NBA players crossing the ocean to play during the lockout are about to experience an accomodation downgrade. Here's a glimpse of life on the road from someone who knows.
Dan Grunfeld has played professional basketball in Europe for five seasons, and spent the 2008 NBA preseason as a member of the New York Knicks. He made the all-conference team with Stanford in 2005 and will play for Hapoel Holon of the Israeli Super League next season. He will be writing weekly for SBNation.com during the season. This is his debut column.
I've been on both NBA and European road trips, and let me tell you, they're not even close. There may be five or 10 basketball clubs overseas that can come anywhere close to duplicating the type of travel that goes on in the NBA, but from my experiences playing in Germany, Spain and Israel, road trips on the other side of the pond are generally way, way different. With all of these NBA guys going overseas to play during the lockout, these differences are pretty relevant right now, so let me take you through two real road trips, one NBA and one European, hyperbole not included, just so we can all be in agreement about this.
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First, the NBA. When I attended training camp with the Knicks in 2008, our preseason opener was in Toronto against the Raptors. It was my first NBA road trip as a player, so I remember a lot about it. Among these unforgettable details is how I drank so many Gatorades to hydrate before the game that I almost peed myself on the bench at the end of the second quarter, of course without logging a single minute. That's another story, but more importantly, the trip to Toronto: to start it off, I drove with a teammate to the private area of a small airport in Westchester. We parked, and some employees from the airport took our bags directly out of the car and put them on a cart. I didn't see my bag again until it was hand-delivered to my room at our luxury hotel later that night.
Carrying just my backpack, we went through a private security area where they screened only those of us going on the team plane to Toronto. It took three minutes to move through security, at most. We then boarded the chartered plane, equipped with seats like small sofas, and I sat down in my awesome chair. As if I didn't have enough room as it was, the plane was big enough that players didn't really have to sit next to each other, so the other seat on my side of the aisle was empty.
Once the wheels were lifted and the plane took off, it was food time. For everyone on board, there was a spread of sandwiches, cookies, drinks, fruit and other stuff for us to pick on. And if that wouldn't do, the flight attendants were also available to bring hot meals, cereal, other drinks or whatever else anyone may have wanted. After eating, guys were hanging out, watching movies, listening to music and just relaxing. I was reading Love in the Time of Cholera. I kept the cover tilted downward. Way, way downward.
We had a game in Philly after Toronto, so it was scheduled to be about a four-day trip. When you're on the road in the NBA, you get per diem for food, well over $100 a day. Sometime on board the plane, someone from the team came around and casually handed me an envelope with like $500 in it. During my short time with the Knicks, my go-to move was to get to the city we were playing in, buy three or four Subway five-dollar foot longs, put them in my fridge, then pocket the rest of the per diem. I was a little younger then, but looking back, I still think it was a pretty legit way to go.
When we landed, our luggage was immediately loaded onto the bus for us, so all I had to do was hop on board and ride to the hotel, where I was promptly given a key to my own room. I went upstairs and found exactly what you'd expect in a nice hotel room: cushy bed, flat screen TV, big bathroom. A few minutes after I got up there, my bag was delivered, so I unpacked a couple things, turned on the TV, got into my bed and went to sleep. Our trip to Philly was the same deal: private plane, food everywhere, fancy hotel. And the trip back to New York was on the same plane and -- as you might have guessed -- was also easy and breezy. That's the league for you, and obviously, it's not a bad way to travel, to say the least. It's true that the NBA road gets lonely, especially with 41 games away from home not counting the preseason or playoffs, but you have to admit, if you're traveling, you might as well travel like that.
Unfortunately for me, I've been on far more European road trips than NBA ones. Personally, I am a very easy traveler, and I don't require much. Give me an edible meal and a warm bed at the end of the day and I'm pretty much good to go. Still, there's no denying that trips in Europe (and in other overseas destinations) are not as glamorous as in the NBA. Usually, from my experiences, these trips are bus or train rides, sometimes more than six or eight hours long depending on what country you play in, and at times, much longer. In Israel (my current country of employment) I don't have any bus rides longer than two hours, which is amazing, while one of my friends who plays in South America has bus trips that regularly top 20 hours. I myself have been on many bus rides that were easily 12 or 14 hours long, but the one road trip that sticks out to me from my many years abroad involves taking a plane.
I was playing in the ACB at the time, the first league in Spain, widely considered to be the best domestic league in the world outside of the NBA. We had a Sunday afternoon game, 12:30 p.m., on the road in the Canary Islands. I woke up the morning of the game around 8 a.m., having already logged eight hours of travel the day before on a bus and plane. The twin bed I'd slept on in my decent-but-by-no-means-swanky hotel room reminded me of the one I had at summer camp when I was 12. Not quite wide enough, not quite long enough, and not at all like the bed I'd slept in at the hotel in Toronto. Also, I didn't have my own room, I had a roommate, and his bed was literally right next to mine, no more than 18 inches away. I think our feet may have touched at one point during the night, but we never spoke about it. If we had, it would've had to be in Spanish, because he didn't speak a word of English. Great guy, pero no habla ingles.
After getting up, we ate our team breakfast together in the public dining area of the hotel, because in many places overseas, there is no per diem. No envelopes filled with cash. No Subway foot-longs, and most likely, no Subway. The breakfasts in Spain are not like in the States, so we had our choice of dry cereals, yogurts, deli meats, assorted cheeses, some fruits and vegetables and maybe some eggs, scrambled or over easy. The food was good, but it wasn't gourmet, let's put it that way.
Hours later, after losing a tough game and eating lunch at the hotel, we carried our own luggage to the bus, then loaded it in and went to the airport. The only flight we could get to Madrid, the closest major airport to our city, Valladolid, left the islands in the early evening, around 7 or 8 p.m., so we sat in the airport for at least three or four hours pre-flight. Every game in Europe really matters, so because we lost, people were not in good moods. Everyone mostly kept to themselves, checking their smart phones, listening to their iPods, studying the trinkets in the gift shops, twiddling their thumbs and just somehow trying to pass the time until the plane left.
On our flight to Madrid, the whole team, even our 6'10 guys, sat in coach. If they got lucky, the bigger guys may have scored exit row seats, but because I wasn't one of them at a mere 6'6, I had my knees in my armpits the whole time. After an uncomfortable flight, we got into Madrid probably around 9:30 p.m. or so. Unlike the charters of the NBA, our commercial flight, aside from having no room, also had no food, so we each bought some dinner at the airport. The team reimbursed us if we showed our receipts, so that was a bit of a bonus.
We'd already waited a long time to get home, but unfortunately, our city was still a two-and-a-half-hour bus ride from Madrid. We were all anxious to get back, so whatever food we had bought, we ate on the bus. On my NBA trip to Toronto, there was total privacy, but in Spain, my team had been together non-stop for the last few days, so the conversation at that point in time wasn't exactly riveting. I remember spending the majority of the ride staring out the window in silence, watching the Spanish countryside slowly roll by and counting the, wait for it, kilometers that we had left on our trip.
Tired from an entire day of travel and pissed about the loss, we finally arrived in our city after midnight, about nine hours after we'd left for the airport in the Canaries. A private plane in the NBA would've taken a fraction of the time, under much better conditions, of course.
My fiancé picked me up at our gym, where the bus dropped us off, and as soon as we got in the car, she asked the typical question: "How was the trip?" I looked at her and said the only word that applied to so many of my road trips overseas: "Long."
In Europe, they're not all like that, but a lot of them are. I've never really minded, because when you play basketball for a living, it's very hard to complain about much. That being said, if I was one of the many NBA guys going to play overseas for the first time, I'd make sure that my iPod was fully charged and that I had some snacks tucked away in my travel bag. Private planes, unlimited food and luxury hotels may be the norm in the NBA, but Europe is not the NBA. Oftentimes, playing in Europe or other countries overseas can mean all-day bus rides, knee-to-armpit coach seats, roommates, dinner in the airport and stuff like that. If you're used to it, it's really no big deal at all, but there's no denying that, compared to travel in the NBA, it's a little different. Maybe not better, and maybe not worse, depending on how much one values things like private planes and awesome hotels, but either way, it's definitely, definitely different.