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"I always think about how tired I am," says Milwaukee Bucks coach Del Harris. "This league is difficult on coaches. Then I think, I didn't have to play a game. How tired would I be if I also had to play a game?"
"When you first come into the league, you sort of stumble around for a while," says Herb Williams, an Indiana Pacer forward. "You're used to playing something like 30, 35 games in a college year. Here, with exhibition games and playoff's and the season, you're usually over 100. And no one's around to help you, to tell you what to do. They expect you to be an adult, to be places when you're supposed to be there. And if you're not...that's the worst feeling in the world, standing in that lobby, everybody gone. You have to get yourself to the airport. You know you're going to be fined. You know you're just going to hear a lot of stuff from everyone on the team."
The final trip of the day is the worst one. You eat—about three o'clock—and go to the arena. You would think this would be the one comfortable part of traveling. Your game. Your environment. No. Here, monotony is replaced by passion. The passion is hate—directed against you.
From the first time you appear on the floor for warmups, every move you make is booed or ignored. Unless you make a mistake. That's cheered. The rewards of the game somehow have been turned upside down. You are a villain in the production, a role you never wanted to play. You have no choice. Villain. The teams that fumbled and stumbled when they played in your city now seem bigger, faster, stronger. They are surrounded by halos of applause. Heroes.
"We think that the crowd factor is significant enough that we play at a slower pace on the road than we do at home," Harris says. "We try to stay away from those turnovers that lead to dunks and get the crowd going. We play more half-court basketball. We're more conservative. On the other hand, when we're home, we want the crowd going crazy. We won 21 of our last 29 games at home last year. We won only 12 all year on the road. Total."
Bango, the Bucks' dancing mascot, waits for you in Milwaukee. The Gorilla awaits in Phoenix. Jack Nicholson yaps at you in L.A. Leon the Barber, a noted wit in Detroit, sits directly behind the visitors' bench and talks to you about your insecurities or strangely shaped ears. Every arena has its own sequence of rock music and cheers to arouse the local fans. Chicago Stadium shakes when Michael Jordan flies to the basket. In Boston, Larry Bird receives a standing ovation for just being Larry Bird.
"There are little things that get you," Doc Rivers says. "An example: In every other arena in the league, when you take a foul shot, you can put your foot on a nail in the middle of the foul line. The nail is directly in line with the basket, exactly in the middle of the foul line. In Boston Garden, there's no nail. You put your foot down, and you can't find the nail. That doesn't sound like much, but maybe you're taking that foul shot to win the game and it throws your concentration off just enough. You're wondering about the nail instead of thinking about the shot."
The Spectrum in Philadelphia is the coldest building in the league. The lighting is weird in San Antonio. The Kingdome, any dome, makes it seem as if the game is being played on an airport runway. The excitement in Madison Square Garden seems to hover around the point spread as much as the outcome of the game. The nail and the cold showers and all the rest at Boston Garden. The Laker Girls smiling from the baseline.
You're not at home. You always know that.
"It's a combination of everything on the road," Harris says. "I wish you could put it in a little two-sentence paragraph, then work on solving it, but you can't. The travel is part of it, going across those time zones. The familiarity of the arena, of the life at home, they're both part of it. The crowd. The adrenaline. The officiating. The way this league is going, with all of the teams so close in ability, if you give any team an edge, the edge will determine the game. The edge could be any of these things. All of them."