A Special Look into the 1991 NBA Draft


Ava Branch

June 26, 1991. The Felt Forum in Madison Square Garden. New York, New York. 


Bill Branch, who grew up working on tobacco farms in rural North Carolina, became Charlotte’s first ever intern, and spent the next 35 years building a career in professional basketball, is working in basketball operations for the Charlotte Hornets. 


Branch’s boss, Allan Bristow, General Manager of the Hornets, sends him to New York to represent the Hornets, who have the number 1 draft pick, in the 1991 NBA Draft. 


On the 25 of June, Branch flies from Charlotte CLT to NYC with two different jerseys in his suitcase. Both have a number one, representing being the #1 pick. The first has the last name Johnson, that’s Larry Johnson the Naismith College Basketball Player of the Year. The second has the last name Mutombo, Dikembe Mutombo the 7’2” Center from Georgetown. The Hornets still hadn’t decided who was going to be their 1991 rookie. 


Draft Day. It’s the afternoon, and Branch runs in to Larry Johnson, potential #1 pick, and his agent, George Bass, in the elevator of his hotel. 


“LJ asked me if we were going to draft him #1,” Branch says. “I just smiled and said, ‘I think you’ll be happy.”’


At four in the afternoon Branch receives a call from his boss, Bristow, who tells him to leave the Mutombo jersey at home, and only bring Johnson’s. That’s who they would be drafting. 


“I had a little briefcase that I put the jersey in so nobody would see it. I had to be really careful because if somebody saw it then they would know who we were drafting. We had the #1 pick so it was a big deal and it was televised on national TV,” Branch remembers.


Branch, being one of 30 team representatives, has a spot on the stage where he sits for the entirety of the draft. He has a little piece of paper, a pen, and a landline. He’s on the phone with the war room, a place in a team’s practice facility where team executives decide who they’re going to draft, back in Charlotte. 


In 1991 the NBA Commisioner was David Stern. 


“He comes out and starts the draft. ‘Charlotte has the first pick.’ Then the clock starts winding down. I think I only had 5 minutes,” Branch says. “So I’m on the phone with my boss who’s in the war room, and he says write down Larry Johnson.” 


Branch writes, ‘Larry Johnson, UNLV.’ on a piece of paper and hands it to an attendant waiting. The attendant rushes the paper to the back room where the pronunciation of Johnson’s name is practiced, and his identity is confirmed. Then, the commissioner comes out. 


 “With the first pick, in the 1991 NBA draft, the Charlotte Hornets select Larry Johnson from University of Nevada, Las Vegas.” (David Stern)


When the commissioner walks out and makes the announcement to a packed theater of 8,000 people including 20 invited players seated with their agents and families, the player who is drafted gets up and walks to the stage. The camera follows them as they put on a hat with their new teams logo and meet the commisioner, their first introduction to their new life as a professional basketball player in the NBA.


Throughout all of this excitement, my dad had one last job. Get the jersey to the commissioner so the newly made Hornet could be photographed with his #1 uniform. The rest, as they say, is basketball history.