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Thread: 03-31-2004

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    Member Ragnar's Avatar
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    Default 03-31-2004

    Arrival Time

    By Chris Palmer

    The off-white custom 737 idles a hundred yards from the auxiliary terminal at Denver International Airport. One by one, the Nuggets drip out of the building. Dressed in a gray team sweat suit, stoic head coach Jeff Bzdelik is first to board. Clutching a cup of hot chocolate in his right hand, he appears relaxed as he walks to the rear of the plane and back again before taking an aisle seat in the first row. On this Thursday in February, Bzdelik's team is the surprise of the Western Conference, owner of the sixth spot in the West playoff standings. He has every right to feel good.

    As Marcus Camby comes across the tarmac, he yawns the yawn of the been-there. He's halfway to the jet when backup point guard Earl Boykins emerges through the terminal's sliding metal doors, pulling a designer suitcase just about his size. Packing for a three-game, five-day road trip is second nature for the six-year vet. An assortment of sweat suits, one pair of jeans, some button-down shirts. Laptop, CDs, a DVD player, a deck of playing cards. Like the rest of his teammates, he clutches a manila envelope that contains $545 in cash, per diem money. Good for a meal, and a shopping spree or two.

    The plane is split into three groups, each its own first-class cabin. The coaches sit in the front. Team employees and radio staff claim the middle space. The players occupy the largest area, in the rear. The decor is generic, not a Nuggets logo anywhere, none embedded in the dark-brown carpet nor stitched onto the brown leather bucket seats. Platters of Buffalo wings, fruit and fajitas, on the other hand, are everywhere.

    The plane rocks to life once Steve Hess, the strength and conditioning coach, enters. The Australian-born amateur bodybuilder is in his seventh year with the franchise. He is a stocky whirlwind, part Russell Crowe, part Tasmanian Devil. He greets each person who boards with a hug and a resounding "Whaddup?" Fine-tuning the players' bodies is his job, but keeping them loose in their high-stakes work environment is a natural sideline, given his demeanor. "Having someone with a different personality than the coaching staff really helps us," says Boykins.

    This is the first time the team is hitting the road since the All-Star break. Officially, it's Road Trip No. 17, and it will take the Nuggets to Orlando, Miami and Memphis. A glance at the schedule clarifies its importance. When the Nuggets return to Denver, they face a grueling home stretch against the Lakers, Knicks, Nets, Pistons and Pacers wrapped around a game at San Antonio. Bzdelik knows the trip can make or break the season. The least it will do is show him what kind of team he really has.

    Nikoloz Tskitishvili, the talented if seldom-used seven-footer from the Republic of Georgia, captures every moment with his mini-DVD recorder. Even after a year in the league, he still gets excited about traveling. While this is a business trip, most of the players are in vacation mode. Spirits are high. The laughter is easy, the banter rapid-fire. After takeoff, flight attendants offer cheesesteaks, chicken teriyaki, ice cream sandwiches and three-inch-high slices of chocolate cake. The players settle into their seats. Boykins pulls out a deck of cards and starts dealing to Andre Miller, Rodney White and Carmelo Anthony. Chris Andersen jumps on his laptop. At 10,000 feet, Voshon Lenard is already asleep.

    In the forward cabin, Bzdelik dissects the team's last effort against the Magic on a 21-inch, wall-mounted flat-screen. The sight of Tracy McGrady jacking 51 remains ugly three months later. Laughter erupts in the rear of the plane when one of the players refers to starting center Nene as SheNene.

    Led by Anthony, the dynamic 19-year-old rookie, Denver has jelled quickly, considering there are six new faces on the roster and three more on the coaching staff. These Nuggets have forged a rep as an up-tempo, scrappy bunch with just the right mix of youthful bravado and veteran smoothness. Whoever they draw in the first round had better be ready. But first they've got to get to the first round. The road trip looms in their path. "We'd like to go 30," says Boykins, thinking only about the present. "But we'll settle for 2-1."

    Every NBA team flies into auxiliary locations that cater to private jets. It is a world away from the hassle of everyday travel. Upon touchdown in Orlando, just before 7 p.m., two buses are already waiting on the tarmac. The players and coaches head to one. The radio crew, the public relations staff and the rest of the support personnel fill the other. A U-Haul carrying the team's luggage completes the caravan to the hotel. At the Westin Grand Bohemian, five minutes from the TD Waterhouse Centre in downtown Orlando, Hess convenes a bucket brigade of team trainers and hotel staffers to unload the luggage. "Let's go, boys," he encourages. "Keep it straight tonight."

    Inside, the players gather around an oak table manned by a too-polite concierge. They pick up envelopes that hold room keys and a list of each player's extension. Lenard checks in under the name Kurtis Blow. He's the only player who deems it necessary to go incognito.

    Then the players scatter. Some won't see each other again until practice. "When we come to a city, most of us have friends we get to see only once a year," says Miller. But before going their separate ways, they trade CDs, confirm dinner plans and examine tomorrow's itinerary. The players take comfort in knowing the coaches are bunking three floors away. White pops over to Anthony's room, and they head out to dinner. Nene and Francisco Elson, who is from the Netherlands, also set out in search of food. Boykins turns in early to watch the Kings and Timberwolves on TV.

    Bzdelik goes back to work, popping in more video of the Magic. The coach shares a suite with his 15-year-old son, Brett, an occasional weekend road-tripper. A perceptive high school freshman who's way more into golf than basketball, Brett looks like he'd be right at home behind the counter at McDonald's. "You can't believe how intense my dad is about basketball," he says, shaking his head with a hint of exasperation. "I mean, he's like that all the time."

    Just until 2 a.m., when he turns out the lights.

    FRIDAY
    Minutes before tip-off, in the tunnel of the TD Waterhouse Centre, the players huddle loosely. Anthony bobs his head, all nervous energy, as Nene engulfs the group in his enormous wingspan. "Ride or die! We either ride or we die," someone chants DMX style from within the pack.

    On the strength of Anthony's hot hand and Camby's command of the glass, Denver races out to a 32-22 first-quarter lead. Just before the halftime buzzer, T-Mac swoops in for a dunk. Andersen, a gangly leaper, closes in from behind to swat the shot away. When there is no call, McGrady twice boots the ball into the stands and is ejected. It's the same ball he used to score his 10,000th career point minutes earlier.

    No McGrady? This one's a done deal. The Nuggets begin the third quarter up by three and riding a swell of confidence. But McGrady's ejection has energized his teammates. The Magic are quicker to every loose ball. In the second half, they pound Denver 35-21 on the boards. Despite scoring 35 points, Anthony fails to bail out his team when Drew Gooden blocks his jumper with 35 seconds to go. Orlando wins, 102-98.

    "I can't tell you how disappointing this is," says a glossy-eyed Bzdelik, just above a whisper. He doesn't have to. His face gives it away.

    Thirty minutes later, the bus to the airport is a morgue. Players cocoon themselves in quiet cell phone conversations. The darkness in the back of the bus is broken only by the intermittent blue-greens, fuchsias and ambers of their phones. Camby calls his mom. "Nope, we lost," he says. Then a long silence. Little-used forward Mark Pope verbally tucks in his 4-year-old daughter, Ella, back home in Broomfield, Colo. She asks if T-Mac is crazy. "Maybe he is," he replies. "Maybe he is." On the 15-minute ride, no teammates actually speak to one another.

    Shortly after arriving at the plane, the bus is empty except for Bzdelik. He sits motionless in the far right seat of the first row, staring at an already tattered box score. On the bottom of the page, he's scrawled and underlined the words, We should have won this game.

    The short flight to Miami touches down after midnight. At just before 1 a.m., the buses pull up at the Four Seasons Hotel. A mob of about 50 fans runs alongside, clutching jerseys, hats, anything that can be signed. Thirtysomething men with pot bellies barely concealed by No.15 Syracuse jerseys trot among the teenagers. Everyone yells the same plea, "Melo! Melo!" Members of hotel security inform the fans that the players will be available to sign autographs on the other side of the building after they've picked up their luggage. It's a ruse that allows the players to make it to their rooms without having to face a single Sharpie.

    It's not unusual for an entire crowd of autograph seekers to want only Anthony. Fans bottleneck courtside during pregame shootarounds clamoring for his attention and begging for his headbands. He gets more interview requests than the rest of the team combined. "All that stuff is great," Anthony says. "But to me, this is a job, and the attention is not something to get caught up in." His reluctance to hoard the limelight goes a long way toward diffusing potential jealousies. He has no posse. He doesn't even have a bodyguard. "Carmelo doesn't act like a star," Boykins says. "He'd rather just fit in."

    While Boykins and Anthony wait patiently in the lobby, Hess and several hotel staffers fall into line to unload the bags, while the rest of the players disappear onto the elevators. After a few minutes, Camby returns to the lobby to fish out an enormous black suitcase. Rolling it toward the elevator, he pops on his headphones, turns up the Jay-Z tune on his iPod and lets out another slow yawn. "No South Beach tonight," he says. "We need a win tomorrow."

    SATURDAY
    Players and coaches assemble in the cavernous Miami Ballroom for what will be the only team breakfast of the trip. It's a buffet: waffles, scrambled eggs, hash browns, toast. The assistant coaches and trainers are the first in. As the players arrive, Hess greets each as if he hasn't seen them in months, "What's up, brother?" he exclaims. "You ready to work?"

    At one table, Pope reads the national section of The Miami Herald. "I'm a Bush fan, but I'm a little concerned with his policy on the environment," he says to his new teammate, Michael Doleac, who was scooped off waivers just 18 hours earlier. Doleac, an aspiring orthopedic surgeon, just nods. He loves politics and a good debate, but he's not yet ensconced enough to engage. Sitting in the next chair, Lenard quizzes Miller about his whereabouts over the previous eight hours. The defendant isn't talking. Conversation quickly turns to which Nugget looks the most rested after partying all night.

    Everyone agrees Andersen usually looks like he was dragged under a bus. "Coaches can tell," says Miller. "They don't say anything, but they know." Miller, meanwhile, looks like he just stepped out of makeup. Before the focus can shift back to Miller, the crack of assistant John MacLeod's voice snaps everyone to attention. He tells the players to organize their chairs in two rows on the empty side of the ballroom. Bzdelik begins a lecture on the importance of winning the battle on the boards.

    When the lesson is over, Camby and Hess stroll to the pool on the second floor. Hess puts the eight-year vet through a series of underwater stretching exercises to loosen his sore hamstrings. As Camby wades back and forth in four feet of water, children gawk and scramble to find something signable. At the opposite end of the pool, Nuggets GM Kiki Vandeweghe goes unnoticed until Hess calls him out. "Nice shorts," he says, of the boss' way-too-small trunks.

    A few hours later, players begin to file through the lobby and onto the early bus to the arena. Each player holds a single white sheet of paper, the play sheet for tonight's game. Andersen is the only one who studies it. The back of the sheet has the five words of the Bzdelik gospel: Run, Share, Defend, Team, Win.

    On this night, the Nuggets do none of those things. Drained from the previous game, they lack focus and fail to execute. They get an all-time franchise-low seven assists and lose badly, 97-81. "We didn't play together," says Bzdelik. "It's that simple."

    In the locker room, Camby, whose hamstrings slowed him more than he thought they would, sits in a metal folding chair, picking at some Buffalo wings in a styrofoam container. He says what everyone is thinking: "We gotta take care of this situation now."

    SUNDAY
    The team's only day off on the trip is spoiled by a cold Memphis rain. Beale Street, the city's downtown hot spot, is deserted. Most players stay in their rooms. Doleac practices chords on his guitar. He's been taking lessons for a year. "I haven't learned to play without a pick yet," he says. On his nightstand is a copy of In Retrospect: The Tragedy and Lessons of Vietnam, by former defense secretary Robert McNamara. His session is interrupted by Miller, calling to make dinner plans. They have been good friends since they were college roommates at Utah. "When I first met Mike, I couldn't believe how ugly his feet were," Miller jokes. "I was like, what's wrong with this guy?" The two still work out together in the summer. Doleac says their friendship will make his transition to the Nuggets easy. "There are so many things to get acclimated to when you go to a new team," he says. "But knowing Andre, I'm not really concerned about fitting in."

    Two floors below, Camby orders room service for the second time today. He has yet to step outside his room. The 26-year-old woman who delivers his food doesn't mind that Camby answers the door with no shirt on. "He's in really good shape," she purrs. A little after 9, Andersen bounces out of an elevator in the lobby and hangs a hard left into the hotel bar. Before he even sets down his size 15 Air Force Ones, he sees Bzdelik, alone, nursing a half-empty glass of white wine at the bar. Andersen does an immediate about-face and slinks out the front door. He'll wait for his buddy, Tskitishvili, in the lobby. Unlike coaches, players try not to think much about basketball in their free time. And a conversation with Bzdelik would surely be a conversation about basketball.

    Eventually, Vandeweghe joins Bzdelik. The two mull the upcoming draft and talk about motivating players. After about an hour, Vandeweghe heads off to meet a friend for dinner. A worn-out Bzdelik heads up to his room.

    MONDAY
    When the team returns from its early-afternoon shootaround, most of the players quickly retreat again to their rooms. They have five hours of downtime. The inseparable Andersen and Tskitishvili head out to grab some lunch at Texas de Brazil. It's the kind of all-you-can-eat place where they grill the meat in front of you. On the table are red and green cards. Holding up the red one signals the staff to stop the onslaught. They flash the green card for over an hour. After lunch, they browse the hip-hop section at a local record store, then make a quick stop at a novelty shop where Skeets (no one can pronounce Tskitishvili) finds a T-shirt for Andersen. Below the picture of a tractor are the words "Hi-Tech Redneck." Instead, Andersen opts for a blue-and-white trucker hat that says "Hazzard County Towing."

    Like the bus ride to the arena, the pregame locker room is dead quiet, in desperate need of a tension-breaker. A flower delivery comes for Miller with a note that reads, "Thanks for what you did for me in New York." That does the job quite nicely.

    The game against the Grizzlies is physical, fast-paced, well played. Memphis takes a 57-49 halftime lead. But the Nuggets respond, pulling within one as they head into the fourth. Denver shows the purpose you'd expect from a team trying to fend off something much more dire than its second three-game losing streak of the season. Late in the final quarter, the Nuggets play without fear. Four guys crash the boards on every shot, like waves breaking on rocks. With the Nuggets down 107-106 with six seconds to go, Shane Battier blocks an offensive putback by Anthony, ending a frantic final sequence. The Grizzlies win.

    "That was a playoff game, that's what that was," says Anthony, who grabbed 11 offensive boards. "But we're 0-3, and I'm ready to go home." But going home doesn't change a thing. The Nuggets drop five of their next six games, losing their grip on their sixth-place playoff spot and opening the door for Utah and Portland.

    In the locker room, Brett Bzdelik scurries about with his head down, helping the trainer prep the bags before they're loaded onto the U-Haul. "How will your dad be tonight?" he's asked. "Terrible," he says, without looking up.

    Hess' voice can be heard in the hallway, pumping life back into his deflated basketball team. "All right, all right, next one's ours," he says to no one and to everyone. "This is what happens when you're fighting for the playoffs."

    Jeff Bzdelik sits in a lifeless, barren coach's cubicle, a metal filing cabinet his only company. He props one leg on a desk smothered with circular mug stains and stares with a look equal parts frustration and exhaustion.

    "I'm very proud of my guys; they didn't let me down for a minute," he says, forcing out the words. "This is one hell of a basketball team."

  2. #2
    Pacer Junky Will Galen's Avatar
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    Default Re: 03-31-2004

    Interesting post, I read every word. I wish someone would do one on the Pacers. Of course then I'd probably have to read it over and over.

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