Is it the big-screen satellite TV, the five-star catered food or
the two special lounge areas on board? Is it the roomy,
high-backed chairs, the color televisions sprouting from every
armrest or simply the ungodly price tag? Whatever the reason,
supersecretive Trail Blazers owner Paul Allen doesn't want
outsiders to see the interior of the best airplane in the NBA.
That's why Portland people are mum about Allen's customized
35-seat Boeing 757, estimated in one account to have cost as
much as $98 million. With all the cloak-and-dagger silence,
you'd think the craft was carrying more than just a third-place
But word travels faster than the plane's 610-mph cruising speed.
NBA teams keep track of one another's aircraft as though they
were part of a post-Cold War arms race. "It's definitely
Portland first, then Miami and Orlando," says one Heat frequent
flier when asked to rate the top airplanes in the league. "But
we may have it best because it's just the basketball team. No
media." Miami's 727 features custom-fitted seats, meals served
on china and a video entertainment center with a wireless sound
system. ("You can take a dump without missing the dialogue,"
says one player.)
Magic Carpet Aviation, Orlando's flight operation, includes a
24,000-square-foot hangar where players can park their cars, as
well as a 42-seat Boeing 737 (with leather upholstery, wood
interior, VCRs and two beds) that was owned by the late heiress
Doris Duke. Unlike the Magic, most teams choose to lease their
planes through the NBA. Thus the Bulls presumably struck little
fear in the hearts of Jazz fans during last season's NBA Finals
when they landed in Utah aboard a DC-9 bearing the logo of the
lowly Mavericks. (The Bulls' usual charter was on the fritz.)
Chicago isn't alone. The Knicks, the Spurs and the Dream Team
have leased from the Mavericks in recent years.
What takes place on these high-flying travels? Every NBA team
has a group that plays the card game Tonk, a variation on gin
rummy, in which large amounts of cash can change hands quickly.
(One Chicago player says Michael Jordan used to make a blood
sport of winning money from Bulls forward Jack Haley.)
Otherwise, as much as teams profess to use their planes' VCRs to
watch game tapes, usually the screens are filled with the beeps
and buzzes of video games. The Mavericks often have a game of
Sega baseball going in one area of their plane and Sony
PlayStation football in another. Magic players stick to their
own sport. "Penny [Hardaway] likes to control himself," says a
regular on the team plane, "and score 100 points a game."
COLOR PHOTO: BEN VAN HOOK THE MAGIC'S PLANE HAS A FANCY PEDIGREE: IT WAS OWNED BY DORIS DUKE [Interior of Orlando Magic's airplane]