and sharply dressed but tired family members — as his audience. There might have been tumbleweeds somewhere.

Commissioner Adam Silver had received prime billing at 8 p.m., calling the names and shaking the hands of the most-hyped prospects in the first round, such as Victor Wembanyama, Brandon Miller and Scoot Henderson — the top three picks.

But Tatum was there for the confident players who were starting to feel snubbed, and for the long shots still hoping to be given a chance. Some of the players Tatum called — like Amari Bailey of U.C.L.A. — were with their family and friends up in the stands, not high-profile enough to be one of the 24 players invited to sit at the long tables draped with black tablecloths and gold basketballs on the floor of the arena. It looked like the most upscale cafeteria known to man.

The first pick Tatum announced, for the Charlotte Hornets at No. 31 overall, was James Nnaji, a center from Nigeria who came up and shook his hand. Art Nevins, a 34-year-old from Brooklyn, was still around to see it.

A New Orleans Pelicans fan, Nevins had come with his friend John Traub, 33. Sitting in the stands, Nevins said he was sticking around for the second round to see if the Pelicans might be able to trade for Henderson, whom the Portland Trail Blazers had selected with the No. 3 pick.

“I’m wide-awake,” Nevins said. “I’m ready.”

It helped that because he had purchased his tickets with a particular credit card, he had received a voucher for two free drinks.

Bailey, a point guard who spent one season at U.C.L.A., was selected 41st overall by Charlotte. He descended from the stands in a stylish white suit that appeared to be lined with pearls.

Tatum, through a spokesman, said that he looked forward to announcing the second-round picks every year.

“The second round is when the hard-core basketball fans at Barclays Center make the most noise,” he said.

And they did: Even a single person’s cheers could be heard from the opposite side of the emptying arena.

A few rows behind Nevins sat Christian Cabrera, a 22-year-old San Antonio Spurs fan who had made the trek from Atlantic City, N.J., to see Wembanyama be selected with the first pick. He wasn’t ready to leave.

“You can’t be tired on a night like this,” Cabrera said. He added: “I’m a real fan, you know? I’m getting my money’s worth for the trip out here. I got to see Wemby up close and personal. I got to be on ESPN, so it was cool.”

There’s always a chance of seeing history by hanging in there.

In 2014, Nikola Jokic was sleeping in Serbia when the Denver Nuggets drafted him in the second round, and a Taco Bell commercial had been airing when Tatum announced his name. It seemed that only the people in the building had heard the call — the start of the N.B.A. career of a future champion and two-time winner of the Most Valuable Player Award.

Depelsha McGruder, who attended the draft with her 11-year-old son, Grant, said she went to Harvard Business School with Tatum. She said his affection for the night shift was genuine.

“It’s still the N.B.A. draft,” said McGruder, an executive at the Ford Foundation. “It doesn’t matter. I mean, there’s still people here. This is one of the biggest nights in basketball. Hoop dreams are coming true.”

One player sobbed in Tatum’s arms after his name was called.

Tatum had another triumphant made-for-television moment, for those who were still awake and watching.

Rayan Rupert, a 19-year-old guard from France, was selected by the Portland Trail Blazers with the 43rd pick. Rupert was the last of the 24 invited players still remaining at the tables on the main floor. When Tatum announced his name, Rupert received a roaring standing ovation from the remaining crowd as he hugged his family and friends, with tears in his eyes.

Most second-round picks will not have All-Star careers, though players like Jokic, Draymond Green, Dennis Rodman and Manu Ginobili have been exceptions. But judging by all of the hugs, cheers and tears deep into Thursday night, getting drafted, no matter how late, still matters.

The 58th and last pick of the draft went to the Milwaukee Bucks, sometime after midnight.

They chose Chris Livingston, a forward from the University of Kentucky. He was in the stands and made his way down to the stage.

Tatum ended the night with a handshake.

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