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Wednesday, December 4, 2002
NBA backstage

By Charley Rosen
Special to Page 2

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 about 2 1/2 hours in real time), the teams compete for the 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 tip-off 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 Part 1 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 fastbreaking. 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 roommates who had radically different ways of starting a new day.

I was writing an 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 excitement.

Calvin Murphy
Murphy's upbeat attitude carried him all the way to the Hall of Fame.
Afterwards, we returned to his hotel room, planning to continue the interview, only to discover that Murphy had left his key inside. Unfortunately, Murphy's roomie was Rip Van Tomjanovich -- and 15 minutes of banging on the door and screaming blue curses had no effect on the snoring which rumbled 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 was gone now, replaced by rueful complaints of Tomjanovich's annoying, yet loveable, shortcomings. "He could wake up and see somebody stealing his clothes, and he would just turn over and go back to sleep. If it wasn't for me, he'd miss every plane, every shootaround, and every ball game. If it wasn't for me, he'd sleep until he died of starvation."

Without the distractions of family and friends, 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.

Whether at home or away, a player's first appointment of the day will 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 11:00 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 to socialize.

Since many of them have been teammates at some time in the past, there are always plenty of gossip and complaints to share. This is also the time to make post-game 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 get 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' voice. Me? I never used a whistle, because it was too impersonal. Instead, a loud shout of "Yo!" sufficed.

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, and in 1996 was officially identified as one of the 50 Greatest Players in NBA History -- yet his extraordinary defensive prowess was largely overlooked.

Bill Sharman
Late-sleepers in the NBA have Sharman to thank for making them get out of bed.
(NOTE: Sharman was also a strong-armed outfielder who, after stinging Texas League pitching in the summer of 1951, was called up to the Brooklyn Dodgers in September. At the time, the Dodgers led the National League and were miles ahead of the New York Giants. Sharman was told that he would be inserted into the starting lineup as soon as Brooklyn clinched the pennant. Unfortunately for him, that was the season of the Miracle on Coogan's Bluff that was capped by Bobby Thomson's "Home Run Heard Around the World"; Sharman never got into a game.)

Sharman pinpoints the origin of the shootaround to the beginning of the 1955-56 NBA season. "I was always very nervous the day of a game," he says. "I'd just walk 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 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 during a game, and I kept shooting until I made five in a row from each spot. After a while, some of the other Celtics started coming to the gym with me."

Sharman reports that during 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 loggy 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 league championship."

After short stints at Cal State-Los Angeles (27-20 for two seasons) and the NBA's San Francisco Warriors (87-76 and two playoff appearances), Sharman wound up in the ABA, where he led the Utah Stars to a title in 1971.

His next stop was the Los Angeles Lakers. "Now, all the critics said that the shootaround wouldn't work in the NBA," Sharman recalls, "because the players were older and more sophisticated. They said that guys like Jerry West, Elgin Baylor, Gail Goodrich and especially Wilt Chamberlain would refuse to get out of bed so early. But they all actually liked the idea. It would calm their pregame jitters and give 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 last 5-10 minutes of the 40-minute sessions, 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."

The Lakers began that 1971-72 season with a record of 6-3, and Wilt was becoming 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. After the Lakers won the championship, every team in the NBA added the morning shootaround to their game-day schedule.

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 did last season) can result in a six-figure penalty.

Latrell Sprewell
Miss a shootaround and your pockets will be lighter, right Spre?
And what happens to the fine money? Some coaches design shooting games during practice with the fine money at stake. (Players love shooting for someone else's money.) Some teams deduct any outstanding fines from the players' paychecks and keep the money.

The modern-day shoot 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 postshoot showers are strictly optional. Yet the players are expected to fully concentrate on the business at hand. 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 had played with Dallas for four seasons before being dealt to Denver in 1984. "Doug Moe was the coach," Turner remembers, "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 had raggedy-looking sweats, and some even wore jeans. Doug would sit on 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 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 shootaround, most players eat a sizable, 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 perhaps line up post-game doings. (Some coaches discourage "matinees" with the local wild life, although Dennis Rodman always maintained that pre-game sex boosted his game.) Afterwards, 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 post-game frolics, he'd even shower before the game at the hotel.

By now, the players should be physically, mentally and emotionally prepared 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.

In Part 2, Rosen looks at what goes on during the pre-game, warmups, timeouts and halftime.

Charley Rosen, a former coach in the Continental Basketball Association, has been intimately involved with basketball for the better part of five decades -- as a writer, a player, a coach and a passionate fan. Rosen's books include "More Than a Game," "The Cockroach Basketball League," "The Wizard of Odds: How Jack Molinas Almost Destroyed the Game of Basketball," "Scandals of '51: How the Gamblers Almost Killed College Basketball" and "The House of Moses All-Stars: A Novel."