The pros are on the road somewhere—in Boston, say, where the locker rooms are pungent reminders of 19th century shantytowns, where Sam and K. C. Jones dressed through eight championships in a corner behind a pipe clothes rack. On the court smoke is already swallowing the banners that tumble from the ceiling. In the visitors' locker room they have just about finished their dressing, putting on uniforms still soggy with stale sweat from the night before. A few are crinkly from drying on a steamy hotel radiator, which has not removed the smell but has merely masked it for a while. Finally, over taped ankles and two pairs of socks, they pull on the All Star low-cuts. Nowadays almost everyone but a few big forwards and centers wears low-cuts—or oxfords, as the shoe people call them. Chewing gum is passed around and the stickum. A guy like Tommy Hawkins, who has unusually small hands, cakes his fingers with the clammy goo. Someone comes in with the ball they will take out on the court. The players glance up. These men play 100 games a season; no one has been pining for a basketball, but as soon as one appears, everybody suddenly just has to have it. "Over here a second!" "Hey, baby!" They slap for it, reach for it, grab it, dribble it and just sort of fondle it. They make their living with a basketball.
There still are only about 135 players in the NBA, and they all get to know each other. It used to be even closer. Walk into the right bar after a doubleheader a few years ago and you would find 35 of the 40 players. Few of the new ones go into bars now; there aren't many half-time cigarette smokers left either. The pros still play cards as much as ever, but not as desperately as they used to. If the plane was five minutes late they would deal 'em quick on a suitcase over the sink in the nearest men's room. Get two hands in anyway.
It seems that the pros are always at airports, waiting in a giant phalanx, glaring at the little people who cleverly remark all winter long, "Hey, you must be a basketball player." They always seem to be waiting for their luggage, garment bags full of more 46 extra-longs slung over their shoulders. Most of them slim and stylish, they are probably the best dressers among pro athletes. (Football players have shapes inimical to good fashion; baseball players wear alpaca sweaters.) "I'll bet you have trouble sleeping," is another thing they hear again and again, particularly in hotel elevators, where their height is most obvious. Actually, they sleep till noon, comfortably catty-cornered in their beds.
They ride down and stand in the lobby, shuffling. They had something to eat at 4. It is past 6 now and time to fill up some cabs with their legs, for the ride to the arena. If it's Boston tonight the floor might be sweating from the ice rink underneath, so a fast break could end up in a rooster-tail spray. If it's New York, maybe the last time at the old Garden, where the gamblers—those point predators—perch, a dribble can slip away if it hits a dead spot on the ragged floor. Or maybe it's Philly, where a P. A. announcer named The Zink awards lucky-number prizes; or the Cow Palace in San Francisco, where not even the chill indoor winds can dispel lingering bovine odors.
The arenas are changing, however, and the crowds with them. The sound of the new clientele is shrill, and it oohs. The women are there. Baseball is too subtle for most of them; football too distant and anonymous. But basketball is a close, emotional thing. The faces ere clear—there are even expressions—and the huge muscular bodies glistening in the light are larger than life. Ben Kerner, the St. Louis owner, once a master scuffler in a carpetbag league but now almost avuncular in this prestigious era, sweeps an arm about the Hawks' arena. "Lots of seats," says Ben, "but not enough good seats for today's crowd. They want in close. It's the businessman or the family trade. So it's one more dollar for courtside. So what's that—one less Scotch and soda, right?"
The game is changing, too, always faster and harder, with the steady thump of sliding bodies, the defense working futilely to stop the shooters from taking over completely. Critics sneer, but the rampant offense has only made the people in the good seats want even more.
Toting their little bags of dirty, wet uniforms, the players file out after the game. They are hunched—not to deny their size—but against the cold. Their massive overcoats cover tailored suits or blazers that are creased permanently by seat belts. But they will sleep well. Tomorrow, on the way to the airport, they can worry about the flight to the next stop.