Tuesday, April 11, 2006

A day in the life of an NBA player

Part I

The house lights dim. The court lights are turned up. A referee spins the ball
high in the air, and two big men leap to control the game's first possession.
For the next 48 minutes (or 2 1/2 hours in real time), the teams compete for
victory. Then comes the final buzzer. Somebody wins and somebody loses.
If they think about it at all, most fans would probably say that NBA games are
totally decided between the first tipoff and the last buzzer. The truth is that
the game is only the culmination of a full day's activities, and that, all too
often, the outcome is already decided by the diligence with which a team, or a
few of its key players, have prepared for the game at hand.
Here, then, is the first part of a two-part series on what happens during a
normal game day in the NBA.
Just like civilians, the rise-and-shine routines of NBAers are highly
individualistic. Some players can jump out of bed and hit the floorboards
already fast-breaking. Some can snooze in the three-second lane indefinitely.
Way back when NBA teams had their players double-up on the road, I chanced to
witness an unusual pairing of teammates who had radically different ways of
starting a new day.
I was writing a magazine article on Calvin Murphy, the Houston Rockets'
Lilliputian backcourt star, and we met for breakfast at 8 a.m. in the Manhattan
hotel where the team was staying. Even so early in the day, Murphy was
effervescent. He lived just like he played ball - constantly on the edge of
Afterward, we returned to his hotel room, planning to continue the interview,
only to discover that Murphy had left his key inside. Unfortunately, Murphy's
roommate was Rip Van Tomjanovich - and 15 minutes of banging on the door and
screaming blue curses had no effect on the loud snoring which was rumbling out
into the hall. Murphy's voice got shriller and his pounding more ferocious,
until Rudy T. finally opened the door, groggily claiming that he thought we were
thieves or muggers trying to break into the room. For a couple of tense moments,
Murphy laid a hot line of abuse on his sleepy roommate. Tomjanovich, who had
been Murphy's partner for four years, mumbled a few choice nuggets of his own
... and then fell asleep again before his head hit the pillow.
"That boob," Murphy said. But his anger had dissipated, replaced by rueful
complaints of Tomjanovich's annoying, yet loveable, shortcomings. "He could wake
up and see somebody stealing his clothes, and he'd just turn over and go back to
sleep. If it wasn't for me, he'd miss every plane, every shootaround, and every
game. If it wasn't for me, he'd sleep until he died of starvation."
Without the distraction of family and friends (who usually call to request
tickets), and because they can easily deflect incoming phone calls, ballplayers
do tend to sleep later while on the road. But they usually wake up early enough
to eat a hearty breakfast on game day.
Sam Cassell shares a laugh as two teams cross paths between their
shootarounds. (Gary Dineen / Getty Images)
Whether at home or away, a player's first official appointment of the day will
usually be the team's shootaround (one exception being that, when Stan Albeck
coached the Bulls in 1985-86, shootarounds were scheduled for two hours prior to
the start of the games). The home team usually has first dibs on the court at 11
a.m. or noon, with the visitors scheduled an hour later. During the overlapping
time when one team is leaving the court and the other is arriving, the players
have the chance for face-to-face socializing.
Since many of them have been teammates at some time in the past, there is always
plenty of gossip and complaints to share. This is also the time to make postgame
arrangements. If nothing else is shaking, the hometown players will identify
which nightclub is the current hotspot.
Then some coach or other might blow a whistle to signal the end of yakking and
the getting down to business. Most coaches use whistles in practice situations
to quickly command their players' attention or to interrupt scrimmages or
drills. The shrill sound is unmistakable, it reinforces the players' conditioned
reaction to referees' whistles, and it's easy on the coaches' voices. Some
coaches never use whistles in an attempt to avoid being linked in any way to
referees, and to retain more of a personal connection with the players. Instead,
a loud shot of "Yo!" (Larry Brown's favorite) or "Hey!" will suffice.
The theory and practice of the game-day shootaround has a distinguished history.
Its inventor was Bill Sharman, a running mate of Bob Cousy with the Celtics
through 10 seasons (1951-61) and four championships (1957, 1959, 1960 and 1961).
During his heyday, Sharman was universally hailed as an outstanding shooter - he
was elected to the Hall of Fame in 1976 as a player, was officially identified
in 1996 as one of the 50 Greatest Players in NBA History, and was also enshrined
in the HOF as a coach in 2005. Yet his extraordinary defensive prowess was
largely overlooked.
Sharman pinpoints the origin of the shootaround to the beginning of the 1955-56
season. "I was always very nervous the day of a game," he says. "I'd just pace
around the house until it was time to go to the arena. There was a high school
gym in the neighborhood, so one morning at about 10 o'clock, I decided to go
over there just to dribble around and take a few shots. That was the same season
that the new totally round basketball had replaced the one that had high laced
seams and I was having some difficulty getting the feel of the new ball. Anyway,
that night I felt much looser and quicker than I normally did, and I had a much
better shooting touch, too. So I went back to the gym the next time we played.
After a while, I developed a routine for myself. I'd take the kinds of shots
that I'd normally take in a game, and I kept shooting until I made five in a row
from each spot. Before long, some of the other Celtics started coming to the gym
with me."
Sharman reports that in his first five seasons in the NBA, he was an 86 percent
free-throw shooter. In the five seasons after instituting his morning "shoot,"
his marksmanship increased to 92 percent.
After his playing days were history, Sharman became the coach of the Los Angeles
Jets in the American Basketball League and established the shootaround as part
of the club's game-day routine. "Everybody said I was crazy," Sharman remembers.
"They especially objected to having a shootaround after playing the night
before. They thought the players would be too stiff and too tired and liable to
hurt themselves. But what actually happened was that the players were forced to
get out of bed and break a sweat, which avoided that logy feeling that they
often started a game with. They also developed the visual image and the positive
reinforcement of the ball going through the hoop."
The Jets were 24-15 when the franchise folded midway through the season. That's
when Sharman got a call from George Steinbrenner offering him the coaching job
with the Cleveland Pipers. "The Pipers were in last place when I took over,"
says Sharman, "and we came back to win the championship."
After short stints at Cal State-Los Angeles (27-20 for two seasons) and the
NBA's San Francisco Warriors (87-76, plus two playoff appearances including a
finals date with the championship Philadelphia 76ers), Sharman wound up in the
ABA, where he led the Utah Stars to a title in 1971. Through it all, Sharman's
shootarounds were a vital part of his game plan.
His next stop was the Los Angeles Lakers. "Now, all the critics said that the
shootaround wouldn't work with older more sophisticated players like Jerry West,
Elgin Baylor, Gail Goodrich, and especially Wilt Chamberlain, who would refuse
to get out of bed so early. But they all actually liked the idea. It calmed
their pregame jitters and gave them something to do while waiting for the game
to start. Even Wilt said he'd go along with it, so long as it worked."
By then, Sharman had refined the shootaround. For the first 5-10 minutes of the
40-minute session, he previewed the defensive and offensive particulars of the
Lakers' opponents. "That was a big step," Sharman believes, "because it got the
players thinking about the game and their individual matchups. When it came time
to play, they agreed that they now had an easier time concentrating."
But the shoot also gave a head start to Sharman. With his players already having
walked through a scouting report beforehand, he could make small, yet crucial,
adjustments during the game.
The Lakers began that 1971-72 season with a record of 6-3, and Wilt became
somewhat dubious about Sharman's early-morning innovation. But all of Wilt's
objections were satisfied when the team ripped off 33 consecutive wins, a record
that still stands. (Interesting enough, the win streak began the game after
Baylor was pushed into retirement by Sharman and the Lakers' GM, Fred Schaus.)
After the Lakers won the championship, every team in the NBA added the morning
shootaround to their game-day schedule.
Carmelo Anthony has a moment to himself during a Nuggets shootaround. (Brian
Bahr / Getty Images)
For shootarounds on the road, players must be on the team bus at a specified
time. At home, they get to the gym on their own. Tardiness is sometimes a
problem, so each coach has his own rules. Some coaches will hold a bus for a
late player - and fine him anywhere from $100 to $250 per minute. Others will
instruct the bus driver to leave on the minute, so that, in addition to the
fine, the late player must find his own way to the gym. Missing a shootaround
entirely (as Latrell Sprewell was wont to do) can result in a six-figure
And what happens to the fine money? Some coaches design shooting games during
practice with the fine money as prizes. (Players love shooting for somebody
else's money.) Some teams deduct any outstanding fines from the players'
paychecks and keep the money.
The modern-day shootaround lasts about 60 minutes and generally follows the
procedure established by Sharman - the primary difference being that more time
is spent on presenting the scouting report and also "dummying" the opponents'
favorite procedures. Coaches will also focus on certain plays in their own
offensive repertoire that they think might be particularly effective in the
upcoming game. The atmosphere is decidedly casual - only those players with
ankle injuries get taped and post-shoot on-site showers are strictly optional.
Yet the players are expected to maintain full concentration. A lackadaisical
attitude in a shoot usually manifests as general confusion and blown assignments
come game time. Even so, some shootarounds are more casual than others.
Elston Turner (currently an assistant with Sacramento) had played with Dallas
for four seasons before being dealt to Denver in 1984. "Doug Moe was my new
coach," Turner recalls, "and the first time I came to a shootaround, I didn't
know what to think. Some of the guys had their practice gear on, some wore
raggedy-looking sweats, and some even wore jeans. Doug was sitting along the
sideline, smoking a cigar and making jokes with everybody, while all the players
were doing their own thing. Some were shooting, some were stretching, some were
just standing around and chatting. 'Hey, coach,' I said to Doug. 'What's
supposed to be happening here?' He just shrugged, took another puff on his
cigar, and said, "It's a shootaround. So go ahead and shoot around."
After the shoot, most players eat a sizeable, but easily digestible lunch. They
usually avoid fatty meats and anything fried, opting instead for salads, pasta
and/or fish. Then it's time to consult with their agents or their lawyers. Or
perhaps line up postgame doings. (Some coaches discourage "matinees" with the
local wild life, although Dennis Rodman always maintained that pregame sex
boosted his game.)
Occasionally, players are obliged to make appearances at some team-sponsored
event. The most notorious tale surrounding one of these once had Patrick Ewing
visiting a ward for terminally ill children in New York. After Ewing made a
perfunctory speech, those children who were still ambulatory clustered around
him begging for autographs. Even though the kids had projected life-spans
measured in days and weeks, Ewing refused. "I never sign autographs on game
days," he said.
After all the team obligations are fulfilled, a 45-minute nap does wonders to
refresh the mind and body.
When Stan Love was a little-used sub for the Lakers (1973-75), he had his own
pregame ritual: Expecting that he'd remain on the bench that evening, yet
wanting to be clean and sweet-smelling for the postgame frolics, and also to
avoid the postgame bathroom crunch, he'd simply shower before the game at the
By now, the players should be physically, mentally and emotionally ready to play
at their best. The coaches, too, are generally psyched after an earnest and
productive shootaround. But the major portion of everybody's game prep awaits
them at the arena.

Part II

Back in the glory days of the Celtics, Red Auerbach squeezed every bit of
homecourt advantage he could out of Boston Garden. Visiting teams would be
assigned a different locker room every time they came to town, a subtle tactic
that increased their sense of alienation and discomfort.
A more obvious, and odious, annoyance for visitors was the discovery that, no
matter which locker room they occupied, at least one of the toilets would be
jammed up and overflowing. Also, since all of the locker rooms were heated by
radiator pipes, Auerbach employed a traditional hockey strategy - arranging for
the boiler to be stoked at just the right time so that the radiators in the
visitors' quarters would be clanging and banging as they arrived. The same
process would be repeated to coincide with the halftime intermission.
In today's more modern arenas, however, such gamesmanship is obsolete. The home
team's locker room is generally more spacious and more luxuriously appointed
(thicker carpeting underfoot, individual dressing stalls), yet the pre-game
experience for both teams is more similar than it is disparate.
Even though the players are due in the locker room 90 minutes before game time,
the team's training staff has preceded them by at least a half hour, readying
the adhesive and stretch tapes, sticky sprays, plasticized wraps, heating pads,
ice bags and buckets, and all the other accoutrements of their trade. The home
team is responsible for filling the cooler with assorted sodas, juices and
bottles of water - as well as the snack tray (mostly fruits) - but each team's
trainer supplies the chewing gum that his players prefer.
Several monitors will be loaded by an assistant to show videos of either the
opponents' latest game or else the last meeting between the two teams. Also, an
assistant coach will fill the grease board mounted on the wall with diagrams,
play calls and other scouting info.
A trip to the trainer's table is a pregame ritual. (D. Lippitt / Getty
The coaches usually share a separate dressing room, and in some of the newest
venues, the head coach has his own space. The younger assistants will quickly
change into practice gear and head for the court to supervise various shooting
and/or footwork drills for the team's more inexperienced players. John Lucas, of
the Cleveland Cavaliers, was the only head coach in recent memory who regularly
participated in these on-court pregame rehearsals.
The rookies get taped first, allowing the veterans more leisure to transform
themselves from civilians into warriors. A large digital clock records the
countdown to game time, and the media is allowed in the room from the 90- to the
45-minute mark. Any player, however, who cherishes his pregame privacy can dress
or hang out in the sanctum sanctorum of the trainers room. Some vets will take
to court to practice their shooting, gab with pals on the other team, while
others will remain sequestered in the locker room.
Coaches consider players who are late for games more reprehensible than those
who are not punctual for shoot-arounds, but the fines are usually the same. Even
more distressing are the pregame routines of players like former Bullets and
Sixers guard (and current NBA analyst) Fred "Mad Dog" Carter, a nicotine fiend
who chain-smoked cigarettes in the locker room. And, while sensible players
avoid eating for four hours prior to game time, Henry Bibby liked to smuggle
several mustard-dosed hot dogs into the locker room and surreptitiously munch
them in the bathroom.
As soon as the media is booted from the premises, the team gathers to review the
scouting report that was initially presented during the morning shoot-around.
The standard operating procedure for most clubs is to divide the scouting
responsibilities for the other 29 NBA teams among the assistant coaches, while
some rely exclusively on advance scouts. (Although Kevin Loughery always
believed that teams would be better off scouting the referees.) This entails
each assistant (or advance scout) seeing each of "his" teams once or twice
during the season (more if a trade dramatically reconfigures the roster),
scouring game videos, then presenting a 10- to 15-page packet to the players and
other coaches. From this information, the head coach will devise a specific game
Next comes the head coach's exhortation. When Jerry West coached the Lakers
(1976-79), he had one generic pregame spiel: "This game is the most important
game of the season." Again and again, for 82 games plus the playoffs. "This game
?" Until his players learned to tune him out.
When Wilt Chamberlain coached the ABA's San Diego Conquistadors in 1973-74, he
was faced with a personal conflict on the night of a crucial home game. It seems
that one of his 20,000 girl friends was in town just for the evening, so he
opted to forego the game. In his absence, Chamberlain recorded an inspirational
audiotape that assistant coach Stan Albeck dutifully played to the team. From
all reports, nobody was particularly inspired that evening ... except for Wilt's
After the coach's gung-ho speech, most teams will then gather for a pregame
prayer led by a chaplain (at home) or a player. Coaches will usually excuse
themselves while this is happening to give the players a last moment of privacy,
yet some coaches privately object to these prayers. "There I am," one veteran
coach says, "getting them all revved up in my pregame talk. Telling them to be
tough, not to back down, to knock penetrators on their butts. And now they're in
there talking about peace and love."
At the 15-minute mark, the players are released to pee, brush their hair or
shine their pates, adjust their sneakers, tuck in their jerseys, compose their
game faces, perhaps gulp a cup of coffee or a can of some highly-caffeinated
soft drink, and otherwise prepare to face the foe.
It's game time
Ladies and gentlemen, here are the starting lineups ... Tonight's game officials
are ... ... the la-and of the free, and the home of the ..."
Five players times 48 available minutes usually equals satisfying daylight for
eight players and a frustrating half-rotation for another player (players need
at least six continuous minutes to get themselves loose and thoroughly
involved). The guys who start the game on the bench like playing for a coach who
has a specific substitution plan. This allows bench-warmers to get physically
stretched and mentally prepared. So-and-so will come in with four minutes left
in the first quarter, then play for eight or ten minutes. The designated
off-the-bench shooter will take the court at the 2-minute mark and play until he
misses three consecutive shots. And so on. Barring foul trouble, ejections or
injuries, and depending upon the opposition, five specific players (not
necessarily the starters) are expected to finish the game.
For years, players complained that Don Nelson's substitutions were too
unpredictable. "I wouldn't get off the bench for about two weeks," said one
veteran player, "then, all of a sudden, I'd play thirty minutes. Then I'd get
all jazzed up, because I knew I played well, but come the next day and I'd be
stuck on the bench again. That kind of thing really messes with your mind."
Larry Brown, with his infinitely variable starting lineups, is today's most
notable mind-messer.
At the other extreme is Phil Jackson, whose successes with the Bulls and Lakers
were characterized by his using his entire roster in just about every game. His
message was that since all the players were getting paid, they all had to be
ready to play.
Timeout ...
When Doug Collins was a rookie coach with the Bulls, he'd write the score and
the time on his clipboard and then proceed to berate his players for their every
mistake. And when Jerry Tarkanian coached San Antonio in 1992, timeouts rendered
him so helpless and confused that his assistants had to take over. Collins, of
course, evolved into a savvy coach, while The Shark went back to swimming in
more placid waters among the smaller fishes.
To start a timeout, most coaches will caucus with their assistants (except when
some player or other requires an emergency face-to-face showdown). This is to
share ideas about unexpected problems, their causes and possible solutions,
while at the same time giving the players a chance to talk to each other. Then
it's time for the coach to present corrections and adjustments and to designate
the next several sequences on both ends of the court. A professionally and
psychologically secure coach with veteran players will sometimes solicit their
opinions. "Hey, guys, what the hell's happening out there?" This same procedure
is repeated at the quarter break.
The score at halftime is ...
This is one of the most critical interludes in a game. If his guys have stunk up
the court in the first half, if they haven't hustled or executed the game plan,
if they were selfish or careless, now might be an appropriate time for the coach
to roar at them. Berating and insulting a team can be very effective, but only
if a coach limits his strategic tantrums to three or four per season. Another
way for a coach to express his displeasure during the halftime break is simply
to avoid the locker room altogether. As always, the coach has to know his
players. Are they hardened vets and therefore immune to such motivational
gimmickry? Are they wiseguys and troublemakers who tend to ignore him anyway?
Credit Bill Fitch with the most radical modus operandi in modern times. When
Fitch coached the Cavs (1970-79), his custom as to dim the lights in the locker
room and narrate a video tape of what he considered to be the most significant
segments of the first half. Most of the players responded by falling asleep.
Normally, this 15-minute period is where the coaching staff makes game
adjustments. Let's switch ... or go over ... or go under ... or overplay
sideline ... or jump switch ... or double the high screen/roll. Let's tailgate
the cutter on the single-double. Let's go to our third option on 3-Down. And so
That's why the initial five minutes of the second half are so crucial. Give
credit to the coaching staff if one team grabs control of the game here.
Timeout ...
Timeouts are crucial in the game's final moments. (Noah Graham / Getty
With a game up for grabs, timeouts become incredibly important. If his team is
on defense, the assistant coach responsible for scouting the opponent has to
make everybody aware of their "criticals," i.e., the plays the bad guys run out
of a timeout when they absolutely need a good shot. In calling a play on
offense, the head coach has to know which of his players wants to take the
clutch shot and which would rather not. Individual matchups, what his own club
has shown in similar situations in the past, the referees (who of them will call
ticky-tack fouls and who will let the players play), are other considerations.
BUZZZT! And the final score is ...
Back in the locker room, the coach has about 30 minutes of privacy in which to
deliver his postmortem. After a bad loss, here's another situation where it
might be appropriate to ream his players. But the successful coach always ends
his tirade with some positive message: There's a lesson here for us! If we don't
focus in our shoot-around, we won't be ready to play! But we can turn this
around if we work hard together! Etcetera.
Generally a 20-point loss is easier to take than a gut-wrenching game lost
because of an offensive rebound yielded, a turnover or a silly foul committed, a
missed free throw, a bad call - simply because neither the players nor the
coaches have to second-guess themselves after a blowout for moves made or not
The last official communication of the day will be notification of the time of
tomorrow's practice, or when the bus leaves for the airport. Lately, more and
more teams are inclined to travel to their next stop right after the game. (In
that eventuality, the charter flight will have the available technology for the
coaches and the players to view an unedited video of the game.)
After finishing with his players, the coach will then meet with the media in the
hallway or in a specially prepared area. Then, as soon as he's gone, the locker
room is officially open to the media. As before, those players who prefer to
hide can slip into the off-limits trainer's room, or else linger in the shower.
In the NBA, even getting dressed can be ritualized. During his entire 14-year
career (1975-88), Darryl Dawkins used to put on his shoes and socks even before
putting on his underwear. "It's an old habit from my tom-catting days," Dawkins
explains. "Always put your shoes on first just in case the lady's husband gets
home too early."
An eager crew of teenaged attendants scurry about the locker room picking up
sweaty uniforms, jocks, socks and discarded tape casings. The late Drazen
Petrovic, however, always picked up after himself. "My NBA contract is over by
next year," he told me in 1993, "and there is a very good chance I will go back
to Europe and play there. The main reason why I'm thinking to do this is because
of the NBA players. These American players think the universe revolves around
them. They have no sense of any personal responsibility, and it shows in the way
they play too. Every mistake is somebody else's fault. And it's always somebody
else's job to clean up all their messes."
If the team is at home or staying overnight, then it's party time. A time for
fun, but also a time for trouble. Everything they've done that day has pointed
toward the game, and the high tide of their competitive energies can't be
drained away by a mere postgame shower. Not even their postgame repast (the main
meal of the day) can absorb the flood of adrenaline.
For hours after the final buzzer, the players are still jacked up and riding the
crest of a hooptime thrill. A thrill that feels so good that they don't want to
come down. And that's why few players can settle down and fall asleep until 3 or
4 a.m.
A good game tastes like vintage champagne - and a bad one tastes like
supermarket vinegar. But tomorrow's another day, perhaps another city and
another ball game to prepare for. In the NBA, the flavor never lasts too long.

By Charley Rosen, rewritten by Foreigner in CS - Apr 11 2006 2:53PM

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