For Bailey Howell it meant brewing a cup of tea and then sipping—pinkie extended—until the cup was empty. For Kareem Abdul-Jabbar it meant sitting by his locker and reading a book, often in the buff. For Larry Bird it meant locking his eyes on the retired number 4 jersey of Boston Bruins hero Bobby Orr hanging from the Boston Garden rafters while the national anthem played.
It is the pregame ritual, which for some NBA players is merely a way to pass the time and burn off nervous energy but for others is something sacred.
Cavaliers forward Danny Ferry has confounded his teammates for years by bringing to the locker room a number of books and then retreating, fully clothed, to the shower room with one of them. According to a former teammate, Ferry mutters passages from the book to himself and sometimes writes various odd symbols on his wrists and on his shoes. He emerges from the shower room 15 minutes later, without explanation.
Rockets swingman Mario Elie, whose nickname is Junkyard Dog, wants to make sure he is juiced up before each game, so he has instructed equipment manager David Nordstrom to approach him and curse him out.
Knicks forward Charles Oakley has established a pregame ritual with filmmaker Spike Lee, who has front-row seats at Madison Square Garden. As Oakley runs onto the court for warmup drills, he throws a ball crosscourt to Lee, who, in turn, rolls the ball back. "It started as a joke," Oakley says. "Before every game, Spike would yell, 'Throw me the ball.' So one night, I did." Oakley says it doesn't disrupt his concentration if Lee is out of town working on a film and can't attend the game. "I'm not doing it because I'm superstitious," the Oak Man explains. "I'm doing it because it's fun."
Oakley's teammate Patrick Ewing requires that his shoes and socks be lined up in front of his locker in the same manner every night. The Knicks center ices both knees and insists on having the ice in a particular kind of resealable bag. As game time approaches, he sits in his locker and dribbles a ball, using the same cadence, over and over again. "Once, I thought it would be funny to knock the ball away," reports a teammate who wishes not to be identified. "Believe me, Patrick wasn't amused."
Magic guard Derek Harper has for several years followed an elaborate routine that begins several hours before a game, a regimen that he firmly believes has enabled him to continue playing at age 36. Harper's preparation includes a whirlpool, a body massage, a nap, a spin on a stationary bike, the application of heat packs, and stretching. He brings his own nutritional supplements, herbs and a special (and secret) mixture of fluids to the arena and puts it in his own water bottle, which he entrusts to a ball boy.
Harper's teammate guard Penny Hardaway insists on changing anything that becomes sweaty during warmups. Bulls forward Dennis Rodman retreats into his headphones and refuses to take the court in mid-song.
Kevin Johnson's pregame ritual goes back to real basics. The Suns guard makes sure he does two things: go to chapel and brush his teeth.