NBA players cash in on daily allowance of $106 during trips
By Chris Tomasson, Rocky Mountain News
March 18, 2007
At first glance, Jamal Sampson's statistics are minimal, averaging 1.2 points and 1.6 rebounds.
But when it comes to saving money on the road, the Nuggets center might have the top numbers on the team.
"I'm the Subway king," said Sampson, prouder of that crown than some have been after being named player of the week. "I don't do room service. I'd rather walk."
Sampson, making $798,112 this season, makes hitting the pavement in an opposing city profitable. NBA players receive $106 per diem on the road for meals and incidentals.
When the Nuggets show up at the airport today to begin a five-game trip, each player will be handed an envelope by athletic trainer Jim Gillen containing $799 in crisp bills. That's for seven days and a prorated day for dinner at $57.
Players can use the money as they choose. They can order room service at a ritzy hotel, which could set them back more than $80 for a meal.
Or, like Sampson, who figures he pockets half his per diem, they can take to the streets.
Then again, it's not out of the question some players could see a large chunk of their per diem vanish before the plane lands tonight in New Jersey in preparation for the game Tuesday against the Nets.
"Man, we gamble away that money right away on the plane," said Nuggets guard DerMarr Johnson, referring to high-stakes card games. "We put it right into the gambling pot."
But Johnson, making $932,015, has his limits. He said he pulled back on a recent trip, not wanting to play for money with some of the higher-salaried players.
'It's a nice little benefit'
The average NBA salary is $5.5 million a year, and the good life doesn't stop there. The teams stay at hotels some marketers now say are six-star. The per diem is $21 more than baseball and hockey players receive.
"It's a nice little benefit," said Nuggets center Marcus Camby, whose salary this season, including bonuses, could exceed $10 million. "They take care of us. But in those fancy hotels, that per diem is probably enough for a breakfast."
Camby is exaggerating a bit. But Nuggets forward Reggie Evans recently dropped $85 for a room service afternoon steak at the swank Four Seasons Hotel San Francisco.
Portland Trail Blazers center Jamaal Magloire spent more than $80 last week for a room service steak at The Westin Tabor Center.
But it's hard to complain too much. In 1957, through much negotiating, Boston Celtics guard Bob Cousy, who helped organize the players' union, got the first per diem in the NBA.
It was $7.
In 1964, the union fought hard for improvements. One they got was an increase of per diem.
It went to $8.
Times have changed. Per diem last season reached the century mark for the first time, at $102. It went up this season, with rules in the collective-bargaining agreement stipulating cost-of-living adjustments.
"It feels like free money," Nuggets guard Steve Blake said.
Sometimes it is. Meals are served on team planes and spreads often are available in the locker room after games.
The man Nuggets players love to see at the start of a trip is Gillen.
Before each month, he determines how many nights the team will be on the road and sends figures to the accounting department.
On partial days, players are paid about $57 for dinner, $30 for lunch and $19 for breakfast.
Gillen gets the envelopes for each player before a trip. With 13 on the roster, that adds up to $10,387 for this voyage.
"They put their names on (the envelopes)," Gillen said of the accounting department. "I take it to the airplane, and they have to sign for it. I give them the envelope, and away they go."
Gillen keeps two.
Forwards Kenyon Martin and Carmelo Anthony request all their per diem at the end of the season. So Gillen locks up those envelopes until the two are ready.
A Nuggets player going on each preseason and regular-season trip would finish with 26 envelopes and the total take would be about $7,500, though taxes must be paid on about 40 percent of per diem.
Martin, out for the season after undergoing right knee surgery in November, and Anthony, suspended for 15 games earlier in the season, haven't gone on all trips.
"I give them to my nieces and nephews," Martin, making $11.8 million, said of what he does with his envelopes. "They got the price on them. I take it out and count it and give it away."
Camby's hired hand
Martin isn't the only high-salaried Nuggets player willing to part with his per diem. Camby gives envelopes on some trips to guard Yakhouba Diawara in exchange for certain chores performed by the team's only rookie.
Diawara, making the rookie minimum of $412,718, carries some bags and sometimes brings meals to Camby. It doesn't sound as if Diawara buys much for himself.
"There's nothing over a $10 meal for 'Kouba,' " Sampson said. " 'Kouba' will walk three miles. He'll walk around the whole city just to save some money."
Diawara scoffs at Sampson's claims. He said there are days he has only $10 remaining from per diem and spoke about having a $24 breakfast and $40 lunch on a recent trip.
Sampson, though, is proud to be regarded as the team's most frugal player.
"Subway. Quiznos, I'll go to whatever sandwich shop," he said.
Call Sampson the Subway king or the Quiznos king. It might depend on which is giving back the most change.
Big man, big meal
It can get pricey ordering room service at the finest hotels. What Nuggets power forward Reggie Evans had for an afternoon meal recently at the Four Seasons Hotel San Francisco:
• Baked potato
• Ice water*
• Vanilla ice cream
Cost: $85 (including tip). *Free
Per diem data
• NBA per diem: $106, after being $102 last season. It is addressed in the collective-bargaining agreement and increases slightly each season, based on cost of living.
• Introduction of per diem: 1957 ($7).
• Per diem for preseason: A Nuggets player going on all three trips received about $1,000.
• Per diem for regular season: A Nuggets player going on all 23 trips will receive about $6,500.
• Taxes: Must be paid on a certain amount, depending on laws in the city where the team travels. Nuggets athletic trainer Jim Gillen offered a sample city daily figure of $62, so players visiting that city would be taxed on $44 of the per diem (41.5 percent).
'It's kind of like allowance'
Per diem through a sampling of NBA players:
• Nuggets forward Carmelo Anthony felt like a kid when he joined the NBA in 2003 and was told the per diem amount. "It's kind of like allowance," he said. "One-hundred dollars a day. That's crazy."
• When guard Chucky Atkins played in the Continental Basketball Association in 1996-97, he received $25 per diem. "It was Burger King, Subway, IHOP, Waffle House, Denny's," Atkins said of his restaurants of choice. When Atkins, now with the Memphis Grizzlies, made the NBA in 1999-2000, he continued those eating habits but soon learned from veterans. "They told me you've got to fuel your body with some good food," said Atkins, saying the advice has helped, and he now uses the bulk of his $106 per diem.
• As the Nuggets' only rookie, guard Yakhouba Diawara has added duties. But don't think he's not compensated. "Sometimes I give it to 'Kouba,' " center Marcus Camby said of his per diem. "He doesn't have the big contracts like a lot of us. I take care of him. I've bought him suits, PlayStation and an iPod." For Camby's generosity, Diawara sometimes carries bags and gets food for Camby. But it doesn't sound like he's overworked. "I just help him out, nothing too much," Diawara said.
• Houston Rockets center Yao Ming is making $12.5 million this season. When he was out for 2 1/2 months earlier this season because of a broken right leg, he was asked by a Houston Chronicle reporter why he went on a certain trip. Yao quipped it was so he could get the "road trip per diem."
• Forward Eduardo Najera is perhaps the Nuggets' most energetic player. He makes sure he doesn't waste his energy on the road trying to save money on food. "In my first two years in the league, I'd go to places like (Denny's)," said Najera, who broke in with the Dallas Mavericks in 2000-01. "But I learned from the veterans it's better to get your rest rather than go walking around. It's an investment to stay off your feet and get (hotel) room service and pay the extra money so you can perform better."
• Money for food? Yes. But New Or- leans/Oklahoma City Hornets guard Devin Brown uses his per diem for a lot more. "DVDs, video games, batteries, headphones. Stuff like that," Brown said.
• A lot has changed in a year for Rockets rookie forward Steve Novak. He played last season for Mar- quette. "We got a $110 check every two weeks," he said. "That's about the same as we get in the NBA for one day."
• So do players dislike two games in two days? Not necessarily. "I love it when we have a back-to-back," Nuggets center Jamal Sampson said. "That means we get free breakfast." If the team's second game of a back-to-back is on the road, the Nuggets have a breakfast meeting at the hotel instead of a shootaround.