Frank Layden is fuzzy on the details, which isn't surprising: No
one ever remembers all the particulars of a garbage-time story.
If anyone did, garbage time wouldn't so richly deserve its name.
The best Layden can recall is that it was around 1982, and he
didn't see what purpose it would serve for him to witness the
final moments of a drubbing the Utah Jazz was taking from some
now-forgotten opponent. The problem was that because Layden was
the Utah coach, he couldn't try to beat the traffic like most of
the other spectators. Wanting to get ejected, he started
screaming at referee Earl Strom, but Strom ignored Layden's
barrage of four-letter words. Finally, he asked why Strom
refused to do the decent thing and kick him out. "Earl just
looked at me," says Layden, now the Jazz president. "He said, 'I
know what you're trying to do, Frank, but if I've got to stay
out here and watch this s---, so do you.'"
That's the description often applied to garbage time, those
waning moments of a blowout when the margin on the scoreboard is
greater than the number of fans still in the stands, when the
nearly forgotten players on the end of the bench get in the game
long enough to warm up their muscles just as the buzzer sounds.
"Garbage time is a horrible time," says Miami Heat president and
coach Pat Riley. "I don't care how you coach or who you coach."
That's partly because everyone is preoccupied during garbage
time. The reserves are in the game, either silently fuming over
not playing meaningful minutes or recalculating their scoring
averages with every basket. The starters are either on the bench
discussing post-game plans or scrambling to make the final score
respectable. The losing coach is wondering when his general
manager is going to get him a small forward who's not allergic
to defense. The winning coach is thinking about whether to hold
a light practice tomorrow or give his team the day off. Fans are
trying to remember whether they parked on the green level or the
purple. Even the broadcasters keep only one eye on the
proceedings. A few years ago former Dallas Mavericks
play-by-play man Ted Davis passed the time during a Portland
Trail Blazers rout of Dallas by doing movie reviews. Garbage
time is everything its name implies--a meaningless span that's
always discardable and often stinks.
That nothing matters, however, is precisely the beauty of
garbage time. The two most revealing situations in sports are
when everything's at stake and when nothing's at stake, and
garbage time is the ultimate example of the latter. It's when
almost all pretense of team play is aban-doned, often leading to
spectacularly sloppy basketball. Naked self-interest takes over,
and players try to pad their stats, no matter how insignificant
the numbers. "Garbage time was great," says Scott Brooks, a
backup point guard for six teams from 1988-89 to '97-98. "It
allowed me to take my scoring average from 2.5 to 2.8."
Garbage time should be embraced, not ignored. It's the
equivalent of a campy soap opera, with the performances often so
bad that they're good. You might not want to watch it every
night, but every once in a while it's a guilty pleasure.
As in most soaps, the key characters when the rout is on are
motivated by greed. When a true garbage-time gunner (think
Mavericks forward Cedric Ceballos) has the ball in his hands, it
would take an AK-47 to get him to pass. "It's everybody for
himself," says Trail Blazers point guard Damon Stoudamire, who
became a garbage-time expert during his 2 1/2 years with bad
Toronto Raptors teams. "Some guys' stats get so exaggerated at
the end of a game. If you averaged 19 points a game with
Toronto, you could cut it down to 16 or 17 with a good team."
Garbage time often looks like 10 players who don't realize they
have teammates, but despite its chaotic appearance, it's not
without a certain structure. The elite garbage men understand
that there are certain keys to success.
--Open or not, put up the shot. It can't be said too
often--gluttony is good. In garbage time the only bad shot is
the one not taken. Many players instinctively understand this,
including former Rockets standout Calvin Murphy, who recalls
being sent in for garbage time as a rookie in 1970-71. There was
1:51 left, and the Rockets' star, Elvin Hayes, had 48 points.
"He came up to me and said, 'Hey, rook, I just need one more
basket, so get me the ball.'"
Says Murphy, "I told him, 'Well, I hope you remember how to
rebound, because I'm getting off at least 10 shots in this 1:51,
and the only way you're going to get 50 is to get the ball off
the boards.' He wasn't happy about that, but you know what? I
got off nine shots." And Hayes didn't get his 50.
The most productive current garbage-time players clearly
believe, as did Murphy, that a conscience only gets in the way.
Forward John Wallace squeezed off 16 shots for Toronto in a
blowout loss to Miami, undeterred by the fact that he missed 12
of them. While playing for Minnesota, James (Hollywood) Robinson
once turned garbage time back into a real game by scoring 23
points in the fourth quarter against the Cleveland Cavaliers and
nearly leading the Timberwolves to a come-from-behind win. Other
highly regarded garbage-time performers are Dennis Scott of the
Vancouver Grizzlies, Mark Strickland of the Heat and, according
to the Detroit Pistons' Grant Hill, "everybody from last year's
Bulls. Every game for them was garbage time."
--Avoid the dread "trillion." In other words, if for some reason
you can't get off a shot, do something! In garbage-time lingo,
trillion is the line in the box score a player gets when his
minutes-played stat is followed by zeros in the nine other
categories. "A trillion means you played, but you didn't do
anything," says Vancouver Grizzlies assistant Lionel Hollins,
who was an NBA guard for 10 seasons. "No shots attempted or
made, no assists, no rebounds, no fouls, nothing." If he still
has a trillion in the final seconds, the experienced
garbage-time player will commit misdemeanor assault to break up
his zeros with a "1" in the personal foul column.
--Don't throw outlet passes. Actually, it's not a great idea to
throw any passes, but shrewd big men particularly avoid making
the outlet after grabbing a rebound. That's because guards
dominate garbage time by pushing the ball upcourt and taking
quick shots, which leaves the poor lug who started the break
left out of the fun. If you see a big man pull down a rebound
and slow down the action by ignoring the guard who's frantically
calling for the ball around the half-court line, you'll know you
are watching a knowledgeable garbage man.
--Assume the referees have swallowed their whistles. Not to
attack their integrity, but refs understand that garbage time is
only bearable when it's brief, which is why the successful
garbage-time player never counts on the officials to stop the
clock by calling a foul. If a referee does blow the whistle,
he's suspected of having a secret agenda. When he coached the
Pistons, Doug Collins had a theory that referees used garbage
time to even up inequities in the box score. After a loss to the
Heat, Collins claimed Detroit had been the beneficiary of
several calls during garbage time just so the disparity in fouls
wouldn't look so lopsided in the box score. It's more likely
that the refs relax a little bit during garbage time, like
everyone else, which is why their sense of humor becomes more
evident. Two years ago, after a good garbage-time performance by
little-used Dontae' Jones of the Boston Celtics, referee Joey
Crawford said, "I didn't know Dontae' played. I thought he was a
--Be prepared--in every way. Garbage time has been known to
creep up on players. During the '85-86 season Billy Cunningham,
coach of the Philadelphia 76ers, summoned rookie Voise Winters
to check in, but Winters couldn't undo the snaps on his warmups
and had to sit back down. That excuse might have come in handy
for one of his teammates, Sedale Threatt. Garbage time was about
to set in during a Philadelphia rout of the Golden State
Warriors, and Threatt realized he was likely to see action. He
would have been eager to get the call--if he had been wearing
shorts under his warmup pants. "Cunningham had no idea about
Sedale," says Leo Rautins, another Sixers garbage man of that
era. "Just when it looked as if we were going to get in and
Sedale's sweating bullets, the Warriors started coming back on
us. They ended up beating us, and none of us garbage-time guys
got in the game. You never saw a guy so happy he lost."
Most of the top garbage-time players don't apologize for their
ball-hogging tendencies, because it's understood that every
garbage-time performance is a chance to earn meaningful playing
time down the road. "You always look forward to it, even as a
veteran," says guard Mitchell Butler, who's out of the league
after spending most of his six seasons buried at the end of the
bench. "I'd take 30 seconds. That's enough time to get up one
shot, maybe two. Hopefully you'd play well enough to raise the
As an 18-year-old rookie the Los Angeles Lakers' Kobe Bryant was
a garbage-time player extraordinaire. "I took it very, very
seriously," Bryant says. "For me it was a chance to jack some
shots up. I wanted to get in, try some moves out and see what
Some players, however, think that scoring points after the game
is decided doesn't score points with a coach. "He wants the game
over with," says Washington Wizards forward Tracy Murray, who
was used sparingly in his first three years in the league with
Portland and Houston. "I'd come out and just jack it up. People
used to laugh at me because I would try to get as many shots as
I could." So, let's review: Optimistic players shoot to impress
their coach, and fatalistic players shoot to protest the system.
Bottom line--everybody shoots. No wonder a garbage-time assist
occurs about as often as a Scottie Pippen-Charles Barkley carpool.
Regardless of whether he's winning big or being blown out, every
coach faces the same issue at garbage time: When he puts the
players at the end of the bench into the game, will they
consider it an opportunity or an insult? The rule of thumb is
that the older the player, the less likely he is to want the
meaningless minutes. "Garbage time is rest time, especially for
the 30-and-over club," says New Jersey Nets center Jayson
When Riley coached the Knicks, he often allowed veteran backup
center Herb Williams to decide whether he wanted to play at the
end of a rout. Such small courtesies are essential for a coach's
maintaining a fruitful relationship with a player. One of the
fastest ways to create friction on a team is to mismanage
garbage time. Former Mavericks coach Jim Cleamons greased the
skids for his subsequent firing by taking blowouts too
seriously, irritating his players by signaling plays and calling
timeouts to go over strategy with seconds left in games that had
long since been decided.
Scott Hastings, a Denver sportscaster who played center for five
teams from 1982-83 to '92-93, proudly proclaims himself "the
NBA's alltime king of garbage time," and because it's such a
dubious title, he has had no challengers to his throne. "I'm
thinking about starting a Hall of Fame just for us," he says,
referring to himself and his fellow garbage men. "I don't see
why not. There are more people like the garbage guy in the NBA
than there are like Michael Jordan."
A Hall of Fame seems fitting, since garbage time has a long, if
not so distinguished history, and as long as there are bad teams
and selfish players, its future is secure. Garbage time is
forever. Or maybe it just takes forever.
COLOR ILLUSTRATION: ILLUSTRATIONS BY VICTOR JUHASZ
COLOR ILLUSTRATION: ILLUSTRATIONS BY VICTOR JUHASZ It can't be said too often--gluttony is good. In a blowout, the only bad shot is the one not taken.
COLOR ILLUSTRATION: ILLUSTRATIONS BY VICTOR JUHASZ Refs understand that the end of a rout is only bearable when it's brief, so they seldom call a foul.