It is 9:50 a.m. five minutes after the scheduled departure of the bus for the Seattle airport, and a player is late.Usually, the Washington Bullets' coach. Dick Motta, waits for no one, not even his superstars. But this is different.
"He's got the basketballs," Motta explains "We can't practice without them. We wait."
So the Bullets sit until rookie Roger Phegley, on his first West Coast trip as a pro. clamors aboard the bus, an embarrassed grin on his face.
"That'll cost you $25," Motta tells Phegley. Off the Bullets go.
And so begins another ride to another airport to catch another plane to another city.
The Bullets will spend 85 days on the road this season in order to play 41 games. They will be delayed by fog, snow and equipment problems. They will lose luggage and sleep. They sometimes will not be able to remember what city they just left or to what city they are headed. And they most likely will not win three-quarters of the contests they must play away from home.
"You don't try to understand it," said guard Kevin Grevey. "You just try to survive. "Maybe teams should be rewarded just for winning any games on the road. It can be that big of an accomplishment." Neither Rain, Nor Snow . . .
Fog has settled over the Seattle airport and nothing was moving "Why didn't they call us and tell us?" asked Motta. "We could have slept."
But the airlines didn't react to the fog until 10 minutes before takeoff, and the team sat for another two hours, wishing the morning wakeup calls had never been made.
The Bullets are accustomed to waiting. Trainer John Lally, who doubles as traveling secretary, never takes chances. He always makes sure the club reaches every airport an hour or so before departure.
"What if there is a traffic jam or an accident?" asks Lally.
"I'd like a dollar for every minute I've sat in an airport or on a plane and not gone anywhere." Motta says. "I could almost be as rich as the players."
Motta has been involved in two of the great travel snags in NBA history.
The first came when he was still coach of the Chicago Bulls. The Bulls were returning home from a game but couldn't land at O'Hare airport because of bad weather. After circling for two hours, the plane flew to its alternate airport - in Buffalo.
"To this day, I don't know why Buffalo was our next city," says Motta. "But we landed there and then a storm socked us in. They told us we might be there for days.
"So I decided we should get a bus and drive home. The team said okay. We got this bus; it was terrible and the guy said he couldn't leave until he was paid in advance: $1,002.
"I happened to have an old personal check in my wallet. Always carry one. So I wrote out a check and we drove away."
Twelve hours later, with a breakfast stop in Cleveland, the Bulls arrived in Chicago.
Last year, the Bullets had a game scheduled in Chicago the night after the two teams played in Washington. A storm had blanketed half the country with snow and it seemed unlikely that a place could either get out of Washington or land at O'Hare. But under NBA rules, clubs have to make a valid attempt to fulfill their schedule commitments.
The Bulls decided to try a back-door offense and flew to Kansas City from National Airport. The Bullets, sitting at Baltimore Washington International Airport, waited until O'Hare opened for traffic.
They waited. And waited. "We'll get going, we have to," their travel agent kept telling them. "The mayor of Chicago is on your plane."
The Bullets' plane took off and was the first to land at O'Hare that day. But the game was postponed while the plane was in the air because the Bulls were grounded in Kansas City and couldn't get out.
"It might have been the first time the home team couldn't get home while the visiting team could," says Motta. "We had to sit in Chicago all night and then fly home the next day. All for a game they should have canceled first thing in the morning." Follow the Itinerary
The Bullets should have known the West Coast trip was going to be a failure. Even before it started, something had gone wrong: The airline had lost luggage belonging to Mitch Kupchak and Kevin Grevey enroute to the first stop in Portland. The luggage showed up 12 hours later, much to Lally's relief.
Lally is the team's mother hen. Whatever goes wrong is his fault, from late buses to lost luggage to messed-up wake-up calls. The complaints come with the job.
"They are spoiled," Lally says of the players.
Each player receives $26 a day per diem. Their travel - first class on all flights lasting more than an hour - and their hotel rooms are paid for by the team. porters handle their luggage at airports and hotels and they are preregistered at every stop, so all they do is grab the keys and go to their rooms.
Lally leaves their wake-up calls and checks in their tickets at airports. A bus is hired at every city to transport them to practices, games and airports.
The team's itinerary and reservations are planned long before the season starts by a local travel agency. NBA regulations dictate some of the flight choices: Clubs must get to the sit of the game on the first available flight, which often means they are in the air at 7:30 a.m. after a contest the night before.
Hotels are selected by location or through the whim of the coach. The Bullets, for example, stayed last year at a certain San Francisco hotel because Motta likes the deli across the street.
Motta has few rules. Miss a bus and it will cost you $25. Miss a plane and it's $100. There's a 2 a.m. curfew nights before games, but it's not enforced. Players are asked to dress neatly and not wear tennis shoes on planes, a restriction put in last year after Joe Pace started flying in a sweat suit.
Many of the players - some of the world's best-paid athletes - try to prove they can live on a lot less than $26 a day and hoard their per diem as if it represented their entire personal wealth. They also are notoriously bad tippers and heavy eaters, when they eat.
"You really don't have to think very much when you travel with the team," said Kupchak, who missed the bus to the San Francisco airport. "You look at the itinerary and go from there." The Best and Worst
Joe Pace was a legend on the road. The Bullet who played out his option last year by missing planes, buses, meetings and game time was rumored never to have eaten on a trip. Some Bullets swear he never left his hotel room.
There are no Paces on this year's squad. But there are still some notable individual efforts:
Best sleeper: Tom Henderson. "He could fall asleep standing up," swears assistant coach Bernie Bickerstaff.
Best eater: rookie Davie Corzine. "Once the food is served on a plane, you don't see him pick up his head," said Bickerstaff. "He just devours his grub."
Best dressed: Henderson and Bob Dandridege! Dandrige occasionally wears a suit, which stuns his predominantly blue jean-clad teammates. Henderson leans to suede shoes and dark glasses.
The worst in this category is Kupchak, although he says he is trying to improve his image.
"I have bought all new clothes," he said. "I have friends in the clothing business." But he has yet to give in and wear socks.
"I gave my only pair to Grevey," he said. "In college, I used to wear boots so Coach (Dean) Smith wouldn't know I had no socks. If he had realized it, he would have killed me."
Kupchak nominates Charles Johnson as the worst dresser. Johnson specializes in outlandish T-shirts and even wore one last June when the team visited the White House after winning the NBA title.
Mike Riordan once owned the worst-dressed category. The former Bullet forward used to travel with no more than a small suitcase and dressed in jeans. Until he showed up at opening night last season to toss up the first ball, some of his teammates thought he didn't own a tie or a sports coat.
Most stamina: Unanimous - Elvin Hayes, the Bionic Body. He says he averages five to six hours of sleep per night, but there is a rumor that he never sleeps. He can be found in hotel lobbies at all hours, moving like a huge, restless cat.
"I've never seen anyone like him," said an admiring Motta. "He can play 48 minutes in a game and never get tired. He knows every inch of every hotel lobby in America."
Hayes also says he rarely eats.
"When we don't play a game, I might eat one meal," he said. "On game days, I'll eat one before and one afterwards. Otherwise I'll gain weight."
Best lines: Again, unanimous - bachelor Kevin Grevey. He has broken hearts from coast to coast and border to border with his "innocent young man" approach.
But, as one Bullet found out last season, good lines can sometimes backfire. During the final-round playoffs at Seattle, a player was eating dinner with a young lady who resembled a Dallas Cowboys cheerleader.
"Where do you go to school?" he asked.
Mount Rainier," she replied.
"What's that, junior college?" he asked.
"No, it's a junior high school outside of Seattle."
The player quickly finished the meal, paid the bill and left. Keeping Busy
NBA games last, on the average, two hours. Teams arrive at the arena about 90 minutes before the opening tip and usually are gone within an hour after the final buzzer. That leaves a lot of free time on the road.
"To survive, you have to stop fighting it and get into a routine," said Wes Unseld, a veteran of 10 years of NBA travel. "The first couple of years it was fun and different. Now well, it's the worst part."
Unseld is a reader. He devours books as readily as rebounds. He is also the team expert on almost anything. Toss out a subject and he probably has read a book about it.
"You haven't got many choices," he said. "You can read, you can go to a movie, you can sleep, you can watch television.
"I start a lot of books but don't finish that many. They don't keep your attention. I like to go to book stores and find books I haven't read. That takes up time.
"If there is something on television I like, I'll watch it, but not the soap operas or game shows, although I know some players watch those all the time. The toughest thing is to keep from getting too bored. People think it's glamorous traveling like this, but it isn't."
Bickerstaff, a mere five-year travel man, says he has been to the same hotels so much "I can remember which side of the elevator has the buttons. And I've been in the same rooms in the same hotels every year in a couple of cities."
Unseld has made a concession to the trips. He has left his digitial watch at home.
"I could never remember," he says, "how to change it from time zone to time zone. So I gave up and put it in the drawer." Homeward Bound
Dick Motta came to the pros from a college coaching job and was shocked at first by what he found in the big time:
Players smoking in the dressing room or reading books a few minutes before the start of the game. He stopped the smoking, and doesn't like the reading, but has decided it's not his job to father his players.
"These are pros," he says. "You can only do so much with them. The rest is up to them. I tell them I don't want them to do anything embarrassing in public but I also like things loose. Why get uptight? This thing goes on until May."
His current players don't play loud music in airports or wreck hotel rooms. Most will go out after games for a beer but usually not where team officials might be hanging out.
When the club is winning, there are few complaints about traveling. But it's easier to shake off a loss when you are at a home. On the road, defeats linger on the mind and players can feel the strain more easily.
"What do I hate most about traveling? Losing," says Unseld. "Once it starts, it seems like you are away forever."
When losing closes in, the mood usually can be broken by a few quick laughs: Bickerstaff teasing Motta on the way he dresses (jeans, boots, never a topcoat) or the veterans prodding rookies Phegley and Corzine (who must carry basketballs and movie projectors on trips).
But there are times the mixture of defeat and being on the road can be too much even for Motta.
Such a moment came after the Bullets had lost their second game on a trip, an embarassing trampling by Seattle.
After the contest, when all the players were on the bus bound for the hotel. Motta stood up and let out an incredible half-cry, half-yell that would have done Wolfboy proud. Everyone stopped talking and stared at him.
"Thanks," he said. "I needed that." He sat down and the bus rumbled off into the night.