Called To Travel

NBA: When players hit the road, they rarely stop to see the sights and smell the roses. On the court and off, they are always on the go.

April 10, 2002|By Milton Kent | Milton Kent,SUN STAFF

DENVER - The flow of people through the lobby of a posh downtown hotel is a steady one. They've come hoping to see something, or, more accurately, someone.

The situation plays itself out in 27 other cities around the United States and Canada. The faces change, but the scene is almost always the same: Some fans get wind of where the Washington Wizards are staying and come to the team hotel wondering where Michael Jordan is.

One energetic young woman has driven in from the suburbs with an autograph book, hoping to get Jordan's signature for her husband. From his seat near the lobby piano, Wizards forward Etan Thomas shakes his head and wonders how the fans always know where to find them.

"How do they know?" Thomas said quizzically, two weeks before Jordan was lost for the season with a knee injury. "That always puzzles me. ... In one place, we actually changed hotels. We were supposed to go one place and we went to another, and the people were still there. I was like, `How did they know we were going to be there?' "

Managing his way through and around fans is just one of the mysteries of life on the road in the NBA that confronts players like Thomas, 24, a 6-foot-10 player from Syracuse who is in his second season.

On this surprisingly warm day in March, Thomas and the Wizards are nearing the end of a six-game, nine-day excursion through the Western Conference, with stops in Los Angeles to play the Clippers, followed by visits to Seattle, Portland, Golden State, Denver and finally Utah.

At this point, the Wizards, who will come home with a split of the six games, are into the seventh day of the trip, and Thomas, surprisingly, hasn't even put a dent into all the clothes he brought.

"You really don't need a whole lot of clothes," said Thomas, clad in a long-sleeved T-shirt and sweat pants while chatting in the hotel lobby. "You might bring a pair of jeans, and you have your dress clothes for the game, so if you're going to go to dinner, you have something to wear. You bring a pair of jeans if you're going to go to the movies or something like that."

The NBA schedule is such that there isn't much time for the kind of sightseeing that most visitors do. On game days, the players have a shoot-around at the arena in the morning, then rest for that evening's game.

The routine is different on coveted days off. After a practice, the players may strike out for dinner on the $93 per diem they receive or take in a movie or hit the downtown area for shopping, as some players did at Denver's 16th Street Mall.

But for Thomas and many other Wizards, particularly older veterans, the proceedings are decidedly low-key, or at least not nearly as swinging as the public may think.

"When you finally get to a place, you're usually so tired from [adjusting to] the different time zones that you don't always want to do something," Thomas said. "I'll go back up to the room and maybe order something to eat, but by like, 10 or 10:30, I'm sleepy. It's because I'm still on East Coast time. I talk to the other guys, and they're like, `Yeah, we're watching TV or a movie.' "

Thomas still tries to get a taste of local flavor, working in a little sightseeing where it is possible. Miami is his favorite city to visit, because of the warm climate and surroundings.

"You can find something in every city," Thomas said. "Like when I'm talking to some of my friends, they're like, `What do you possibly find to do in Utah?' I'm like, `There's always something interesting.' I mean, just to see the Mormon temple and to learn about a different religion or culture is interesting. People live differently in Utah. You can find something interesting everywhere."

Different kind of road

Travel in the NBA is vastly different and more rigorous from baseball or football. In the NFL, for example, there are only eight road games, and a team typically flies to a road game the day before, returning home directly after the game.

The baseball schedule is twice as long, by games, as the NBA's, but the roster is also twice as large, and baseball teams usually spend at least two full days in a city before moving on.

An NBA team tends to fly to the site of its next game right after the one it has just played, which usually means arriving at its next destination in the middle of the night.

Even so, today's player has a big advantage over his predecessor. The NBA requires each team to fly charters, a relatively new and welcome development.

"When I first came in, we all rode coach," said Charlotte Hornets coach Paul Silas, who played 16 seasons in the NBA, from 1964-65 to 1979-80. "We used to try to get the end seat so you could kind of have some legroom. And when I was with the old [St. Louis] Hawks, we would play pinochle on the floor and [tick] the stewardesses off, because they would be running the carts down the aisle and we would be kicking the carts."

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