SUNDAY, GAME 1, Milwaukee
It's less than four hours before one of the biggest games of forward Jamal Mashburn's NBA career. His team, the sixth-seeded Charlotte Hornets, will play the second-seeded Milwaukee Bucks in Game 1 of their Eastern Conference semifinal series. Yet like most of his fellow Hornets, Mashburn is consumed by one thought as he shovels slices of toast and sausage links onto his plate during the team's 8 a.m. breakfast at the Wyndham Hotel. "Man, I could use more sleep," he groans.
By NBA standards this early wake-up call is cruel and unusual punishment. But because of NBC's tripleheader playoff schedule, the two small-market teams must tip off at 11:30 local time. "Last time I played this early was AAU," says Mashburn, 28, Charlotte's best player. "I need to fool my body into thinking it's night." Eating a piece of ham, coach Paul Silas, who's more a father figure and teacher than a boss to his players, commences an economics lesson, explaining that television coverage builds up league revenues, which boost salaries. Then he stops, waving his hands in disgust. "Aw, it's too early," Silas says. "This is bulls—-."
In two shifts—the first for rookies and reserves, the second for veterans—a bus transports the players from the hotel to the Bradley Center. The arena is notorious for having the league's most cramped visitors' quarters. The Hornets, however, are pleasantly surprised to find that instead of the usual broom closet they can use the large locker room usually occupied by the Milwaukee Admirals, a minor league hockey team. One problem: "Yuck," says forward Scott Burrell as he drops his bag in front of his stall. "It still smells like hockey in here."
As the players file in, they make arrangements for their allotment of comp tickets—as much a pregame ritual as stretching and shooting—and put on their headbands, a symbol of solidarity that they adopted for the postseason. While the rest of the team warms up on the floor, getting accustomed to the arena's bright lighting and loose rims, Mashburn remains in the locker room and goes through a series of byzantine stretching and meditational exercises with his personal trainer, Ed Downs. Mashburn was a member of the Heat three years ago when he started working with Downs, a black belt in jujitsu who taught martial arts to coach Pat Riley's kids. At the time Mashburn couldn't touch his toes; now he can do splits. When Mashburn was traded to Charlotte last summer, he retained Downs, figuring that if the added flexibility and mental toughness tacked an extra year onto his career, the investment would be worthwhile. Still, there's another, perhaps unintended consequence of Downs's ubiquitous presence: It elevates Mashburn's status on the team. He has his own "guy," while his colleagues share the services of the strength and conditioning coach provided by the Hornets.
As Silas feared, the nine-day layoff after the first round leaves his minions more than a little rusty. Charlotte trails the Bucks by as many as 22 points, but Silas's harshest rebuke is a simple "Come on, Teal! We're better than this!" He learned to be terse on the bench while serving as an assistant under Riley with the New York Knicks in 1991-92. "Pat would go on for 45 minutes before every game, and the guys would just roll their eyes," Silas says. "I believe that if you're a man of few words, when you have something worthwhile to say, guys will listen."
The Hornets close to within four in the fourth quarter but fall 104-92. Still, there is little despondency in their locker room afterward. Reserve forward Lee Nailon blasts the Tupac CD Until the End of Time; players sing and yell in the shower, then make plans for the evening. In the corridor outside the locker room both teams congregate, like opposing lawyers on a lunch break. Charlotte forward Derrick Coleman and Bucks sixth man Tim Thomas, former teammates in Philadelphia, embrace and walk 40 feet with their arms around each other. Hornets reserve guard Hersey Hawkins and Milwaukee center Ervin Johnson, former teammates in Seattle, discuss their kids and arrange to have dinner. Bucks point guard Sam Cassell holds court with several Hornets beneath a television monitor airing the Lakers-Kings game. When Shaquille O'Neal throws down a particularly fierce dunk, Cassell asks, "Who can stop that motherf——-?" Laughter and words of agreement echo through the hall.
The 57-year-old Silas doesn't approve of this camaraderie, like much about contemporary NBA culture, but realizes he is powerless to change it. "We wanted to rip the other guys' hearts out," he says of the players of his era, which ran from 1964 to '80. "We would never get friendly like that after a playoff game."
Coleman has a different take. "It's just basketball, man," he says. "Besides, we could be on the same team next year."
MONDAY, OFF DAY, Milwaukee