Anatomy of a Back-to-Back
By Vince Kozar, Special to PhoenixMercury.com
Posted: June 9, 2014
Back-to-backs in any league can be arduous. The following account is not meant to be a complaint or an excuse, but rather to provide insight into how a WNBA team gets from one city to the next in a packed schedule, traveling on the day of the game.
From the moment the first game of the back-to-back set ends, it is a race against the clock. Friday night (June 6) in Tulsa: final buzzer (9:11 p.m.), locker room time (9:20), media (9:50), bus to hotel (10:10), late dinner (11:10), back to the room, pack (11:40), set the wake-up call (midnight). There is/was no time to dwell on the loss; focus gets shifted to body recuperation and preparation for San Antonio.
Most of the team ate in the restaurant in the hotel lobby. Coaches sat at the bar watching film on a laptop. Most of the rest of us sat in a long booth watching Seattle hand Minnesota its first loss of the season. Thank you, iPhone and WNBA LiveAccess.
Saturday, June 7, 7:30 a.m. (11 hours, 40 minutes until tip-off) – I can't speak for everyone but that's what time my alarm went off. No matter how long or busy the day, it tends to be difficult to get right to sleep after a game. The adrenaline gets going – especially in a hostile environment – and it takes a while for that to wear off. And, obviously, I say that having not even played in the game. Suffice it to say, 7:30 a.m. came unreasonably fast, and I can't imagine anyone has adjusted yet to the time difference (5:30 a.m. Phoenix time).
8:30 (10 hours, 40 minutes until tip-off) - Bus to the airport. Trainer Tamara Poole and Equipment/Operations Manager Eric Hallman manage our travel. They take a cab to the airport ahead of us and are waiting on our arrival. Rookie Tiff Bias is the last one on the bus this morning (though technically she was on time) so she gets called out in this instance.
8:45 (10 hours, 25 minutes until tip-off) - Typically, there is no special check-in for us at the airport. We are a family of 17 (11 players, three coaches, one trainer, one equipment guy, and me), lined up at the ticket counter with our giant personal bags (how does one pack for an 11-day trip?), 12 equipment bags and smiles. The process goes smoothly – thank goodness – security goes quickly, and we have some time to grab Starbucks or a breakfast sandwich in the Tulsa airport as we await departure to Dallas. Note: For the times we needed, there was not a direct flight from Tulsa to San Antonio, so we will be changing planes today, something about which everyone is excited and enthusiastic...
10:20 (8 hours, 50 minutes until tip-off) - Depart Tulsa. Leaving the loss (and hopefully none of our equipment or my cell phone charger) in Oklahoma.
11:15 (7 hours, 55 minutes until tip-off) - Landed in Dallas. While most of us breathe a sigh of relief that we have arrived on time (though only 30 minutes ahead of the scheduled departure time of our next flight), this is the time that equipment/operations manager Eric begins to sweat. While 30 minutes is enough time to get from gate to gate, it is a short window to trust that someone else will get our 12 giant equipment bags from one plane to the next – bags that include game shoes, tape, foam rollers, stretch bands, and other things that we would prefer arrive timely in San Antonio.
Note: WNBA teams are required to carry-on their game jerseys, so that bag of purple valuables is safely in the overhead.
11:45 (7 hours, 25 minutes until tip-off) - Safely in the air to San Antonio. While the Stars are probably now finished with their standard game-day shootaround and headed home for lunch and a nap, our players are starting to get hungry, some grabbing take-out on the brief layover in Dallas before racing to the gate. Their bodies are resting, but they are also packed into seats on a full flight. The cabin smelled like BBQ; DeWanna was pretty sure it was beef stew, but it was definitely the food Brittney brought on board.
Note: I frequently hear the question of how BG fits in an airplane seat and here is the answer: she is patient and she has a lot of people around her on the team who care. For Southwest (which we fly most), a timely check-in by our travel staff, an upgrade and/or seat-save by a teammate or staff member (in the case of this flight, trainer Tamara saved her the exit row window seat with extra leg room while she waited in line for BBQ), usually lands her with as much leg room as is possible on a commercial flight. Beyond that, it's just mild-mannered, good-natured BG making due with wherever she ends up.
1:00 (6 hours, 10 minutes until tip-off) - Landed in San Antonio. As we land, the flight attendant asks the entire plane to wish a couple seated behind us a happy 25th wedding anniversary. It's not exactly relevant to this account, but I thought I would share. It's a temperate 86 degrees outside currently, which begs the question of what the temperature will be inside the AT&T Center tonight. After a malfunction (that has been fixed, the SportsCenter ticker told me) caused a very warm Game 1 of the Finals in the same building, ESPN and Twitter exploded with "will it be fixed by Sunday for Game 2?!" I was among a small group that wanted to know if it would be fixed by Saturday.
1:20 (5 hours, 50 minutes until tip-off) - All the bags are here. A collective exhale. Brittney graciously takes photos with everyone who asks here in the WNBA market closest to Waco, home of her alma mater. I am not a parent but I still get uneasy when people try to hand her infants for pictures. If everyone would be willing to hold onto their own small children, I would be willing to snap the photo for you, and you can all be in it. Let's call that Plan A.
1:45 (5 hours, 25 minutes) - Arrived at our hotel in San Antonio. Coaches establish and announce the bus time for the game: 4:40. Players have fewer than three hours to eat, nap, get cleaned up, changed, and ready to go for tonight. Eric hands out the game gear as players get off the bus. Note: Different from the NBA, road WNBA teams arrive to the arena fully dressed in game uniforms and warm-ups.
Another note: I wasn't a math major...but door-to-door (leaving our hotel in Tulsa to arriving at our hotel in San Antonio), the trip took five hours and 15 minutes. I wasn't a geography major, either, but San Antonio and Tulsa aren't really that far apart. The point is: traveling is a process, not just for the Mercury but for every team. And it takes the professionalism of a world-class athlete to prepare yourself to compete at the highest level after spending half of that same day in transit: two hotels, two bus rides, three airports and two flights.
4:40 (2 hours, 30 minutes until tip-off) - Bus to the game. Note: Tiff Bias was on time.
5:00 (2 hours, 10 minutes before tip-off) - Arrive at the arena. It feels like The Finals in this building. NBA Entertainment crews decked in NBA Finals polos with their video cameras, boom microphones and still cameras are waiting for our players as they get off the bus. They are a hard-working group of people who produce the all-access features you see about both leagues and they are all in town for The Finals. They could easily have taken the night off but instead they busily scurry around after us (both teams, I suppose), gathering unique footage for a behind-the-scenes look at a WNBA game that will be produced later this year. Our team heads straight for the visitor's locker room to start film. All of the Miami Heat gear has been moved out to accommodate us.
5:40 (1 hour, 30 minutes until tip-off) - Finish film. Ordinarily this happens at the end of our morning shootaround, but on a back-to-back without a shootaround it gets done pregame.
6:25 (45 minutes until tip-off) - After the team finishes warm-ups, it's the team meeting. This happens every game with 35 minutes still on the pregame clock. It is the final pregame chalk-talk ("dry-erase talk" doesn't have the same ring to it) for the coaches and the team; both teams have confirmed starters, match-ups are set, and final reminders are given. It is in this area (and during film... and practice... and shootaround) that Sandy Brondello's preparation – touted by general manager Jim Pitman since her first interview for the head coaching job – shines.
6:40 (30 minutes until tip-off) - The aforementioned behind-the-scenes look at a WNBA game includes multiple players from each team wearing microphones in the game. BG and Erin Phillips were requested and each agreed to wear it. It's a small belt-pack worn just above the waist with a wire fed up the jersey and taped along the jersey collar. Once those are set, the team huddles in the hallway and takes the court. Note: There are enough distractions that we try to get them mic'd up while teammates are trickling out of the locker room; the goal of everyone involved is to limit the change to the players'/teams' routines.
7:04 (6 minutes until tip-off) - During Mercury introductions, BG gets a reception that rivals the Stars. Texas love for the Texas girl.
7:10 - Tip-off . Underway. Eleven hours and 40 minutes after the wake-up call, eight hours and 50 minutes after we departed Tulsa, six hours and 10 minutes after we landed in San Antonio, and perhaps most importantly 22 hours after our game in Tulsa ended the night before, we are back at it with (what we thought would be) 40 minutes of basketball ahead of us.
9:08 - With the Mercury trailing by four with 15 seconds remaining in regulation, DB makes a deep three to pull Phoenix within one point. A quick foul and two made free-throws by San Antonio pushes that advantage back to three, setting up the biggest shot of the game by the best player in the world.
9:10 - For the second-straight possession, a play drawn up in the huddle by Brondello gets Phoenix an open look at a three. This time it's Dee burying the game-tying three-pointer with just over nine seconds remaining. One more defensive stop by the Mercury forces our first overtime game of the season.
9:22 - Dead-locked at 77 after the first overtime, we head to a second. More free basketball. When the day began it seemed like 40 minutes would be a lot to ask of our team, but this game would require 50 minutes of execution to win.
9:32 - The best game of the young WNBA season ends up a double-digit Mercury victory thanks to a 14-2 second-overtime period won by Phoenix. Candice Dupree was dominant with 26 points, nine rebounds and five assists. DeWanna Bonner and Diana Taurasi hit the game's two biggest shots, and Taurasi hit the dagger in the second overtime. Penny Taylor's 12 points were indispensable, as were her assists on both clutch fourth-quarter threes just mentioned. BG finished with 16 points and a career-high 18 rebounds, one shy of Candice Dupree's franchise record. Note: BG's career high in points was scored last year in San Antonio in front of family, and Dee always takes her game to another level (regular season and playoffs) when we play in Los Angeles. I am not a professional athlete or a psychologist, but there has to be something to the idea that WNBA athletes play so many games overseas away from those closest to them that the opportunity to play in/around a hometown and/or in front of immediate family gives them a little something extra. It's special to watch.
Believe it or not, the day of travel starts again the next morning as this 11-day trip continues to the nation's capital. Our flight from San Antonio to the DC area will be our fifth flight in four days; we will check in to our third hotel in four days. And, as I sit here writing this, we are enduring a three-hour weather delay in Texas and still have not departed for DC. You read that right.
So Saturday night goes into the books as a W (much better than an L), and while that letter doesn't effectively capture the drama of the game or the value of that kind of a win in the course of a season, now you know a little bit more of what the team went through not only to get to San Antonio, but capture the win.