Chicken Littles around the league cite posses as yet another example of the inexorable decline of professional basketball. Entourage members are gangsters, thugs, huns, injecting an excess of "street" into the image-conscious league. They are hangers-on trying to ride the (untucked) shirttails of unsuspecting players. In pre-draft interviews some NBA teams ask prospects if they maintain entourages. Publicly, the league has expressed support for entourages. "As a rule the posse thing has been a plus for us," commissioner David Stern said last year. But choosing your friends judiciously is a topic covered at the league's mandatory rookie orientation seminar. While working as a career consultant for the Nets in 1999, Dana London saw firsthand how the NBA tried to scuttle the players' relationships with these associates. "The entourages pose a problem for people interested in maintaining control," she says.
Some of the hand-wringing is justified. The various crimes and misdemeanors committed by cohorts of the Philadelphia 76ers' Allen Iverson have been well documented. In his first two seasons in the NBA, Indiana Pacers guard Ron Artest nearly went bankrupt lavishing cash, gifts and even cars on more than 30 family members and friends. "Probably wasted a couple of million or so," Artest says. "It seemed like the right thing to do. I wanted to take care of my friends." Other players have deployed their buddies on less-than-wholesome missions. A former Dallas Mavericks forward spent considerable time on the injured list and attended games in street clothes. At one point he purchased a two-way radio to keep in his sleeve as he sat on the bench, then dispatched members of his crew to comb the arena for attractive women. When they located potential consorts, they contacted the player on the bench, told them their whereabouts and waited for his sign of approval.
Those, however, are the exceptions. Behind their shroud of mystique, entourages are actually as innocuous as tattoos and baggy shorts. The dirty little secret is that posses often do NBA players far more good than harm.
Let's be Clear: The entourage is not the sole preserve of sports, let alone the NBA. Roadies and toadies are fixtures in the music world—at the height of his popularity, in the early '90s, rapper M.C. Hammer had more than 100 dancers, bodyguards and friends on tour with him—and Hollywood stars are notorious for flying their associates to location shoots. For years athletes, boxers in particular, have had coteries to swaddle them in adoration, run errands, procure women and provide a sense of home no matter where they are. Muhammad Ali's followers were so ubiquitous that some, such as Ferdie Pacheco and Drew (Bundini) Brown, became quasicelebrities in their own right.
Sugar Ray Robinson may have had the first big-time entourage in sports. In the '50s he toured Europe in a flamingo-pink Cadillac, joined by a motley crew that included, by turns, his manager, barber, voice teacher, drama coach, golf pro, shoeshine boy and a French midget who served as a translator. (Perhaps not coincidentally, Robinson died virtually penniless.) Yet today's NBA is particularly fertile ground for posses for a variety of reasons.
?Youth As NBA players get ever younger, increasingly forgoing college, they are more in need of support groups. Four years of college are an ideal transition from the near-total dependence of life at home to the near-total independence of life in the NBA It is a rare 18-year-old who can successfully move to a new city and take up a demanding and highly public full-time job. Days after graduating from high school in Houston, forward Rashard Lewis was drafted by the Son-ics. Soon he was more than 1,000 miles from home, in a new climate, adjusting to the unfamiliar role of bench warmer. When his homesickness became chronic, Lewis summoned his best friend, Travis Eskridge, to live with him. "Suddenly I had someone who knew me, used the same slang and knew the same people," says Lewis, who is now in his fourth year. "When Travis came, it was like getting a little bit of home."
After the Minnesota Timberwolves drafted Kevin Garnett out of high school, in 1995, management was deeply concerned about his adjustment. "Lots of other guys on the team had families and kids," recalls coach Flip Saunders. "Are they going to want to hang out with an 18-year-old, and vice versa?" To the Timberwolves' surprise, Garnett showed up with his own sizable peer group, a mix of siblings, a girlfriend and friends from his old neighborhood in Mauldin, S.C. Like a postmodern Brady Bunch, they were one clan living all together in Garnett's manse. They even had a name: OBF, short for Official Block Family. Seven years later Garnett credits this support network with contributing to his success as a player.
?Culture Shock More than in any other professional team sport, NBA players come from urban, often destitute families. It is a shock to go from indigence to vast wealth literally overnight; the presence of old friends is one way to reduce the dissonance. "You're in your early 20s and you're a millionaire, but you're still not respected as such by society—no one is asking you to join the country club," says London. "An entourage is a way for these guys to validate themselves."
This is compounded by the hip-hop ethos of many players, which says that there is no faster way to lose your street cred than failing to "keep it real." The social circle of the Hornets' Davis, for example, still comprises cousins, friends and former AAU teammates from his old neighborhood in South Central Los Angeles. While Davis lives alone in Charlotte, he frequently flies his friends out to watch him play on the road, and he returns to his childhood home in South Central in the off-season. Davis is adamant that, although he has switched tax brackets, he hasn't changed his social class. "You're not going to abandon your homeboys because you've made it," he says. "Let me get this straight: I'm in the NBA and making money, so I'm supposed to start kicking it at Yale and Harvard with Poindexter and Pender-puss? Nuh-uh. That's not me."