Midway through February, the Washington Bullets completed their longest road trip of the season, a 14-day western swing with games in San Antonio, Dallas, Houston, Portland, Seattle and Oakland. It was typical of a National Basketball Association road trip.
The trip opened in San Antonio. Early in the game, Greg Ballard, playing for the first time since spraining an ankle four games before, collided with teammate Rick Mahorn and suffered a deep gash over his left eye. He needed four stitches to close it, but returned in the fourth period, helping the Bullets to a victory.
"You were too pretty, anyway," said Mahorn as Ballard lay on the training table after the game with ice on his sore ankle and his eye starting to blacken and swell.
The following night in Dallas, Kevin Grevey, trying to block a shot by Elston Turner, banged his hand on the bottom of the backboard and injured tendons and ligaments. He wouldn't play again until the last game of the trip, but stayed on the road nonetheless.
It took the team six hours and two flights to get from Houston to Portland. To pass time in airports, the players bet on whose bag will come up from baggage claim first. Meals can be tough. Some players like to eat before games, but most prefer postgame food, so it's important to stay in a hotel where the restaurant is open past 11. That goal was accomplished at every stop on the trip.
Because Coach Gene Shue is a stickler for practice, the Bullets worked out almost every day they were on the road.
In Portland it took a 45-minute bus ride to get to a practice site in an athletic club. Racquetball games were being played behind one basket; runners jogged on a track above the basketball floor and 10 feet away, several pickup basketball games were in progress.
Shue and Assistant Coach Bernie Bickerstaff didn't particularly like the distractions, but the Bullets practiced anyway.
Trainer John Lally checks in all bags on every trip. Players simply carry them to the bus and find a seat. Once at the airport, they ask which gate they are departing from and then go there and wait. After checking the bags in, Lally goes to the gate and checks in all of the players and gives them a boarding pass. They sit in first class; if there are not enough seats there, players with the least seniority head for the back of the plane and a very cramped ride.
When the plane lands, they collect and assemble their baggage before boarding a waiting bus for the next hotel. Lally, again, makes sure the bags get on the bus.
Once at the hotel, the players have already been preregistered into single rooms with king-sized beds. In Portland, the beds were uncomfortable and Mahorn and Spencer Haywood decided to sleep on the floor one night.
Once at the hotel, Lally hands each player the key to his room and tells him what time the bus will leave for either practice or the game. After the game, Lally writes on the blackboard what time wake-up calls will be the next morning, what time the bus will leave and what time the flight leaves.
There is no curfew.
The next day, the whole process is repeated. "You've got to be a real idiot to mess up when they lead you by the hand like this," said one player, "but you'd be surprised how many guys never get the hang of it."
Each player is an attraction in a different place. In Portland, the media swarmed all over Ballard, a former Oregon player. In Seattle, Haywood, a former Sonic, got most of the interviews. In Oakland, John Lucas, once with Golden State, was the center of attention.
Most of the Bullets call home at least once a day. They often act like soldiers out in the field, crying for news from the home front. Lucas, Haywood and Jim Chones often pass the idle hours by playing backgammon. Mahorn, Jeff Ruland and Ballard play electronic games. At one time or another, most of the players end up in a bar listening to music or having a couple of drinks.
They also watch a lot of television. Unlike teams in the past, however, they don't spend much time in movie theaters.
Often when they arrive home, there is no one to greet them. But after long trips, like this one, wives, girlfriends and children usually are at the airport.