The guy lifting baggage off the airport carousel isn't the world's tallest skycap. It's Walter Palmer, the Utah Jazz's $250,000-a-year reserve forward. He may be highly paid, stay in four-star hotels and sign autographs, but to teammates, he's a still a foot soldier. Palmer is a rookie.
Rookies are caught in that transition from college star to NBA no-name. They fly on the same planes, get the same $55 per diem and wear the same uniforms. But that doesn't mean they're not reminded daily where they are in the overall scheme.In a time-honored NBA tradition, a rookie must spend his first season doing menial tasks and learning his place. It's a little like a college fraternity initiation. The list of responsibilities vary according to the team, but generally include:
- Luggage removal. The rookies help with unloading team baggage off the airport carousel. "Somebody's got to help with the bags," says Palmer with a smile. "I think you call it respect for your elders."
- Shagging practice balls. Rookies are in charge of throwing out and gathering up balls in practice, as well as taking them to and from the locker room.
- Riding the stationary bikes. Rookies must ride the stationary bikes in the weight room for 20 minutes after every game they don't play in.
Being a rookie can be a stressful experience. Occasionally they'll find themselves being treated as non-persons by the veterans. (It should be pointed out here that the Jazz's three rookies claim they have been treated well by their peers.) Ex-Jazzman Adrian Dantley is reputed to have regarded rookies like total strangers. Of course, some say he treated everyone that way.
"It's a lot like being a college freshman," says Palmer. "There's a whole set of new things you need to get used to."
For example, a rookie is supposed to know his place on the team plane and team bus. Airlines sometimes won't have 12 first class seats available. So guess who gets to sit in coach?
On the bus, established players usually take up the back seats. Coaches and training staff occupy the first couple of rows on the bus, followed by media (who, not surprisingly, are farther down the priority list than players). Right behind the media - as some sort of unspoken buffer - reside the rookies.
"It always amazed me," says Phil Johnson, a Jazz assistant coach. "Veteran players sit in the back of the bus and the front of the plane. I never understood that."
If it sounds like a tough way to break in, don't look for too much sympathy from the veterans. "I carried baggage," says All-Star guard John Stockton. "Everyone did."
Well, not exactly everyone. Occasionally a player, such as Karl Malone, will immediately become such an integral part of the team that he is allowed to waive his internship.
"It's probably a little different case when it's an automatic star," says Johnson. "I don't think Michael Jordan carried any bags his rookie year. But overall, I think you really have to earn your stripes. You've got to prove you can help the team and that youbelong in the league. But there's nothing outrageous they have to do."
Former Kansas City Kings player Sam Lacey may have pushed the limits, though. As a veteran, he would make rookies fetch his coffee and wake him up in the mornings. But usually it is a standard fare of lifting and moving chores.
"It's not that bad," says Stockton.
Aside from adjusting to new teammates, coaches, cities and an entirely new type of game, rookies must also learn the proper way to practice. On one hand, they are expected to go all out to demonstrate their desire. But throwing elbows and playing with such abandon that teammates may be endangered is a no-no. "If there's a ball at Karl Malone's ankles, I'm smart enough to know I shouldn't dive for it," says first-year forward Andy Toolson.
"I get yelled at to keep my elbows down," says Palmer. "It's hard to keep things in stride. You don't always know what gear to put it in. But when in doubt, shift up."
With the NBA minimum salary at $120,000 a year, there is seldom grumbling by rookies about their lot in life.
"I just take it a day at a time and be grateful," says Toolson. "You never know what's going to happen tomorrow."
"For a first job, I'd recommend it for anyone coming out of college," Palmer laughs. "At least until they grow up."
Game Notes: Friday's Jazz-Dallas game will be the third meeting between the clubs this year. Utah is 2-0 so far . . . the game will be aired on PSN, with the pregame at 6 p.m. . . . The Mavs are coming off a 109-99 win over Portland, Wednesday . . . the Mav's Alex English has moved into seventh place on the NBA all-time scoring list . . . Guard Fat Lever and guard Herb Williams are both out with injuries . . . Dallas signed ex-Ute Kelvin Upshaw to a second 10-day contract.