PORTLAND/TURBULENT NORTHWEST SKIES/ SALT LAKE CITY – Every road trip offers a story and this five-game journey through the Western Conference has definitely provided good material on the Indiana Pacers. There have been rough landings on snowy afternoons and stalled buses somewhere in Texas and the worst of it isn't over – the Pacers still have to face the San Antonio Spurs and Oklahoma City for back-to-back weekend games.
We'll get to the Pacers' travel nightmares in a bit but let's focus on one of the greatest joys of road trips, and that's catching up with family, old friends and acquaintances. Often times, after games, impromptu reunions happen in the arena hallways.
Sometimes they don't pan out…
After the Pacers defeated Utah on Wednesday night, Jazz guard John Lucas Jr. thumbed through his phone while standing outside the visitor's locker room. He waited for roughly half a minute for his friend and former Chicago Bulls teammate C.J. Watson but when a ball boy came out to announce that Watson was still in the shower, Lucas bounced. "Tell him I said call me," Lucas told the ball boy. He was still holding his phone, so I guess simply texting Watson that very message did not cross Lucas' mind.
Other times, players sneak in some family visits…
There are several Pacers with California ties. So when the team kicked off the trip against the Los Angeles Clippers, the Sunday post game looked like a family reunion. Danny Granger Sr. rode to Staples on his Harley to visit his son. Solomon Hill punted all the ticket requests to his father to handle. Orlando Johnson finished dressing and said his brother and niece were waiting for him to stop by and say 'hello.' And all the Georges also all gathered outside the locker room to see their Paul.
Then there are the homecomings that work out better than expected…
I covered the Portland Trail Blazers last year, so it was nice to get a few hugs from the friendly arena security workers and red-vested ushers. However, Pacers coach Frank Vogel clearly did not understand how mind-blowingly popular I was in Portland.
"How many people you've got coming tonight, Candace?" Vogel asked during pre game media availability.
"Ticket requests?" I responded and after a dramatic pause: "Zero."
"Zero!? So all your friends are coming?" Vogel teased, inciting laughter from the gathered reporters.
Touché, Vogel. Touché.
The true Homecoming King was none other than Indiana assistant coach Nate McMillan. After the Moda Center had emptied out except for the arena workers and the lucky ones with guest passes, McMillan walked back out through the tunnel. He had a whole crew – "boosters from Seattle," he called them – smiling and anticipating a visit from their former coach. The devoted fans traveled to Portland just to see McMillan back in the Northwest.
Throughout that entire day, McMillan felt the love. When he walked out of his downtown hotel, McMillan heard fans shout 'thank you!' for his more than six seasons there as head coach. And when he sat on the visitor's bench for the first time since being dismissed as Blazers' head coach nearly two years ago, McMillan heard nothing – and that's a good thing. No boos, no razzing.
But McMillan wore the poker face as his image flashed across the scoreboard, without warning, and the 19,000-plus fans inside the Moda Center warmly welcomed him back. It was before the start of the third quarter, and the camera focused on McMillan for an extended time. The longer the shot remained, the louder the applause and cheers grew. But McMillan was in full coach mode and never noticed that the rousing ovation was for him.
"I didn't know it until I looked at Lance (Stephenson)," McMillan said. "I hear the crowd but I'm looking at Lance and Lance points up at the scoreboard and I look up and right when I look up, they were taking me off."
I talked with McMillan long after the game, and then, finally, the appreciation was showing all over his face.
"You always wonder what it's going to be like, how people are going to receive you. When things happened here, I think everybody understood that it was time for change, including me. It wasn't any bitter feelings toward the organization and I don't think they really felt that way towards me (either)," McMillan said. "(But) you just don't know. You're kind of sweating all day… When you first walk out, you're like, 'what's going to happen?' Especially behind the visitor's bench – what they do say to opposing coaches and players? I didn't hear anything. Everything was good. When I walked into halftime, I heard a few people: 'Thank you, Nate!' and 'Coach Mac!' It's still Coach Mac."
Though there has been much turnover in the organization since McMillan coached in Portland, he spoke about how all the old faces stopped by to see him. Even a new face made a visit.
Near the end of our conversation, Portland's second-year point guard Damian Lillard walked up to greet McMillan.
"Hey," McMillan said, grabbing Lillard's hand. "Keep doing what you're doing. You've done some special things here."
Lillard: "'Preciate it!"
McMillan: "All the best. (Then, the two bro hugged)
"Stay healthy," McMillan said, finishing up.
Though NBA teams fly in luxury, surely nobody would trade places with the Pacers' trip from hades last night.
Several members of the Pacers organization took to Twitter to post updates on the long, strange trip to the Texas. First, fog in San Antonio forced the team plane to take a detour and land in Houston. Then when the Pacers boarded a charter bus to complete the more than 3 ½ hour road trip to San Antonio, the bus had issues. Notwithstanding, Roy Hibbert posted a video on Instagram of Watson trapped in the restroom.
The always-entertaining Yahoo Ball Don't Lie gathered all the highlights here. So you know about the grounded plane and What A Burger pitstop, but you might not have known that the team had a previous scare during their arrival to snowy Salt Lake City.
The best thing about this story – ask any of the Pacers and they'd tell you how the other guy was frightened during the rough landing. Several players offered their different versions after the win over the Jazz.
"Ohhh! It was rough," Hibbert exclaimed.
Vogel, who was working his way down the post-game spread, didn't take his eyes off the meatballs to offer this:
"I was texting my goodbyes," he said.
Hibbert continued: "I was sleeping then all of a sudden it just started rumbling for like 10 seconds straight. The rookie grabbed me on my leg –"
"Yo! What's going on over there," Solomon Hill responded when he heard his name being besmirched.
Hibbert to Hill: "You wasn't shook on the plane ride over here, though?"
Hibbert: "You were shook! You were like, 'Oh Ohhhh!'"
Hill: "I put my seatbelt on!"
Rasual Butler: "I saw all y'all sit up straight."
George Hill said he soldiered through the turbulence: "I was just ready to go over to that black box." But according to Hill's overdramatic and fictional version, Butler was, shall we say, concerned.
"Everybody was scared! I think 'Sual had a tear. I think 'Sual was crying," Hill said loud enough so that Butler could hear him across the room.
"I was over here writing my will," Paul George chimed in
"'Sual was crying though! 'Sual was crying!" Hill joked, then continued fabricating an extremely emotional Butler: "'I JUST WANT ONE MORE CHRISTMAS! JUST ONE MORE CHRISTMAS!'"
The Pacers survived the bumpy ride and are now safe in San Antonio.