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Players on pro basketball teams come and go. Rookies arrive, veterans depart. Coaches, owners, franchises vanish and reappear. But the road trip endures. Every year, every NBA player spends half his time going from place to place, existing for days at a stretch in a kind of nowhere, no-time limbo until the schedule says go home again. At the end of last season, photographer Walter Iooss Jr. followed the Milwaukee Bucks on their final road trip; John Papanek joined them last month for another swing.
The trip begins at 5:30 on a bitter cold morning, scarcely six hours after the Bucks have won a closely contested game in the Milwaukee Arena. Around the city, players are grumbling obscenities at their alarm clocks. Elmore Smith's legs are sore. Bobby Dandridge's wife is telling him not to make so much noise. Quinn Buckner is cooking himself breakfast. Mickey Davis doesn't feel well, having had a beer too many. Brian Winters had trouble coming down after a 43-point game and never did get to sleep. In a way it is good that the trip is starting this way, because at no time in the next eight days can the Bucks possibly feel worse.
Now the players are grabbing suitcases, heading to the airport for a 7:15 plane; in just 14 hours they will be playing another game in another city 1,000 miles away. No one will care if they are tired. They are paid to play. They are NBA players, which means that in a six-month season they will log more air miles than some airline stewardesses, eat in more hotel coffee shops than a traveling salesman, watch more afternoon soap operas than a housewife.
They will also clown and laugh a lot, needling each other in a kind of traveling summer camp for grown-ups: the 12 of them are together as many as 18 hours a day for as many as 13 days at a stretch in seven different cities. What is it like to spend 80 days a year this way for a 24-year-old—the average age of the Bucks, less Dandridge (29) and Fred Carter (31)—with $25 a day in pocket money over and above his salary, which likely approaches six figures?
Mostly it's a drag. The travel is hard, the hassles many: hotel beds too small, shower heads too low, airplane seats too cramped, even in first class. (Next time you squeeze yourself into an airplane lavatory, try to imagine yourself as a seven-footer.) There are many lonely hours in strange cities, with the constant irritation of being recognized in public places not as individuals—the Bucks have no highly recognizable superstars like Walt Frazier or John Havlicek—but as freaks. Every player has to answer the question people feel they must ask six-foot-niners: "Hey! Are you a basketball player?"
"No. I'm a jockey," says a white player.
"I'm a hockey player," says a black.
Also, there is some airport fly always expecting someone like Bobby Dandridge to drop two bags to sign an autograph for a nephew in Peoria. Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, who played six years for the Bucks before being traded to Los Angeles in 1975, once encountered the all-time autograph hound. Kareem was walking through Chicago's O'Hare Airport with Eddie Doucette, the Bucks' broadcaster, and, as always, people dropped their jaws and stared at the 7'2" star. One man jabbed an elbow into his son's ribs, pointed at Abdul-Jabbar and began to follow him. Doucette and Kareem turned into a nearby men's room, and as they stood using the urinals, Abdul-Jabbar felt a tapping on his hip. He turned to find the boy holding out pen and paper, asking for his autograph.
A typical day on the road for the Bucks begins with an unhappy wake-up, a groggy bus ride to some airport, a rushed breakfast (avoid the pancakes in Houston, hit the "B Concourse" coffee shop at O'Hare if possible) and a plane ride of indeterminate length over who-knows-what landmarks. The regular passengers on the flight seem to feel privileged that a professional basketball team is aboard, and many crane their necks to see what the Bucks are doing up front. If they are lucky enough to be flying in one of the jumbo jets, the Bucks spread themselves around the first-class cabin this way: Dandridge is the games master, forever playing backgammon or organizing four-handed card games (whist, spades or pluck) around the coffee table usually found on the big jets, mostly with black players like Gary Brokaw, Junior Bridgeman, Alex English and Lloyd Walton. Elmore Smith, a seven-footer, is always in the front row of seats, alone, sleeping or reading a magazine. Davis and Winters are serious readers, Davis invariably pounding a Budweiser. Swen Nater is a photographer and is usually studying a camera magazine. Scott Lloyd listens to the plane's stereo through headphones. Quinn Buckner brings his own sounds, Stevie Wonder's music pouring from his portable cassette player. Other Bucks are wrapped in blankets like mummies or talking with stewardesses. One thing is certain: Don Nelson, the Bucks' coach, and K. C. Jones, his assistant, are the only ones thinking and talking basketball.
Sometimes, after the plane lands, the big game is trying to guess what city they have just arrived in. More than one Buck has thought he was in Houston when, in fact, he was in Atlanta. By the time the players board the bus, they have become rambunctious. Dandridge gets on Buckner, the rookie guard from Indiana who has never played on a losing team: "Q.B.! You're the franchise, baby! They foresee a long future for you! Many long seasons right in Milwaukee!" Buckner: "You're wild, Bobby. By the way, aren't the Bucks going to retire your jersey soon?"