•Don't throw outlet passes. Actually, it's not a great idea to throw any passes, but shrewd big men particularly avoid making the outlet after grabbing a rebound. That's because guards dominate garbage time by pushing the ball upcourt and taking quick shots, which leaves the poor lug who started the break left out of the fun. If you see a big man pull down a rebound and slow down the action by ignoring the guard who's frantically calling for the ball around the half-court line, you'll know you are watching a knowledgeable garbage man.
•Assume the referees have swallowed their whistles. Not to attack their integrity, but refs understand that garbage time is only bearable when it's brief, which is why the successful garbage-time player never counts on the officials to stop the clock by calling a foul. If a referee does blow the whistle, he's suspected of having a secret agenda. When he coached the Pistons, Doug Collins had a theory that referees used garbage time to even up inequities in the box score. After a loss to the Heat, Collins claimed Detroit had been the beneficiary of several calls during garbage time just so the disparity in fouls wouldn't look so lopsided in the box score. It's more likely that the refs relax a little bit during garbage time, like everyone else, which is why their sense of humor becomes more evident. Two years ago, after a good garbage-time performance by little-used Dontae' Jones of the Boston Celtics, referee Joey Crawford said, "I didn't know Dontae' played. I thought he was a male model."
•Be prepared—in every way. Garbage time has been known to creep up on players. During the '85-86 season Billy Cunningham, coach of the Philadelphia 76ers, summoned rookie Voise Winters to check in, but Winters couldn't undo the snaps on his warmups and had to sit back down. That excuse might have come in handy for one of his teammates, Sedale Threatt. Garbage time was about to set in during a Philadelphia rout of the Golden State Warriors, and Threatt realized he was likely to see action. He would have been eager to get the call—if he had been wearing shorts under his warmup pants. "Cunningham had no idea about Sedale," says Leo Rautins, another Sixers garbage man of that era. "Just when it looked as if we were going to get in and Sedale's sweating bullets, the Warriors started coming back on us. They ended up beating us, and none of us garbage-time guys got in the game. You never saw a guy so happy he lost."
Most of the top garbage-time players don't apologize for their ball-hogging tendencies, because it's understood that every garbage-time performance is a chance to earn meaningful playing time down the road. "You always look forward to it, even as a veteran," says guard Mitchell Butler, who's out of the league after spending most of his six seasons buried at the end of the bench. "I'd take 30 seconds. That's enough time to get up one shot, maybe two. Hopefully you'd play well enough to raise the coach's eyebrows."
As an 18-year-old rookie the Los Angeles Lakers' Kobe Bryant was a garbage-time player extraordinaire. "I took it very, very seriously," Bryant says. "For me it was a chance to jack some shots up. I wanted to get in, try some moves out and see what worked."
Some players, however, think that scoring points after the game is decided doesn't score points with a coach. "He wants the game over with," says Washington Wizards forward Tracy Murray, who was used sparingly in his first three years in the league with Portland and Houston. "I'd come out and just jack it up. People used to laugh at me because I would try to get as many shots as I could." So, let's review: Optimistic players shoot to impress their coach, and fatalistic players shoot to protest the system. Bottom line—everybody shoots. No wonder a garbage-time assist occurs about as often as a Scottie Pippen-Charles Barkley carpool.
Regardless of whether he's winning big or being blown out, every coach faces the same issue at garbage time: When he puts the players at the end of the bench into the game, will they consider it an opportunity or an insult? The rule of thumb is that the older the player, the less likely he is to want the meaningless minutes. "Garbage time is rest time, especially for the 30-and-over club," says New Jersey Nets center Jayson Williams.
When Riley coached the Knicks, he often allowed veteran backup center Herb Williams to decide whether he wanted to play at the end of a rout. Such small courtesies are essential for a coach's maintaining a fruitful relationship with a player. One of the fastest ways to create friction on a team is to mismanage garbage time. Former Mavericks coach Jim Cleamons greased the skids for his subsequent firing by taking blowouts too seriously, irritating his players by signaling plays and calling timeouts to go over strategy with seconds left in games that had long since been decided.
Scott Hastings, a Denver sportscaster who played center for five teams from 1982-83 to '92-93, proudly proclaims himself "the NBA's alltime king of garbage time," and because it's such a dubious title, he has had no challengers to his throne. "I'm thinking about starting a Hall of Fame just for us," he says, referring to himself and his fellow garbage men. "I don't see why not. There are more people like the garbage guy in the NBA than there are like Michael Jordan."
A Hall of Fame seems fitting, since garbage time has a long, if not so distinguished history, and as long as there are bad teams and selfish players, its future is secure. Garbage time is forever. Or maybe it just takes forever.