SECAUCUS, N.J. -- The Houston Rockets took a big man from abroad the last time they had the No. 1 pick. Now they'll have another opportunity.
Houston won the NBA draft lottery Sunday, giving the Rockets the right to make the first overall selection, something they haven't done since 1984. That year, Houston picked Hakeem Olajuwon, who helped the team win two championships. Two picks lower, of course, the Chicago Bulls took Michael Jordan, who led them to six titles.
This time, the Rockets could go for 7-foot-5 Chinese center Yao Ming. Duke undergrads Jay Williams and Mike Dunleavy also are considered possible top-three picks.
''Hopefully, we can get a player who can come in and help us right away,'' said the Rockets' star point guard, Steve Francis. ''What we really have to get is some aggression. We won't be looking for a point guard -- anything else, I don't know.''
Chicago will pick second, and the Golden State Warriors third in the June 26 draft. Those clubs tied for the league's worst record (21-61) and each had a 22.5 percent chance of winning the lottery.
''We're going to consider a lot of different things, even a trade, if somebody calls with an offer you can't refuse,'' said Bulls general manager Jerry Krause, thought to be high on Yao's prospects.
Houston had the fifth-worst record (28-54) this season and an 8.9 percent chance of getting the top pick. The pingpong balls bounced the Rockets' way, though, extending a trend: The team with the best chance of grabbing No. 1 hasn't done so since 1990.
Drawings determined the top three picks, and the rest of the draft order was set by reversing the non-playoff teams' order of finish during the season.
Because Houston jumped ahead, Memphis slid to fourth, and Denver will pick fifth. Cleveland's next, followed by New York, the Los Angeles Clippers, Phoenix, Miami, Washington, the Clippers again, and Milwaukee at No. 13.
The Clippers have two choices because they get Atlanta's slot at No. 8, completing a sign-and-trade deal that sent Lorenzen Wright to the Hawks in August 1999. Atlanta would have kept the pick had it landed among the top four.
Francis, wearing a bright lavender suit and matching sunglasses, represented the Rockets during the announcement of the lottery results at halftime of Game 1 of the Eastern Conference finals between the New Jersey Nets and Boston Celtics.
In 1984, the Rockets won a coin flip between the teams with the worst record in each conference and chose Olajuwon, a 7-footer born in Nigeria. The next year, the NBA started a lottery for teams that didn't make the playoffs, and the Knicks won the No. 1 choice, which they used to take Patrick Ewing.
Olajuwon helped Houston win titles in 1994 and '95. The Rockets traded him to Toronto last offseason and are in need of a presence in the paint. Houston general manager Carroll Dawson was among dozens of NBA team officials and scouts who saw Yao in an hourlong workout this month in Chicago conducted by former NBA coach P.J. Carlesimo.
''I was really impressed with him, but I don't know enough to say he's a lock No. 1 pick,'' Carlesimo said. ''This guy is 21, and you have to factor in what his learning curve will be -- if he does get stronger and how much he'll pick up by coming over.
''I only saw him for one hour, but what I saw in an hour I liked a lot.''
Francis' reaction under the lights in a studio at NBA Entertainment headquarters -- he smiled slightly and shook hands with Krause -- was genuine, although the lottery actually was completed two hours earlier in a gray conference room two floors above.
At 5:02 p.m., pingpong balls numbered 1-14 were placed in a hopper, and four were drawn in succession. There were 1,001 possible ways those numbers could have come up, and 1,000 of those combinations were assigned to teams. If the 1,001st combination had been drawn, there would have been an extra drawing.
Chicago and Golden State each had 225 combinations, the Memphis Grizzlies 157, the Denver Nuggets 120, Houston 89, and so on.
The Rockets were assured the No. 1 choice by virtue of having been assigned the first combination selected -- 13-8-11-4. For the No. 2 pick, a combination assigned to the Rockets (8-6-5-9) came up again, so that was thrown out, and new numbers chosen.
Only 12 teams reps (Milwaukee chose not to have someone there), 10 people from NBA Entertainment, a partner in the accounting firm of Ernst & Young, and four reporters were present. All were kept in the conference room, and told not to use phones or two-way pagers, until after the televised announcement. The teams had other reps waiting at the studio show.
It was the first time the league allowed reporters to watch the behind-the-scenes proceedings in person, although the NBA says the policy change has nothing to do with debunking conspiracy theories.
''Our job is to take the intricacy and make it look simple,'' commissioner David Stern said Sunday, explaining why the pingpong balls scene isn't shown live on TV. ''Most of our fans think, 'Tell us who won.'''
Last year, the Washington Wizards won the lottery and made Kwame Brown the first high schooler selected No. 1 overall.
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