by Lang Whitaker

I still remember the first time I read “A Season On The Brink,” John Feinstein’s book where he spends a season embedded with Bob Knight and the University of Indiana. I was a kid when I read it, but I was already a basketball fan, and I kept up with hoops mostly by reading SI and the local papers. Then came “Season,” which was something totally different, almost like it was written in a different language. It featured cursing, behind the scenes planning and strategy, rants from Bobby Knight and the trivial day-to-day minutiae any team in any sport endures (riding buses, meetings, etc.).

I recall reading the book and immediately wondering how Feinstein got that kind of access. It was filled with the things most teams worked overtime to keep secret. Why were they comfortable letting this writer have complete access? Ever since I read that book, I’ve wanted to do something similar. What sportswriter hasn’t? So much of writing about sports is almost a duel between the writer and the subject. Writer asks questions, subject gives answers, or at least, tells writer what he wants writer to know. But it’s very rare that anyone completely removes those filters and is totally, 100 percent open and honest.

Since I’ve been at SLAM, I’ve been looking for an opportunity to do something similar. And even though I have a BlackBerry full of contacts around the League, it turns out that NBA teams don’t necessarily want the headache of having a writer snooping around for a couple of days.

A few months ago, when we were kicking around ideas for SLAM issue 135, we knew we wanted to do a team story on the Atlanta Hawks, who were off to their best start in franchise history. Since I’m the resident Hawks expert around these parts, it was my story to do. So I called up Arthur Triche, the Hawks longtime VP of PR, and figured what the heck, I’d pitch him an all-access idea. As much as I know about how the NBA works, I still had so many questions. What are the locker room talks really like? What kind of airplane do these guys fly on? What happens during the down-time? And wouldn’t all of this be something that our readers would be interested in as well?

AT agreed that this sounded cool, so he pitched the idea to Mike Woodson, who, shockingly, also signed off on it, despite some of the things I’ve written in the past about his suits. So, about a month ago, I flew to Atlanta to embed with the Hawks for a back-to-back series at home against the Knicks and then on the road at Dallas.

There is a much longer, much more detailed story about this in the new issue of SLAM (SLAM 136), on newsstands now, so if you like this post, this is just a teaser. For the rest, buy the mag.

Anyway, here’s what I learned along the way:

woodypostgame

This was taken in Woodson’s postgame press conference after the Hawks lost at home to the Knicks, 114-107, which made the Hawks 13-6 on the season. Granted, there were extenuating circumstances — Josh Smith was ejected halfway through the second quarter after arguing a call with ref Bob Delaney. Without Smoove, the NBA’s leading shot blocker, guarding the rim, the Knicks ran a steady stream of pick-and-rolls down the Hawks throat, getting easy layups again and again. The feeling in the Hawks locker room following the loss didn’t seem to be one of anger as much as disappointment. Woody began the press conference with, “Defensively, we were nonexistent.”

To Woody’s left, on his Blackberry, is AT (Arthur Triche), probably trying to make a joke about me on Twitter.

After this presser, Woody went back into his office and sat down. AT and I went in with him and AT reminded Woody that I’d be with the team for the next 36 hours. I told Woody that my goal for the next 36 hours was to just stay out his way. I also asked him when he would start thinking about the Mavs game. “I’m thinking about it right now,” he said.

outsideplane

The Knicks game ended around 9:45, and there was a note on the blackboard immediately after that said “11 ON THE PLANE.” Everyone drove their own cars to the charter airport, Atlantic Aviation, which is really just a small building is on the edge of Atlanta’s Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport. I walked in with 20 minutes to spare, and found Josh Smith relaxing on a couch in the waiting area, talking softly on his cell phone. Everyone in the Hawks traveling party was funneled down a hallway to a small room, where we showed our ID, were checked off a list, then our bags were all checked by hand and we were each wanded down. It was thorough, and it took about as long as it takes to enter a nightclub, less than a minute per person. Once cleared, we walked out onto the asphalt tarmac and a few dozen yards to the airplane, an Airbus A319. We boarded it on one of those old-school metal staircases that they roll up to the doors.

onplane

Most airlines use the A319 on smaller routes, where they manage to squeeze 67 seats on board. This plane, however, has been fitted entirely with first class seats, four across each row, with extra legroom between each row. It was a Delta plane — the Hawks use a charter service run by Delta. I did not, however, receive SkyMiles for either flight.

The players settled in the first few rows of seats, the coaches, trainers and equipment staff were in the middle section, and the broadcasters, AT and I took the seats in the back. I sat across from Hawks TV broadcaster Bob Rathbun and in front of radio voice Steve Holman. Dominique Wilkins was just behind us. As we boarded, food was laid out in the back of the plane; I grabbed a turkey slider and a couple of potato skins loaded with roasted chicken. Hawks TV sideline reporter (and Louisiana native) James “Big Country” Verrett generously allowed me to use some of the Tabasco sauce he’d brought along with him.

Just after 11:00 p.m., the lights dimmed and the plane took off, a little unexpectedly. The general vibe on board throughout the flight was subdued, the loss to New York still fresh in everyone’s minds. The players sitting up front watched movies on their laptops or quietly played cards. Was there gambling? I don’t know. I never walked up to the front of the plane because I felt like even though the Hawks had let me into the inner circle, there still needed to be some limitations — I know a lot of the Hawks players and am friendly with many of them, but I am not and never will be one of them. Also, if I was going to walk up to the front of the plane I would have had to walk past Mike Woodson, and I’m a little scared of him.

We landed in Dallas at 1:20 AM Atlanta time, 12:20 AM in Dallas. As we landed, I realized I had no idea which airport we were actually at. We filed down a metal staircase out into a cold night and boarded a bus parked just feet from the plane. Everyone was bleary-eyed and quiet.

As I climbed aboard the bus, I reloaded a box score on my phone and saw that Kobe Bryant had nailed a 27-footer at the buzzer to beat Atlanta’s division rival Miami Heat. I blurted this out (“Kobe scored!”), and Coach Woodson, leaning back in the bus’s front seat, jolted forward. “What? Kobe scored?”

“Apparently so, Coach,” I said. “All I know is the Lakers won and Miami lost.” Woodson sunk back into the seat, and I swear he looked a little happier than he did a few seconds earlier.

I found an empty seat next to a seat filled with someone’s luggage. Assistant coach Tyrone Hill turned around from directly in front of me and grabbed the bags. “Man, I’m sorry about that. Let me move this…” I assured him it wasn’t a problem; I only needed one seat, unlike most of these giants (such as Hill himself). “No, no,” he insisted, “I was being selfish.”

At 1:00 AM Dallas time, which was 2:00 AM by everyone’s body clocks, the bus pulled up at a side door at the Rosewood Crescent Hotel, a luxury spot not far from the American Airlines Center. Most teams have a shootaround at the arena the morning of a game to get used to the rims and the atmosphere, but because of our late arrival and player fatigue — not to mention a daytime hockey game at the AAC — Woodson instead planned a morning breakfast meeting for 11:00 AM Dallas time, 10 hours from now.

A table was set up in the lobby covered with envelopes, with each member of the Hawks traveling party’s name printed on the envelope. Inside each envelope was a room key and list of which players were in which rooms. I looked for an envelope marked “Lang Whitaker” but instead found one that read “Lane Wittaker.” Either someone couldn’t spell or the Hawks were hazing me already. There are no groupies within eyesight. (Believe me, I looked.)

I hopped onto an elevator with Josh Smith, Al Horford, Jamal Crawford, Marvin Williams and Jeff Teague. When we got to my floor, I made a move to get off the elevator but found my path blocked by Teague. “Move, rook,” commanded Josh Smith. “Come on, let Lang off. Sorry Lang, he’s a rookie.”

As Teague obliged, I feel like adding that I was a rookie to all of this as well.

amwithat

The one thing I didn’t want to be was late, so I got up extra early the next morning and walked over to a nearby Starbucks and grabbed a huge liquid breakfast. Came back to the hotel and ran into AT who was on the internet in the business center, printing out articles about the Hawks and the Mavs to give to Woody and the coaches. He’s on hoopshype.com in the picture above. That’s my man-sized coffee on the desk.

coaches

AT and I went over to the breakfast meeting in the hotel ballroom and arrived thirty minutes early to find Mike Woodson huddled with assistant coaches Ty Hill, Bob Bender and Jim Todd, as well as Hawks video coordinator Luke Steele. (Atlanta’s lead assistant coach, Larry Drew, was away from the team for a few days following a death in the family.) The coaches were watching various plays from the Knicks game, pointing out bad examples of Atlanta’s play, as Steele isolated those moments, captioned them and compiled them into something of a lowlight reel. (They also compiled a separate highlight reel.)

zazabreakfast

At the other end of the ballroom, a huge breakfast buffet was set up. The first player to arrive was Zaza Pachulia. Loved that he was wearing the complimentary hotel slippers.

smoovebreakfast

Josh Smith grabbed breakfast and came and sat down next to me. (To Josh’s left is Atlanta’s strength coach, Pete Radulovic.) Smoove poured an entire mini-bottle of ketchup on his home fries, then mentioned that it was his birthday. I asked J-Smoove how old he was, and he said he had just turned 24, which blew my mind — he’s in his sixth year in the NBA!

Radulovic picked up the Dallas Morning News sports section and flipped over to the Mavs box score from the previous night, where they were blown out on the road in Memphis, 98-82. Pete pointed out Dirk Nowitzki went just 7-for-22 from the floor.

“Uh-oh,” said Smoove, who already knew he’d be spending much of the coming evening chasing Nowitzki. “That’s not good news for me.”

meeting

A few minutes after 11:00 AM, with all the players in attendance, Woodson, wearing a gray Hawks sweatsuit and sneakers, stood and asked for everyone’s attention. He launched into a dissection of the Hawks poor defense against the Knicks that included phrases such as “positioning,” “help defense,” “run and jumps,” “our greens,” “back screens” “nail guy,” “hard fouls” and “talking.” At one point he mentioned that the Hawks gave up 29 layups against the Knicks, repeated it and then paused for effect. Everyone in the room knew they gave up many — too many — layups to the Knicks, but hearing the number 29 drove it home and grabbed everyone’s attention, if not their pride.

“This team has a chance to do something special if you believe in each other,” Woodson said. “If you feel like what we’re trying to do on the court isn’t going to work, speak up! I have zero ego as a coach, none. If you think you see something that’s going to work better than what we’re trying to do, speak up! Say something to me! But what I’m telling you guys is that if you guys will just consistently do what we’re asking you to do on defense, we’ll win games. I don’t give a shit about the offense; you guys can score more than enough points to win games. The offense isn’t the problem. But you have to get stops on defense, and if you’ll listen to what we’re telling you, I promise you’ll get stops. The shit works, okay? The shit works, but you guys just have to have the pride and the heart to buy into it and do what we’re asking you to do every time down the court.”

Woodson plopped back into his chair and took a sip of water. And you wonder why NBA coaches are all consistently hoarse throughout the season. Steele fired up the laptop and plays from the Knicks games start cycled through on the TV as Woodson narrated what went right and what went wrong. (“That’s not a trap, Al Horford. I don’t know what that is, but it’s not a trap.”) Watching the tape, Woodson didn’t focus so much on ball defense but off-the-ball defense, the two or three guys across the court who don’t seem to be initially involved in defending the ball put generally come into play later in the possession. The Hawks defensive schemes require at least two or three reads and reactions from the Hawks players, and if one guys makes the wrong read, it throws everyone else’s assignments into turmoil. As the tape rolled, assistant coach Bender mentioned the need for “gradual adjustments to the off-ball defense,” and assistant coach Todd reminded them that when mismatches occurred, the Hawks have lineups versatile enough to handle the mismatches. Occasionally a player would quietly call out “My fault” when they’d been caught on tape blowing an assignment.

The tape ended and Tyrone Hill stood and went to the dry erase board, which listed the Dallas lineup and the players the Hawks would use to defend each guy. He went player by player, mentioning things like trying to make Jason Kidd a jump shooter or which way Shawn Marion likes to turn with the ball, then spent a few minutes on Mavs rookie Rodrigue Beaubois, who’d been starting for Dallas, though most of the Hawks had never seen him play. The most time was devoted to Dirk Nowitzki, and the coaches peppered Josh Smith with tips and reminders on how best to defend the former MVP.

A few minutes past noon, Woodson stood and faced the team to end the meeting. “Guys, I’ve been in this League as a coach and a player for 28 years. I won one title with Detroit a few years ago, but I’d like to win some more, and I know all of you guys would, too. Look, your clock is ticking. My clock is ticking. We’re not going to be around this League forever. This team is possibly good enough to win a title. You guys who weren’t here before this year, I’ve never been able to say that before this season. But you guys could do something really special. You just have to trust each other and do what you’re supposed to do out there on the floor. The shit works, you just have to execute and trust.”

“OK, the first bus is leaving for the arena at 5:45, second bus at 6:15. Now go get some sleep and I’ll see you tonight.”

As you can sorta tell from the photo above, I spent the meeting cowering behind Jason Collins, furiously writing down notes in my notepad and trying to stay out of Woodson’s line of sight, because I didn’t want him to see me and alter his approach for my sake. The players seemed tuned in, attentive.

When the meeting ended, I needed to find a drugstore and stock up on travel supplies. A doorman at the hotel told me there was a drugstore down the street, so I set out walking. It was down the street alright — about two miles down the street. If nothing else I got some exercise. Spent a few hours in my room catching up on my notes, and then hung out for a few hours watching the Florida/Alabama SEC Championship Game with a friend of mine who lives in Dallas. Around 5:00 PM, I checked out of Lane Wittaker’s room.

At exactly 5:45, the bus chugged away from the hotel and toward the arena, which was just a mile or so away. The Hawks bus pulled up underneath the American Airlines Center to a dark loading dock. Two security guards waited at a folding table, and each member of the Hawks traveling party had their bag checked by security and was wanded down before entering the arena, myself included. We went through a door and emerged in the long tunnel that runs a ring underneath the stands, and then filed into the locker room, where their uniforms had already been laid out by equipment manager Zac Walsh, who came to the arena during the hockey game to prepare.

Everyone had their luggage with them, I guess because nobody wanted to leave it unguarded under the bus during the game. Zac grabbed my carry-on bag from me and put it on a cart with a bunch of other bags and took it into the locker room ahead of me. Maybe 30 minutes later I realized I wasn’t sure where my bag was, so I asked Zac, and he wasn’t sure where it was either. We poked around and I opened the door to the coach’s office and found Mike Woodson sitting there alone, my bag under his chair.

At least I knew nobody would mess with it.

trainersroom

The visitor’s locker room in Dallas is fronted by two smaller rooms, one that the Hawks training staff used to stretch players, treat injuries and tape ankles, and another room that the coaches shared as their office. The players sat in front of their lockers and started the process of leaving tickets for friends and families, then changed into their uniforms and warm-ups. A TV in the locker room was turned to the end of the SEC Championship game, and the players get a laugh out of seeing some of the Alabama guys on their sideline mocking the “Gator bite” arms sign to the Florida fans. Al Horford, a proud Florida grad, stoically got dressed in front of his locker. He was not happy.

I ended up walking out to the court alongside Joe Smith, and I asked him how he spent the afternoon. “During back-to-backs, I always try to get sleep,” he said. “I watched some of that UNC/Kentucky basketball game, and I watched some of that Florida/Alabama game, but I stayed in bed all afternoon and slept on and off.”

autographs

I walked out courtside and found my seat just behind the scorer’s table, and as the players warmed up, I sat there and checked email and made notes. At one point I glanced up and noticed Marvin Williams and Joe Johnson signing autographs. It was almost strange to see, because when you spend so much much time with them, you see them as normal, regular people. It’s easy to forget they’re heroes to thousands of other people.

pregametalk

After the media was herded out of the locker room, the players returned — either from shooting on the floor, or from the trainer’s room, or from chapel — and took seats in front of their lockers. They sipped water, looked over stat sheets. A video projector was hooked up to a laptop, and a screen was unrolled in the front of the room. A clock on the wall counted down until tip-off. Coach Hill stood before a list of the Dallas roster on the erase board and again went through it player by player, as Woodson stopped and added things he’d noticed about each guy. (Woody later told me he’d spent the day in his room watching tape of the Mavs.) When they got to Dirk, Woodson said, “Smoove, when they pick for him, you’ve got to get in his chest and go through the picks. Fight through them however you can.”

“This is what they like to open the game with,” Woodson said, before playing a video clip of Dallas running a pick-and-alley-oop for Beaubois, who caught and finished with an impressive reverse dunk. The players all “ooh”ed when the dunk played. Woodson ran the play over and over. “Mike Bibby,” Woody said, “you have to get around that screen. Get up over it, don’t let him through.”

Bibby suggested he go behind the pick so it would be easier to catch up to Beaubois before he got a head of steam going toward the basket. “Do it however you think you can do it,” Woodson agreed.

prayer

There was no “Win one for the Gipper” speech, just more talk about how to best defend Dallas, and then Woodson said, “Let’s go to work.” The players clapped and gathered in the center of the room, where they all reached their hands into the huddle and in unison said the Lord’s Prayer. On “Amen,” they turned and ran out to the court for the game.

Time to go to work.

game

As the game started, I realized I hadn’t heard Woodson talk about offense much at all — he’d been preaching defense, defense, defense for 24 hours. Even before the opening tip, Dallas coach Rick Carlisle threw Atlanta a curve, electing to start Jason Terry instead of Beaubois. So much for all that preparation.

As “Welcome To The Jungle” blasted over the PA system, and as former Hawk (and Dallas native) Spud Webb settled into a courtside seat, the ball was tossed up into the air and Dallas won the tip. Dallas set up for a pick-and-roll with Jason Terry and Dirk Nowitzki, but Marvin Williams stepped in and stole the ball, bringing a grin to Woodson’s face. The Hawks jumped ahead to a 9-2 lead, with Marv adding another steal, before Dallas stormed back to make it 10-10. The Hawks then reeled off 9 straight points to go up 19-10, before Josh Smith picked up his second foul with 3:54 left in the first quarter, sending him to the bench.

The Hawks weren’t shooting the ball particularly well, but they were making Dallas shoot jump shots and sealing off the drives that killed them a night earlier against New York. After one, the Hawks were up 27-19.

At the beginning of the second quarter, ref Bennie Adams whistled an illegal screen on Drew Gooden, and Mavs coach Rick Carlisle, who was pacing the sideline just in front of where I was sitting, exploded.

“Bennie, how was that an illegal screen? He was standing still!”

“His base was too wide,” Adams said, before turning and running downcourt.

A disbelieving smile on his face, Carlisle bellowed, “His base was too wide? What does that mean?” I don’t know, either, coach.

The Hawks were sitting on a 41-29 lead with 6:50 remaining in the first half, when suddenly they went cooler than cool (ice cold!). Over the next 6:50, the Hawks scored exactly 1 point, missing 14 consecutive field goal attempts. It was a stunning display, and even though Woodson called timeouts and drew up plays to break the Hawks out of their funk, they couldn’t get anything to drop. Still, they keep working on defense, and they held Dallas to 2-for-9 shooting from the floor over that stretch. The Mavs made a few free throws, and at halftime, thanks to their defense, the Hawks were clinging to a 41-40 lead.

The two teams played relatively evenly throughout the second half, and the Hawks managed to stay just ahead of Dallas down the stretch. Joe Johnson took over offensively, hitting a variety of jumpers, keeping Atlanta in front of Dallas. Joe Smith, who was averaging just minutes a game coming into this one, ended up playing 19 minutes, guarding Dirk for long stretches in crunch time and grabbing huge rebounds, plus sinking a baseline jumper to put Atlanta up 5. I guess that rest paid off.

Twice in the last few minutes Dallas ran a pick-and-roll and managed to get Dirk Nowitzki the ball with Mike Bibby guarding him, but both times Dallas couldn’t take advantage of the mismatch. Down 3 with about 10 seconds to go, Dallas ran a play to get Dirk a shot from the wing, but Josh Smith jumped the pass and tipped the ball loose, and Nowitzki was called for a kicked ball.

On the ensuing inbound play, the ball was briefly loose and Al Horford appeared to commit a backcourt violation, but no call was made and the Hawks coasted to the win, 80-75, moving to 14-6 on the year. Joe Johnson finished with 31 points and Marvin Williams grabbed an eye-popping 15 rebounds, as the Hawks forced Dallas into 16 turnovers while holding them to a season-low 75 points.

After the game, Mavs guard Jason Terry told the media, “We just couldn’t find any way to get through their defense. They’re long and athletic. They kept us out of the paint.”

teaguebday

As soon as the game ended, the Hawks sprinted back into their locker room, where everyone was all smiles. I walked into the locker room alongside Coach Hill, and said to him, “Good thing you guys prepared so much for Beaubois, huh?” (Beaubois ended up playing all of 8 seconds.) Hill laughed and said, “Man, it’s the NBA. You prepare for everything and then just roll with it.”

The Hawks players chattered about the backcourt violation that may or may not have been—Horford honestly didn’t know if he touched the ball or if Shawn Marion had touched it last before the ball went into the backcourt. Coach Woodson removed his jacket and walked to the front of the locker room. He asked for everyone’s attention, and the players sat and started unlacing their hightops and strapping ice to their ankles.

“Guys, great win,” Woodson rasped. “Remember what I said? You can win playing defense! We struggled with the offense but your defense was terrific.”

“The shit works!” blurted out Teague, cracking up the entire room.

“That’s right, it does, it works,” Woodson said, smiling. “Alright guys, let’s get home. You’ve got tomorrow off, and then we’ll come back in on Monday and get back to work. No more let ups, guys!”

“No excuses!” yelled Horford.

“No sir, no excuses, guys,” Woodson said. “Oh, and guys, today is Josh Smith’s birthday. Jeff Teague, get up here and sing Happy Birthday, rook.”

The room erupted in applause, and Teague, shirtless, stood and launched into a surprisingly rousing rendition of the Stevie Wonder version of “Happy Birthday,” as the players all clapped along. “Do the stanky leg!” Woodson yelled, and the room dissolved into laughter.

postgamemeal

After showering and talking to the media, everyone hit the postgame spread of barbecue ribs—Al Horford: “Man, I’ve been waiting for this all day…”—and headed out to the bus. Our bags were checked and we were wanded down before we even got on the bus, and then a security person rode the bus with us to the airport. When we boarded the bus, I grabbed a seat up front near the coaches, but had to move to make room for the security person, so I ended up amid the players in the back, sitting behind Marvin Williams. All the guys were talking, joking around.

Fifteen minutes later, the bus pulled up at the same small airport where we arrived not even 24 hours earlier. The bus rolled right out onto the tarmac, and I walked up the metal staircase, where our same plane was awaiting. By midnight Dallas time, we were in the air. After a ninety-minute flight and a one-hour time-change, we touched down in Atlanta at 2:30 a.m.

ice

Back in Atlanta, we all de-planed and walked out to the parking lot, where freezing weather had iced over the windshield on my car (my Dad’s car, actually), so I sat there for 10 minutes and waited for the windshield to defrost, and I thought about the trip. Getting to sit in for the morning meeting, the pregame talk, to hear what they focused on, it all made me infinitely smarter as a basketball journalist. I felt like I learned more about what Woody wants from his team in two days than I had in the previous five years watching him coach every game. And sure, we were riding around on private planes and staying in luxury hotels, but it didn’t do much to diminish what a grind the NBA life can be, especially for the guys logging big minutes night after night. I don’t think I heard Joe Johnson speak the entire time I was around the Hawks, but I suspect it was probably him conserving energy as much as anything else.

At some point after the game but before we headed back to Atlanta, I found myself alone with Mike Woodson, and I congratulated him on the win and thanked him again for letting me tag along.

“Hey,” he said, “after that win, as far as I’m concerned you’ve got an open invite to stay with us.”

“Let’s wait for the postseason,” I told him.