Opinion: NBA prospects shed tears, share struggles on draft night, and that’s not a bad thing

James Wiseman couldn’t hold back tears.

Neither could Obi Toppin, Tyrese Maxey, Onyeka Okongwu, R.J. Hampton, Cole Anthony, Aaron Nesmith or Tyrell Terry.

“Man, I would just have to bust out in tears because I've been through a lot of adversity in my life,” said Wiseman, who missed almost all of his freshman season at Memphis because of eligibility issues but was selected No. 2 by the Golden State Warriors.

Said Toppin: “I feel like nothing has come easy for me. I went through a lot of things growing up, and I feel like through those struggles and through those bad times that I've been through growing up, it's made me the person and player that I am today. I learned from those experiences on court and off court. I feel like going through those experiences helped me become who I am today, and I wouldn't change it for anything.”

Anthony, the son of former NBA player Greg Anthony, summed it up best.

“Shoot, it just tears of joy, it was sadness. A struggle. This year was a struggle," he said. "I can't even lie. It was a rough year. Just literally like every emotion, I went through that in a short period of time.”

Cole Anthony speaks to reporters by video after being chosen by the Orlando Magic during the NBA basketball draft Nov. 18, 2020. (Courtesy NBA via AP) ORG XMIT: NYDB823 (Photo: AP)

We all know what a difficult year 2020 is with COVID-19 as we search for little pockets of joy and fun. For a few hours on Wednesday night during the NBA draft, a shaft of light shone on 2020 with dreams realized after years of hard work and sacrifice by players and their family and friends.

The tears were a large and noticeable part of the draft. I have covered several NBA drafts at Brooklyn’s Barclay’s Center, and while players have been emotional, I have never seen as many tears as I did Wednesday.

“This whole night coming in I told my family I wasn't going to cry, and he kept telling me ‘You're going to cry,’ ” Nesmith said. "Once that moment hit, those tears kept falling. Just lucky to be in this moment because so many people want this in their lifetime.”

They had their stories, personal and meaningful. Okongwu’s brother, who was also a talented basketball player, died after a skateboarding accident six years ago. Toppin played at three high schools, didn’t have a scholarship offer after his senior year so he enrolled in a post-graduate prep school and sat out his first year at Dayton because he did not meet eligibility standards.

Twitter noticed the emotional reactions too:

2020’s amazing plot twist is making you cry multiple times watching the NBA draft. Aw. 🤗

I’m watching the NBA draft for the first time in years and nearly cry after each selection!! I don’t remember it being this emotional 😢 pic.twitter.com/kCm9clf5vP

I feel for all the guys. Their happiness and tears gets me some tears too lol young kids who’ve worked so hard reaching their dream. #NBATwitter#NBA#NBADraft

Never seen an NBA draft filled with so many tears.

Perhaps the pandemic has made 19- and 20-year-olds more introspective. Maybe sitting at home with family and friends waiting for their names to be called instead of the same staged, generic arena setup made young players more emotional.

It was uplifting to see. It’s an overwhelming and emotional moment, and they embraced it.

"It's a blessing to be in this position," Toppin said, overcome by tears as he sat between his parents.

The draft is one of my favorite nights. Hard work and talent are rewarded. Lives are changed. My seat at previous drafts is right behind players and their families and loved ones. The joy is apparent for sure.

But the emotions ran much deeper on Wednesday. The self-awareness was admirable and the appreciation genuine.

"I thank Philadelphia for the opportunity," Maxey said through the tears in one of the night's memorable moments. "I promise you, it won't be regret."

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