Is it the big-screen satellite TV, the five-star catered food or the two special lounge areas on board? Is it the roomy, high-backed chairs, the color televisions sprouting from every armrest or simply the ungodly price tag? Whatever the reason, super-secretive Trail Blazers owner Paul Allen doesn't want outsiders to see the interior of the best airplane in the NBA. That's why Portland people are mum about Allen's customized 35-seat Boeing 757, estimated in one account to have cost as much as $98 million. With all the cloak-and-dagger silence, you'd think the craft was carrying more than just a third-place basketball team.
But word travels faster than the plane's 610-mph cruising speed. NBA teams keep track of one another's aircraft as though they were part of a post-Cold War arms race. "It's definitely Portland first, then Miami and Orlando," says one Heat frequent flier when asked to rate the top airplanes in the league. "But we may have it best because it's just the basketball team. No media." Miami's 727 features custom-fitted seats, meals served on china and a video entertainment center with a wireless sound system. ("You can take a dump without missing the dialogue," says one player.)
Magic Carpet Aviation, Orlando's flight operation, includes a 24,000-square-foot hangar where players can park their cars, as well as a 42-seat Boeing 737 (with leather upholstery, wood interior, VCRs and two beds) that was owned by the late heiress Doris Duke. Unlike the Magic, most teams choose to lease their planes through the NBA. Thus the Bulls presumably struck little fear in the hearts of Jazz fans during last season's NBA Finals when they landed in Utah aboard a DC-9 bearing the logo of the lowly Mavericks. (The Bulls' usual charter was on the fritz.) Chicago isn't alone. The Knicks, the Spurs and the Dream Team have leased from the Mavericks in recent years.
What takes place on these high-flying travels? Every NBA team has a group that plays the card game Tonk, a variation on gin rummy, in which large amounts of cash can change hands quickly. (One Chicago player says Michael Jordan used to make a blood sport of winning money from Bulls forward Jack Haley.) Otherwise, as much as teams profess to use their planes' VCRs to watch game tapes, usually the screens are filled with the beeps and buzzes of video games. The Mavericks often have a game of Sega baseball going in one area of their plane and Sony PlayStation football in another. Magic players stick to their own sport. "Penny [Hardaway] likes to control himself," says a regular on the team plane, "and score 100 points a game."