It had been a brutal NBA road trip for the Seattle SuperSonics, five cities in eight days. On March 5, still feeling the effects of the travel, Marty White, Trevor Pope and Glen King arrived at Seattle's Key Arena later than usual for the first home game in nearly two weeks. They dropped off their black Chevy Silverado truck with the attendant in the team's parking lot, then entered the arena through a VIP door. Dressed in billowy sweaters and leather jackets, they strutted confidently into the locker room area, giving ushers and team employees a wink or a warm hello. At the lip of the tunnel leading to the court, a guard smiled at the threesome. "Good luck tonight, guys," he said.
Despite appearances to the contrary, White, Pope and King do not play for the Sonics. Pope and White are boyhood friends of Seattle's star point guard, Gary Payton. King is Payton's older cousin. The three men all live in Seattle, where they work for Payton, serving as his personal assistants, chauffeurs, de facto bodyguards and nearly constant companions—the Glove's gloves, so to speak. They accompany him to All-Star Games, summer workouts in Las Vegas, autograph signings, commercial shoots. They travel to all of Seattle's 41 road games; at home games they sit either in Payton's private luxury box or in the club seats opposite the Seattle bench. "Them's my boys," says Payton, his raspy voice full of affection. "The Sonics are my team, but in a way these guys are my team too. They go everywhere with me."
It's no exaggeration. A few years ago Sonics season-ticket holders Mark and Nikki Mahan paid $17,000 for Payton and teammate Vin Baker to come to their house and cook them dinner. The money went to Payton's charitable foundation. For that, the Mahans could have expected an intimate meal with two of their favorite players. When Payton showed up, Pope and White were in tow. Were the Mahans surprised by the extra company? "Not really," says Nikki. "Vin had arrived about five minutes earlier and brought a few of his guys too."
Call them what you will: posses, crews, peeps, boyz, bobos, personal assistants. "How about just saying, 'friends and family'?" suggests Detroit Pistons guard Jerry Stackhouse. From NBA stars to scrubs, veterans to rookies, scores of players find comfort in numbers. One need only look down the corridor outside the locker room—where dozens of friends and relatives congregate after a game and wait for players to emerge—to realize how de rigueur the entourage has become. "They're like contracts," adds Charles Oakley, the Chicago Bulls forward and the NBA's unofficial social critic. "Everyone's got one. Some are just bigger than others."
How big? When Stephon Marbury played for the New Jersey Nets, he once invited 64 of his closest relatives and acquaintances to descend on the green room reserved for friends and family at Continental Airlines Arena. (Shortly thereafter the team quietly told players they would be limited to four lounge passes apiece.) During the NBA's All-Star weekend, on Feb. 8-10 in Philadelphia, the 60 or so players invited to participate in various festivities booked more than 300 rooms for their guests—and that was at just one hotel. "Sometimes I could swear that the entourages have entourages," says one Eastern Conference coach. "That's how out of control it's gotten."
What these acolytes actually do runs the gamut. Some athletes, such as Shaquille O'Neal, have "car guys" who warm up their vehicles after games and shield them from the horror of climbing into an SUV in which music isn't already blaring. Baron Davis, the Charlotte Hornets' All-Star guard, even has a personal deejay at home—Erin ( Alcatraz) Blunt, best known for having played the role of Ahmad Abdul Rahim in The Bad News Bears. Some players retain "jewelry guys," who make sure that all their chains, earrings, medallions and bracelets are properly polished. Other crew members feed the athletes' addiction to competition, serving as training partners in the NBA's off-court triathlon of PlayStation, pool and Pop-a-Shot.
What some other posse members do, however, is a mystery. When Benoit Benjamin, that notorious flake, was signed by the Vancouver Grizzlies in 1995, he arrived for a media session in a white limousine filled with friends. One wore a jacket emblazoned with the logos of every team for which Benjamin had played. The man introduced himself to Steve Frost, Vancouver's p.r. director, as "the CEO" and handed Frost a business card that read simply: CEO. "CEO of what?" Frost asked.
"Benoit Benjamin Inc.," the man responded. That was the last Frost saw of him. Thirteen games later Benjamin was traded to the Milwaukee Bucks, and one can only assume that the CEO added another logo to his jacket.
Mysterious or not, what all posse members do is imbue the athletes with a sense of importance. "It's become a status symbol to have an entourage," says Alvin Poussaint, a professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School. "It illustrates how famous and wealthy you are: Look at me. People want to travel in my circle and bask in my glow."