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Thursday, December 5, 2002
Updated: December 6, 12:30 PM ET
The Hidden NBA, Part 2: Game time

By Charley Rosen
Special to Page 2

Editor's Note: This is Part 2 of Charley Rosen's two-part look at the hidden world of the NBA. In Part 1, Rosen examined what happens at a shootaround and during a team's other pregame preparations.

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 the 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 just 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In today's more modern arenas, however, such gamesmanship is obsolete.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 pregame experience for both teams is more similar than it is disparate.

Red Auerbach
Red Auerbach often KO'd his opponents before they left the locker room.
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 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.

The coaches 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 drills. John Lucas, of the Cleveland Cavaliers, is the only head coach who regularly participates on-court in these pregame rehearsals.

Yao Ming
The trainers might need to pack an extra roll of tape for Yao Ming.
The rookies get taped first, allowing the veterans more leisure to transform themselves from civilians to 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.

Coaches consider players who are late for games more reprehensible than those who are not punctual for shootarounds, but the fines are usually the same. Even more distressing are the pregame routines of players like former Bullets and Sixers guard (and current ESPN 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-doused 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 shootaround. The standard operating procedure for most clubs is to divide the scouting responsibilities for the other 28 teams among the assistant coaches (although Kevin Loughery always believed that teams would be better off scouting the referees). This entails each assistant seeing each of "his" teams once or twice during the season (more if a trade dramatically reconfigures the roster), scouring game tapes, then presenting a 10- to 15-page packet to the players and the other coaches. From this information, the head coach will devise a specific game plan.

George Karl
The grease board has the word on last-minute strategy.
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 entire 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 girlfriends was in town just for the night, 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 date.

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 absent 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 keisters. 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 (players need at least six continuous minutes to get themselves loose and thoroughly involved). The players who start the game on the bench like playing for a coach who has a specific substitution plan. So-and-so will come in with four minutes left in the first quarter, then play for eight or 10 minutes. The designated backcourt 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 players (not necessarily the starters) are designated to finish the game.

"Knowing exactly when I'll be called on is very helpful," Clippers forward Eric Piatkowski says. "That way I can get myself stretched and mentally prepared."

Phil Jackson
Phil Jackson's bench players know they have a good chance of seeing some action.
For years, players complained that Don Nelson's substitutions were too unpredictable. "I wouldn't get off the bench for about two weeks," says one veteran player, "then, all of a sudden, I'd play 30 minutes. Then I'd get all jazzed up, because I knew I played well, but come the next game and I'd be stuck on the bench again. That kind of thing really messes with your mind."

At the other extreme is Phil Jackson, who routinely uses his full roster in just about every game. The message is that since all the players are getting paid, they all have to be ready to play.

Timeout ...

When Doug Collins was a rookie coach with the Chicago 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, has become a savvy coach, while The Shark went back to swimming in more placid waters among the smaller fishies.

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 crucial 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 and lackadaisical, 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 halftime modus operandi in recent memory. When Fitch coached the Cleveland Cavaliers (1970-79), his custom was to dim the lights in the locker room and narrate a video tape of what he considered to be the crucial segments of the first half. Most of the players responded by falling asleep.

Shaquille O'Neal
To avoid reporters, Shaq and Kobe might seek refuge in the trainer's room.
Normally, this 15-minute period is where the coaching staff makes game adjustments. Let's switch ... or jump switch ... or go over ... or go under ... or overplay sideline ... or double the screen/roll. Let's tailgate the cutter on the single-double. Let's go to our third option on 3-Down. And so on.

The initial five minutes of the second half are crucial. Give credit to the coaching staff if one team grabs control of the game here.

Timeout ...

With a game up for grabs, timeouts become incredibly important. The assistant coach responsible for scouting the opponent has to make everybody aware of their "criticals," i.e., the plays the bad guys run when they absolutely need a good shot. The coach also has to know which of his players wants to take the clutch shot and which would rather not.

BUZZZT! And the final score is &!

Back in the locker room, the coach has 10 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 shootaround, we won't be ready to play. But we can turn this around if we work together!

Generally, a 20-point loss is easier to take than a gut-wrenching game lost because of an offensive rebound, a turnover, a silly foul, 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 made.

Shaquille O'Neal
Shaq might want a few cups of coffee before he takes the court.
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.

The head coach will then meet with the media out in the hallway or in a specially prepared room. 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 before even putting on his underwear. When a teammate asked why this was so, Dawkins said, "It's an old habit from my tom-catting days. 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 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 that 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. That's why drugs are such a temptation. And that's why few players can settle down and fall asleep until 3 or 4 a.m.

A good game (not necessarily a win) tastes like vintage champagne -- and a bad one (not necessarily a loss) 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.

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."