Washington Bullets assistant coach Bill Blair had just returned to his Salt Lake City hotel room from a team shoot-around yesterday when he heard the news about two jetliners colliding on a runway in Detroit, killing at least eight people.
It hit too close to home. Only the day before the Bullets had come face-to-face with near disaster on their flight out of Denver to Salt Lake City.
"A lot of things go through your mind when something happens," said Blair, a 10-year NBA coaching veteran. "A lot of young guys have trouble with flying. But in this business you've just got to go. I think we're all just real happy to be here."
The Bullets upset the Detroit Pistons Saturday night at the Capital Centre. Sunday morning, they boarded a United 737 at BWI for a flight to Salt Lake City that was to make an intermediate stop in Denver. It was the first flight on an 11-day road trip that will also take them to Oakland, Sacramento, Los Angeles and back to Denver before returning home.
In Denver, after a brief layover, the flight resumed toward Salt Lake City. But 20 minutes out, the plane's right engine stopped, forcing a frightening return flight to Denver for an emergency landing.
Tommy Hammonds, a second-year forward from Georgia Tech, is one of those younger NBA players who have a fear of flying. He was traveling in first class with the veterans and was about to order chicken for dinner when he heard three loud bangs, "like gunshots, but louder."
"It was a tough situation," Hammonds said yesterday before the Bullets left their hotel for last night's 135-101 loss to Utah. "It was bad from the beginning. It was like it took five minutes to get off the ground and then it seemed to take an awfully long time to get to our cruising altitude."
But Hammonds said he was fine, even after hearing the bangs, even after the stewardess came back and "got out her 'panic book.' I guess they call it their emergency book or something, but I think of it as a panic book," he said. "Her hands were shaking all over and she's telling us to be calm. She needed to be calm. She was telling us to bend over and grab our ankles and stuff and we're looking out the windows and all we can see are those Rocky Mountains.
"But I was pretty calm, until she came over and told me that if she got hurt and couldn't help us, I'd have to open the emergency door and pull the switch for the evacuation slide, because I was up front by the door."
Hammonds said he looked across the aisle and saw third-year player Harvey Grant praying.
"I think that's how we all felt," he said. "Our lives were on the line and there was nothing we could do."
Meanwhile, back in coach, rookie A.J. English was sitting with members of the University of Utah basketball team.
"I saw a puff of smoke come out of the engine," said English, who flew little as a member of Virginia Union's Division II basketball team. "When they told us one of the engines had blown and we should put our heads between our legs, well, I think everyone was terrorized."
L English said he couldn't keep his eyes away from the window.
"I kept looking out there and all I could see was the tops of all those mountains," he said. "Finally, I just pulled the shutter down."
English said he is not afraid to fly, but that he still found comfort in a conversation with 13-year veteran Bernard King.
"Bernard told us this was the first experience he has had like this in his whole career," said English.
"I figure at that rate," said Hammonds, "if I stay around 13 years or so, I'll be retired by the time the next incident occurs."
King evidently needed a little time to himself yesterday, putting a do-not-disturb hold on his hotel room telephone.
In the NBA, players and coaches fly hundreds of thousands of miles. A fear of flying is not an easy thing to endure.
But Blair said he knows of no one who has taken a course on how to cope with such a fear, and coach Wes Unseld said he cannot think of anyone who has given up an NBA career because he was afraid to fly.
"I've heard rumors, and I've been around some players who didn't like to fly," said Unseld, who played 13 years with the Bullets before taking over as coach in 1987. "But if they're afraid of flying in this business, I don't know how they get through it. It must make it awfully tough."
Hammonds says it is "really, really tough."
"I really don't know how I do it," he said. "I love to play the game, and getting on the airplane is part of my job. I couldn't see myself quitting my job. But I guess it might depend on the situation."