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Riding on the Basketball Bus
Added to site November 15, 2001


with  the

with  the

Submitted March 1965

Written November 2001

[I was a high school junior, and Frank Zirbel was the basketball coach, when I wrote of the Saturday night we played at Logan Hills, January 18, 1964.

The sophomores had won their game, but the varsity had lost theirs.  Therefore, custom required that we all put on a somber face, regardless of how we really felt.

It was a cold night.]



We have just lost a basketball game we should have won.

The coach isn't saying much.  He acts disappointed, though, so the players and managers are silent.  This is always the case after a loss, but tonight we still have to make the long trip home.


Since I'm a student manager, I am one of the last to board the bus that waits, engine running, outside the school.  The only sound in the dim interior is that of the engine and of the roaring heaters which are trying to keep the bus warm.

Light from the schoolyard, filtering through steamed windows, faintly reveals hushed basketball players sitting four abreast, with a narrow aisle down the middle.  I make my way to the back of the bus.  The coaches come aboard, and we start off.

As we head down the road, a few passengers are quietly talking to others about the game, about the coach's reaction to it, about why we lost.  But no one is in the mood to converse very much tonight.  The talk soon fades.

We played a game last night, too, and we are tired.  Even I am tired, although I have done no more than keep a statistics chart.

Some of the players, the lucky ones near the back who have seats all to themselves, try to lie down and go to sleep.  A few freshmen ahead of me aren't tired:  they didn't play but just came along for the ride.  They amuse themselves with jokes, told softly and laughed at softly.

The moon shines on, its light reflecting from a snow-covered field.

What is the purpose of it all, anyway?  Why spend an entire evening playing a meaningless game?  Why spend two hours every day practicing it?

I suppose the players would say it's fun, if I should ask them; the coaches would remind me that it develops character.  But the purpose of basketball to most people, coaches, players, and fans as well, is to win.  And nights like this can be very frustrating.

I look over at Jack Bright, one of the starting varsity guards.  He normally is rather talkative and light-hearted, but now he's trying to get into a comfortable position to sleep.  He apologizes for accidentally bumping my coat with his foot.

I look ahead of me at the frivolous freshmen.  Their whispered stories have become a little off-color, and they seem quite out of place in this sober atmosphere.  I try to shut out their words by softly humming a tune.

I think of a play that a friend and I are working on, a play dealing with the uncertainty of two people about whether God exists.  But I can't seem to come up with any new ideas.  This is not a time to think constructively; this is a time to let one's mind wander freely, thinking of nothing in particular, simply meditating.

We come into a small village.  Jack has never been able to get to sleep; he sits up to ask where we are.  Someone tells him.  With a sigh, he lies down again.  Only nine more miles to home.

Home . . . and rest . . . and then, next week, back to the routine once more.

The moon shines on.

In the wee hours of January 22, 1991, the six-time world champion Los Angeles Lakers and I were somewhere in central Florida, lost on a bus.

The nation was on alert because of the Gulf War.  We had security concerns:  the team could be assassinated or kidnapped or something.  Yet our trip from the airport was not a model of efficiency.  We turned here, then backtracked there, as the hapless driver tried to find his way from the Aircraft Service International hangar to the Sheraton Orlando North hotel.

Finally we arrived.  While checking in, Lakers broadcaster Chick Hearn said something to me about the shakiness of the ride.  "And," I added, "how did we know that that was a real bus driver?  He could have been taking us anywhere."  Fortunately, the driver was not a sinister impostor.  But one never knows.

Why was I on the bus?

In 1989, Sue Stratton, producer and director for KHJ-TV Los Angeles, wanted to make her job easier on the Lakers' trips east.  She lacked the budget to bring her regular Chyron graphics operator with her from L.A., so she had been relying on local operators, a different one in each eastern city.  But there was a learning curve; her complicated show took more than one game to figure out.  So she decided to hire an Easterner like me to cover several cities.  The travel would be affordable, and she'd have a familiar face behind the keyboard.

I started January 24, 1990, with Lakers vs. Pacers.  Oddly, my "font coordinator" was back in Los Angeles at the flagship station, Channel 9.  We kept a phone line open throughout the game.  My generic graphics were on the satellite feed from Indianapolis, going both to the flagship and to at least one other California station.  At the flagship, the coordinator used a second Chyron to add Channel 9 graphics.

Later, there were telecasts from Philadelphia and Cleveland.

Sometimes Sue and I would hitch a ride on the team bus between the hotel and the arena.  I kept as inconspicuous as possible, not wanting to bother the players.  I did share a seat once with a second-stringer, Michael Cooper, who struck up a conversation about soap operas or something.  But this was the players' turf and I wasn't really an NBA guy.  I was just a TV technician, so I tried to stay out of the way.

At the Cleveland Airport Marriott, I recall eating lunch on game day in the hotel restaurant, sitting by myself.  At a nearby table, also by himself, was coach Pat Riley.

Heading back to my room after the game, I got on the hotel elevator.  Riley got on too.  Here came a few players; we held the door for them; there was plenty of space; they said no thanks, we'll take the next elevator.  The players were almost avoiding the coach.

That spring, the Lakers didn't even make it to the conference finals, and by the next fall, Pat Riley was gone.  Channel 9 was also under new management, its call letters now KCAL.  But Sue Stratton was still in charge of the telecasts, and I was back for more.

There were three games in four days in January 1991.  To save money, Sue put me on the Lakers team plane, a fancy black chartered 727 owned by the MGM Grand Hotel.  The rest of the press contingent was on board as well.  While the players got the big luxurious swivel chairs in the main cabin, we media sat in the closets in the back:  four glassed-in four-seater booths.

From Indianapolis (where autograph-signing Magic Johnson was the last to leave Market Square Arena) we flew to Orlando for our after-midnight adventure, then to Charlotte (where James Worthy was on a first-name basis with the clerks at the Embassy Suites).  I then flew home while the team charter proceeded to the Lakers' next city.

I rejoined the crew one last time at Philadelphia in February.  All I remember of that night is the bus ride after the game.

First, I conked Vlade Divac on the head.  Not intentionally, of course.  I had stowed a reel of videotape in the rack over the seats, but not securely enough.  When Vlade walked by, it fell out and hit him.  Since he's 7'1'', it only fell a couple of inches, and no harm was done.

Then the bus left the Spectrum to return to our hotel, the Sheraton Society Hill.  But it didn't take the direct route.  Once again, we were wandering, this time through the narrow streets of South Philly at the request of some of the players.

When we reached South Street, we stopped so that Magic and others could disembark for a night on the town.  The other late-night revelers on the street were amazed and delighted when into their midst, several Los Angeles Lakers emerged from our bus!





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